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In the 2008 French Open, the new world #1 Ana Ivanovic proudly lifted the first Slam trophy of what seemed destined to be a career replete with such memorable moments.  In the 2010 French Open, the world #42 Ana Ivanovic cowered helplessly behind the baseline as the burly Alisa Kleybanova crammed a second-set bagel down her throat in the second round.  How did this precipitous two-year plunge from glory to misery accelerate with such alarming speed?  We look at seven of the principal explanations for Ivanovic’s struggles, arranged in order from least convincing to most convincing, before concluding with two potential paths by which she can move forward from the crossroads at which she tentatively stands.

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7)       the aberration theory:  Inviting the disdainful appellation of “one-Slam wonder,” Ivanovic’s failure to reach even a single major quarterfinal since her French Open triumph has caused commentators to wonder whether that title was merely an accident.  To be sure, the Serb did exploit a cozy draw that featured just one top-10 player (Jankovic) during the entire fortnight.  But she’s achieved outstanding results on all surfaces for an extended period, winning the 2006 Rogers Cup in 2006, capturing the 2007 Berlin title, charging to the 2007 Roland Garros final, and reaching the 2007 Wimbledon semifinals.  Considering that context, her six-month peak stretch from Australia 2008 to Roland Garros 2008 no longer appears an isolated accomplishment but instead the next phase in an accelerating career.  Therefore, the headline here clearly is not her rise but her downfall, contrary to what the most disillusioned observers suggest.

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6)  the injury theory:  When a player endures an extended slump, the first potential culprit to investigate generally is their physical condition.  Choosing this explanation as the official narrative, Ivanovic’s website relentlessly and somewhat embarrassingly leans upon injuries throughout its reports of her struggles.  Upon closer examination, however, one should put her thumb injury in 2008 and various illnesses in 2009 into perspective.  Ana never required surgery or suffered extensive absences from any of her injuries, so they might justify sporadic early defeats but certainly not the two-year quagmire into which she has tumbled.  Despite the leg strain that drenched the Serb’s 2009 Wimbledon campaign in a poignant flood of tears, she was thoroughly outplayed by Venus until that stage and possessed virtually no chance of a comeback; the injury by itself did not prevent her from progressing in that crucial tournament.  The exception to this pattern, a vague yet chronic shoulder injury ominously forced her to withdraw from the Dubai tournament this year.  This issue could prove serious and should be carefully monitored by her fitness assistants.

 

5)  the Kournikova theory:  Igniting comparisons with the stunningly beautiful, stunningly underachieving Russian, Ivanovic has continued to fulfill swarms of sponsor obligations and pose for countless magazines even as her ranking has tumbled.  Kind and accommodating by nature (more on those traits below), she may well have stretched herself too far in this arena.  While the Williams sisters and Sharapova have balanced off-court with on-court activities extremely capably, not every player can effectively divide their energies as do that trio.  On the other hand, certain commentators went altogether too far when they linked Ivanovic’s SI Swimsuit photo shoot before the US Open to her first-round loss there.  It’s highly irrational to suggest that an extra practice session would have assured that her final forehand in a third-set tiebreak would have cleared the net rather than meekly sinking into it.  While her management perhaps has scheduled her overzealously, these “extracurricular” projects also provide her with a psychological respite from her on-court struggles.  For example, Ana’s lifetime Adidas deal surely boosted her morale by demonstrating this key sponsor’s firm confidence in her talents.  (And, of course, there’s the mathematical fact that a female athlete as alluring as Ivanovic can earn more in a year of photo shoots than by winning a dozen Slams, which should make any player hesitate before turning down lucrative offers.)

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4)  the Serbia theory:  Together with her compatriots Djokovic and Jankovic, Ivanovic often seems to lack the inner motivation that drives most of this sport’s leading competitors.  Listening to moving stories of bombs and swimming pools, one appreciates just how far these three Serbs have come from the extreme adversity in their backgrounds.  Considering this comparison, it would be only human of them to rest satisfied in the knowledge that they have improved their lives more than they ever could have imagined.  Even if none of the Serbs ever wins another significant title, they’ll spend the rest of their lives in comfortable circumstances.  Consequently, they might content themselves with strong but not legendary careers, whereas players who developed in more advantageous surroundings might be more inclined to seek a higher level of achievement in absolute terms—the same level in relative terms to their beginnings.  Without any disrespect to Serbia, we find this theory somewhat credible, although one never will be able to find unambiguous evidence for it.

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3)  the split-personality theory:  A gentle, self-effacing personality, Ana lacks the steely ferocity of a Serena, Henin, or Sharapova.  Whereas those competitors play with the expectation of victory, Ivanovic plays with the hope of victory.  Cast against type in the role of an athlete, she either underplays her part with tentative body language or overplays it with the ceaseless fist pumps that we discussed in an earlier article.  Rather than demonstrating her hunger for success, those manufactured gestures suggest her discomfort in the match environment and a constant need to reaffirm that she belongs there.  One suspects that the smiling Serb would be much happier in a non-adversarial environment, where she could exploit cooperative rather than competitive skills.  Despite her repeated protestations to the contrary, Ivanovic simply may have chosen the wrong vocation for her temperament, creating a rift between façade and interior that would only deepen as she matures.

 

2)  the expectations theory:  Catapulting suddenly into the #1 ranking shortly after Henin’s unexpected retirement, Ivanovic proved unready to assume the mantle of the game’s dominant star.  While battle-tested competitors such as Federer and Serena welcome the pressure inherent to the top spot, the Serb had not adequately consolidated her elite status when she found herself atop the WTA hierarchy in June 2008.  Bearing the honor more like a cross than a laurel wreath, she played passive, nervous tennis during her two different stretches at the #1 ranking, which was tossed with absurd alacrity among her and two even less qualified top dogs (Jankovic, Safina).  Although Ivanovic had struggled dramatically with her ball toss during the 2007 Roland Garros final, her issues with this component of her game crystallized during this period.  Moreover, she rushed back prematurely from injuries and illness in an effort to justify her exalted status.  As a result, her inner anxieties can be traced back to this period when expectations were thrust upon her before she had developed sufficiently to embrace them rather than hide from them.

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1)       the evolutionary theory:  From our perspective, the most credible theory of all concerns the trajectory of the sport over the past two years, which favors players who can strike powerful groundstrokes off both wings while playing respectable defense.  Mostly just a neutral or defensive shot, Ivanovic’s backhand possesses far less authority than her forehand and can be easily attacked because of her average movement.  On any fast or medium-fast surface, opponents with more balanced groundstroke arsenals can relentlessly pin her into the backhand corner, neutralizing her power.  Even when Ana pounds her forehand with conviction, therefore, capable foes don’t allow her to see enough balls on that side to win the match with this weapon alone.  Improvements in player movement, meanwhile, allow opponents to track down one or two more of her forehand drives than before, testing her consistency as well as her skill moving forward.  In the recent past, a crushing serve-forehand combination typically proved sufficient to overwhelm opponents, but such is no longer the case.  Therefore, we wonder whether the evolution of the sport simply has passed by the Serb, whose game seems outmoded compared to many of her younger rivals, such as Azarenka and Kleybanova. 

***

After diagnosis, the next step is to propose a cure.  We think that Ivanovic has two main avenues open to her, either of which might not return her to Slam glory but would assure her a rewarding career at the WTA level.  Following the Stosur model, she could channel her energies towards maximizing her serve in versatility and consistency as well as power, while simultaneously improving her net skills and forward movement.  Or, emulating the Dementieva paradigm, she could focus on developing a powerful backhand that would complement her forehand, while simultaneously improving her lateral movement behind the baseline.  Rather than stubbornly attempting to win with the same weary formula, though, Ivanovic must rationally decide which new course she would prefer to pursue.  If she dedicates herself to the challenge (probable) and gradually reacquires her confidence (uncertain), there’s no reason why she can’t thrill her legions of international fans with renewed triumphs.

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