We should remember Ana Ivanovic's fight, rather than her fall

by: Steve Tignor | December 29, 2016

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Ana Ivanovic showed that friendly people can finish first, at least for a little while. (AP)

“I can only play if I can perform up to my own high standards, and I can no longer do that,” Ana Ivanovic said on Wednesday. “So it’s time to move on.”

Ivanovic was a championship player—at 20 years old, she reached No. 1 and won the French Open—and an even more accomplished motormouth. But once you caught up with her words, you realized that it wasn’t their speed that was important. What mattered was the honesty, thoughtfulness and friendly enthusiasm that they conveyed to everyone she met.

For all of her ups and downs over the last decade, and despite the deep frustrations she felt during those down periods, Ivanovic never shrugged off a press conference, bristled at a reporter or let her eyes glaze over after being asked the same thing 10 times in two days. She always engaged with the question and the questioner; she was too sociable and polite to do anything else.

By most accounts, the Serb was the same way with her fellow players. In 2010, she told a British reporter that the ultra-competitive atmosphere on the WTA tour meant that she and her colleagues were “not friends.” But judging by the reaction to her retirement from her colleagues, she had no trouble making them herself, with women of all nationalities and playing levels.

Ivanovic, who married German soccer player Bastain Schweinstager last summer, isn’t hard to assess as a person. But what about Ivanovic the player? At the macro level, for someone from a small country with virtually no tennis tradition, she was a stunning success. She rose to No. 1, finished in the Top 5 three times, won 15 titles and became the first—and so far only—woman from Serbia to win a major. She’ll likely find a place in the Tennis Hall of Fame five years from now. Ivanovic at her best was an entertainingly aggressive player to watch, especially from the forehand side. Few others could match her timing on that shot.

Yet after 2008, Ivanovic’s career was uneven, and by the standards she set at age 20, a disappointment. Like most players, she had always struggled with nerves, but after she reached No. 1, they became more pronounced. They manifested themselves most obviously in a wayward service toss that she would never fully bring under control. In 2009, Ivanovic finished 22nd, and failed to get out of the fourth round at any of the majors. She had plummeted out of the first tier of players entirely, and wouldn’t return to the Top 10 until 2014.

Ivanovic was a far more accomplished player than Anna Kournikova, but their looks brought a similarly heightened tension to their matches. Ana and Anna both drew overflowing crowds, and those crowds created a level of scrutiny few other players had to contend with. I can remember feeling the weight of that unpleasant tension when Ivanovic played in Court 2 on Kids’ Day at Roland Garros a few years ago. Teenage boys lined the front rows of that tiny court, held up their phones and told her, “Give me a pretty smile now, Ana.”

Ivanovic’s response to her struggles was always to start over—and over, and over, and over. In her search for the answer to her nerves and her serve, she cycled through coaches and trainers, lost weight and gained some of it back, and talked about trying a new mental approach every few months. Slowly, after many fresh starts and false hopes, she did improve. In 2010, Ivanovic won two titles; in 2012, her ranking began to rise again; and in 2014, everything clicked.

She began that season by upsetting Serena Williams at the Australian Open in the best match I ever saw her play; she finished the year with five titles and a No. 5 ranking. In a way, it was a better, more consistent, more impressive season than her 2008. Ivanovic hadn’t beaten her nerves, exactly, but she had learned to keep them at bay. She even started to hit that uncontrollable service toss for aces.

Rather than the falloff, it’s the fight back that I want to remember about her. While Ivanovic’s personal coaching carousel was mocked, the important thing in the end was that she tried everything, and everyone, she could think of to get better. Emotionally, she put all of herself into every match she played; for better or worse, Ivanovic took her results personally, and wanted more than anything to live up to her early potential. If she still let her nerves get the better of her, that was something that anyone who has ever picked up a racquet could understand.

Not everyone was on the Ana bandwagon. In Australia one year, she was accused of trying to distract her opponents with her squeaky sneakers. Another year in Cincinnati, Maria Sharapova was enraged when Ivanovic took a mid-match break, during which doctors checked her blood pressure, before coming back to beat her in three sets. And more than a few fans expressed the opinion that she might have been a little too in love with the fist pump.

I could see that, but I also came to like Ivanovic’s signature victory gesture. She would wave to the crowd, blow them a kiss and pump her fist, all in one continuous motion—like her sentences, these moves happened almost too quickly for the eye to see. But the kiss and the fist seemed to be Ana in a nutshell. She showed that friendly people can finish first, at least for a little while. And even when they don’t finish first, they can fight with everything they have to get back there.

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