Ur Place

June 10, 2008

Ivanovic, the New No. 1, Is Also Tops in Paris

Filed under: Sports — halfevil @ 11:27 am

PARIS — It was time for another French Open women’s final, and although the four-time winner Justine Henin was still on the grounds, she was no longer on the clay.

With Henin retired and watching from the front row, it was time for a new Grand Slam champion, and it turned out to be Ana Ivanovic, the same young, elegant Serb who had let her nerves get the best of her against Henin in last year’s flop of a final.

Ivanovic is a better, fitter, more composed contender now, and on Saturday, she filled the void at the top of the clay-court game in style by defeating 13th-seeded Dinara Safina of Russia, 6-4, 6-3.

“Obviously, the nerves were still there, but that’s normal,” Ivanovic said. “Last year’s final was a great learning experience for me.”

Ivanovic, 20, was already guaranteed to become No. 1 in the women’s rankings Monday after beating her Serbian compatriot Jelena Jankovic in the semifinals. Now, she has her first Grand Slam singles title along with the top spot, and Serbia, once an international pariah, has its latest reason to organize a celebration in Belgrade.

In January, Novak Djokovic became the first Serbian man to win a major singles title, at the Australian Open. “Going into today’s final, I thought of it,” Ivanovic said. “I said: ‘Come on. He could do it. I could do it, too.’ So it’s something that for sure motivates, and I hope also many young kids will get inspired from us.”

Ivanovic is a towering fast talker with a trump card of a forehand. Although she has a friendly, upbeat disposition — unlike some of the harder-edged women’s stars over the years — she had to overcome major adversity to become a major champion.

Ivanovic was part of the remarkable Serbian tennis generation that developed despite the internal conflicts linked to the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. At 13, she was reduced to training on a makeshift court in Belgrade that was in the bottom of an empty swimming pool.

Later, like Jankovic and Djokovic, Ivanovic became an expatriate as a teenager to take her game to the next level. Ivanovic, not considered a can’t-miss junior, based herself in Roger Federer’s home city, Basel, Switzerland, after Dan Holzmann, an Israeli-born Swiss businessman, agreed to finance her career at a time when money and opportunity were drying up.

“I met the family, and 24 hours later, I made the decision to help,” said Holzmann, who added, “I have a lot of people working with me and colleagues and offices, but to hear it from a 15-year-old girl, so committed and so clear, that she wants to be No. 1, I was really impressed.”

With Holzmann’s support, about $10,000 to $20,000 a month in the early years, the family hired the veteran coach Eric Van Harpen, who had worked with the Spanish stars Conchita Martínez and Arantxa Sánchez Vicario.

Ivanovic made her first major impression at 17, when she upset the French star Amélie Mauresmo here and reached the 2005 quarterfinals. But questionable fitness and a tendency to become tight under big-match pressure held her back until last year, when she rolled to the final before winning just three games against Henin.

She failed to control her emotions again in this year’s Australian Open final against Maria Sharapova.

“I had a few sleepless nights after that, honestly,” Ivanovic said. “Part of me was already thinking about possibly holding the trophy, you know. So this time, I really tried to change that and don’t think about that at all and just focus on my game. There were some moments where this thought would still come up, but I managed to control it much better.”

This time, the Russian on the other side of the net was not an established winner accustomed to the pomp and circumstance of a Grand Slam final. Safina, the 22-year-old sister of the former men’s No. 1 Marat Safin, had never been past the quarterfinals of a major tournament.

The differences Saturday were Ivanovic’s forehand, slightly better court coverage and ability to attack Safina’s second serve. Safina still kept it interesting, however, rallying from a 1-4 deficit to 4-4 in the opening set before Ivanovic closed it out. In the second, after losing her serve again early, Safina stayed close by holding serve in a marathon seventh game. But the effort seemed to leave her drained, and she ended up winning just one point in the final two games.

Ivanovic was soon climbing into the stands to hug friends and her parents, Dragana and Miroslava. Back on the clay, she received the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen from Henin, who won it the last three years before retiring unexpectedly last month, citing a loss of motivation.

“I really wanted to try and face her again here and hopefully be better,” Ivanovic said. “But still it was great to see her there and, at the end, when she handed me the trophy, she was really nice, and she said, ‘You know you deserve it, so now it’s yours.’ ”

Holzmann, his investment long since repaid, was among those tearing up in the stands. “Normally, I’m not a very emotional guy,” he said. “But I know what they went through. It’s tough to have a daughter, no money, traveling.”

He added, “I don’t know if I would do that with my kid, but they did it and were committed, so of course I was emotional about them being emotional.”

It was the first French Open singles title for a Serb since the Serbian-born Monica Seles won here in 1992 while representing Yugoslavia.

Seles was Ivanovic’s idol, the big-hitting reason she took up the game.

“I had a chance to meet her and have dinner with her last year in New York, and it was very nice,” Ivanovic said. “I was sitting there with her and I kind of didn’t know what to say. I was like: How can I ask her? I mean she’s such a great champion, and who am I?”

The internal dialogue will presumably be different the next time they meet. Ivanovic is, after all, a Grand Slam champion herself now


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