Ana Ivanovic, the modest 19-year-old Serbian tennis player, spent this past weekend traveling between the players’ hotel, at the Le Méridien on 57th Street, and the U.S. Open Tennis Center in Queens on a bus that departs once an hour. She is sharing a room with her mom. She’ll be in bed by 10:30, reading The Secret, the best-selling Rhonda Byrne self-help book.
“I want to go to Abercrombie and Fitch,” she said. “I want to get jeans. Their jeans fit me best.”
If she has time, she said, she’ll go to Macy’s too.
Some female tennis stars crave the chance to land high-end endorsement deals, to dress in Prada, to start their own fashion lines. Ana Ivanovic is not one of them. At a time when women’s tennis has been ravaged by indifference, injuries and shameless self-promotion, she may be just the player the Women’s Tennis Association desperately needs. She’s humble, smart, hungry and ridiculously attractive. Oh—and she has perhaps the best forehand in tennis.
Starting Aug. 27, when the three-week U.S. Open kicks off, she’ll be a star.
On Aug. 19, eight days before the start of the tournament, she strolled into the players’ lounge on the second floor at Arthur Ashe Stadium. She’s got an athletic shape, at 6-foot-1 and 159 pounds. She has almond-shaped brown eyes and a deep brown tan. She wore a pink Adidas T-shirt, and her hair in a ponytail and looked, despite the fact that she had just spent the previous 90 minutes hitting tennis balls, completely fresh.
She arrived accompanied only by her mother, who speaks little English and quickly excused herself from the room.
“I’m sorry for being late,” she said. (She was less than 10 minutes late.) “I was practicing.”
Ivanovic talks in long, unpunctuated sentences full of false starts (“I think, you know, so, yeah …”) but her English, which she learned nine years ago, is fantastically—refreshingly—expressive in a way that the language of the hyper-media-trained players from America and Western Europe rarely is.
She discussed her game, where in the last year she’s made a steady climb from 16th to No. 4 in the world, the youngest player in the top 10.
“For quite a long time I was around 20th, and I obviously wanted to make this step and break in the top 10,” she said. “I just needed more confidence and more consistency in my game so I would win against top players more often.”
She’s done exactly that. This year, she’s 5-0 against Maria Sharapova and Jelena Jankovic, the No. 2 and No. 3 players in the world, respectively. And she landed in the French Open final and the Wimbledon semifinals, her best-ever finishes in Grand Slams.
When it comes to tennis fundamentals, Ivanovic’s most powerful strength is her forehand. She begins the stroke with her arm turned at a high-arching angle that she whips down to smash through the ball in a style reminiscent of Steffi Graf. She learned it when she was 11.
“Since I was young they always told me I had a powerful forehand,” she said. “Really, growing up I realized that’s my biggest weapon, so I want to use it as much as I can.”
She’s also dramatically improved her movement on the court—helping her to move up 12 spots in the world tennis rankings in the past year—and she’s working on an increasingly powerful serve.
But what separates her most from the rest of the women’s game is a growing, almost preternatural understanding of the psychological vagaries of the sport—a rite of passage for every champion.
When Ivanovic was asked about the most important match she ever played, she spoke briefly about her biggest win—defeating Sharapova in the French semis—but more extensively of her most spectacular loss, when she was routed by Justine Henin at Roland Garros in her first Grand Slam final, 6-1, 6-2. “Even if I lost the final and didn’t play the best tennis, I still learned so much from that experience,” she said.
“Each match until the final, I was thinking ‘O.K., this match, I want to play the best I can and see how this goes.’ In the final, I thought ‘Oh, my God, I could win Grand Slam! I might win Grand Slam!’ It went from technical part to emotional part and that was the big mistake. I wasn’t ready for that. Once I was on the court, all these emotions came and I didn’t know how to deal with it. But next time, if I’m in that situation, before the match I know I’m going to feel these emotions and be ready to put them aside and know how to focus.”
After a pause, she added, “Very easy to say, much harder to do, but this match helped me a lot.”
She described Henin as the player she feared the most on tour. (“She’s a great mover and doesn’t make many unforced errors so she makes you win points more than once.”)
And she discussed Venus and Serena Williams—the leaders of the women’s game over the past decade, against whom collectively she is 0-4—with equal humility.
“They both play very powerful,” she said. “It’s still something I have to practice hard on because they don’t give me much time to play my game. They dominate—they are the ones dictating. I really hope I can play against them soon because then I’m more comfortable with that kind of game.”
In other words, the more she sees them, the more she’ll learn and the better she’ll play against them. She’s a true strategist at heart, even though she technically plays without a coach. (She’s given one through her endorsement deal with Adidas, but he’s regarded as a consultant.)
It also says something about her makeup that she is most eager to face the players most likely to expose the weak point in her game: her lack of mobility, which leads to an inability to return strongly hit shots in the far court.
“My biggest weakness, there are so many girls that are hitting very powerful—myself, I hit quite fast—but when someone hits it even harder and faster then it’s going to be hard because I still want to have enough time to adjust and have time to hit the ball,” she said. “I’m working a lot on that aspect right now.”
HER TENNIS CAREER BEGAN WHEN she was four years old and living in a town just outside of Belgrade. She saw a commercial during a televised match between Monica Seles and some player she couldn’t remember, before she understood what tennis really was. It was an important moment.
“In between breaks there was commercial for tennis school,” she said. “I remembered the number and asked my mom to call it for me and for fifth birthday my father bought me small tennis racket and a month later I stared playing tennis.”
Her game, however, isn’t patterned after Seles’s or, Ivanovic will say, anyone else’s. Ivanovic said she didn’t watch much tennis at all as an adolescent or as a teenager. (When I made reference during the interview to the 1999 French Open final between Steffi Graf and Martina Hingis, easily one of women’s tennis most famous matches ever, Ivanovic said she wasn’t familiar with it.)
“It just comes naturally,” she said. “Basically, I think technique is very individual.”
Her early life has been recounted by tennis writers in largely the same way: She grew up in poverty-stricken and war-torn Serbia and grew up playing tennis on a makeshift court inside a converted pool.
That’s partly the truth. When she was 11, she actually began practicing mostly in a tennis bubble, which was reserved for the country’s elite players. She also played on three clay courts in the town next to where she grew up, which may help explain how she won 16 out of 19 matches on clay this year. As a teenager, she began traveling to Switzerland, the European version of the Florida tennis factory.
It was also at the age of 11 that she changed the grip of her forehand, which resulted in the more powerful, looping stroke that is now her most lethal weapon. That change come at the recommendation of her former coach, Dejan Vranes, the person Ivanovic credits most for making her a top five tennis player.
Although he’s no longer her coach—he’s now the Serbian head coach during the international tournament, the Fed Cup—he remains close to Ivanovic. (At the interview, she wore a pair of earrings he gave her when she reached the French Open final.)
THE NEXT BIG STEP FOR IVANOVIC, if she is to continue on her breakneck trajectory, is to make the final at a major played on hard courts. She’s never made it past the third round at the U.S. Open.
On Sunday, she practiced at Louis Armstrong Stadium and said the courts are playing slow—much slower than they were at a warm-up tournament in Toronto a week ago, when she was bounced out of the first round by an unranked Chinese player.
One of the big wildcard factors over the next three weeks, for Ivanovic, will be the reaction of the fans.
New Yorkers always pick a player or two to carry on a wave of good feelings to the championships.
Ivanovic likes this.
“The French and Wimbledon, it’s higher class and it’s very traditional,” she said. “Here, it’s a lot of people and a lot of people that know a lot about tennis. It’s much more enjoyable in this tournament.”
And she could just become It.
The W.T.A. women’s tour is starving for idols at the moment. Kim Clijsters, who won the U.S. Open two years ago, retired this year at age 23. Other marquee players are no longer factors: Amelie Mauresmo is injured; Martina Hingis is trying a comeback after squandering years on a premature retirement.
Maria Sharapova, last year’s winner, was widely regarded as the next star of tennis. She certainly is that—she made more in endorsements last year than any female athlete ever—but with her predictable forehand-and-serve game, she hasn’t quite lived up to those expectations on the court.
Ivanovic, for her part, has begun to receive the star treatment—there are already a number of professional-looking Ivanovic fan-worship sites on the Web—but she seems to regard the press attention, the photo shoots and the all-around notoriety with the same even attitude that she applies to everything else.
“It’s good to do something different and forget about court and practice,” she said. “But it’s also important to keep a good balance, because at the end of the day they ask you to do commercial because you achieved something good in tennis, so in order to achieve more you have to practice hard.”