Advice sometimes comes at you from all angles. That’s surely been the case for Ana Ivanovic during a 12-year pro career that has seen the now-26-year-old reach three Grand Slam finals and rise to No. 1 in the world, a ranking she occupied in 2008 when she won Roland Garros and became only the second Serbian woman to win a major.
Since the age of five, when she first picked up a racquet after spotting fellow Serb Monica Seles crushing screech-inducing groundies on TV, since the days she honed her skills in the unlikely environs of a carpeted indoor swimming pool, the consultation — sometimes welcomed, other times not — has come from a variety of voices. It’s come from her mother/courtside companion, Dragana, from her father, Miroslav. It’s come from a battery of coaches, which the Belgradian baseliner seems to go through with a Steinbrenner-like flair: Dejan Vranes, Eric Van Harpen, Zoltan Kuharszky, David Taylor, Sven Groeneveld, Craig Kardon, Heinz Gunthardt, Antonio Van Grichen, Nigel Sears, Nemanja Kontic and, currently, coach du jour Dejan Petrovic, who once mentored AI’s pal Novak Djokovic.
But it was in 1999, when she was just 12 and NATO planes regularly roared over her homeland and she was forced to train in the mornings to avoid bombardments, that she received perhaps the most important advice of her career. It was simple, really: You’ve got to work hard, to put in your time off the court before anything can begin to come easy on it.
It’s something she’s never forgotten.
“It’s so true,” said Ivanovic, in the midst of a season that might just be her best since she rose to the top of the WTA charts a half-dozen years ago, a season that has seen her win four titles and more importantly regain the kind of self-assuredness that it takes to survive inside the Top 10. “All the confidence and all the hard work, it’s actually built off the court. When you’re competing, it’s a time when you can enjoy that execution.”
Ivanovic, who’s gone 56-16 on the year, earned a spot among the Elite Eight at the 2014 BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore.
Ivanovic’s parabolic narrative is well known. Just as soon as she assumed the role of top dog on the WTA Tour, she seemed to skulk away, tail tucked between legs. She even admitted to as much this summer in New York, telling reporters that she simply couldn’t stomach all that came with being the best in her sport.
“It was very hard to handle all the attention because I was very shy at the time,” she confided. “I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin. I was very introverted. I liked to spend my time with the books. That’s who I was. All of a sudden, there was so many requests and so many other things that came with it. No one prepared me for that.”
In total, Ivanovic spent just 12 weeks at No. 1, surrendering the spot first to countrywoman/rival Jelena Jankovic, and a second time to Serena Williams, that time for good. She’s been trying to get back ever since. And the process hasn’t always been pretty.
But we’ve witnessed a rebirth of sorts in 2014. She kicked off the year by winning Auckland, then scored her first-ever win over Williams at the Australian Open, shocking the American No. 1 in three sets in the round of 16. She scored consecutive titles in Stuttgart and Monterrey in the spring, downing the likes of Top-10ers Jankovic and Maria Sharapova in the process. (She’s now downed Sharapova three times this year, including a gutsy 6-2, 5-7, 7-5 performance in Cincinnati, where she reached the final.) She dove into the grass-court campaign by taking the Birmingham title. And despite a ho-hum year at the Slams (her quarterfinal showing in Melbourne being the only time she advanced beyond the third round), she’s been hitting the ball with more authority than she has in years.
Chalk it up to maturity. And her ability to go back to the basics, back to those words of wisdom she first heard in ’99: You’ve got to put in your time off the court.
“I really work hard to get to that position to compete and to be consistent and to do it over and over again,” explained Ivanovic, now ranked No. 8. “That’s what I’m really proud of. So it’s just about enjoying and working hard, taking care of each match, and then the rankings and everything else takes care of itself.”
Ivanovic will be tested early at the WTA Finals. She opens against none other than 18-time Slam champ Williams, a player she’s beaten only once in eight career head-to-heads, on Monday night. The good news? She’s pushed Williams to three sets three times in 2014, including her upset of the American in Melbourne. Is another upset in the making? Stay tuned.