Ana in the Guardian

Ana in the Guardian

Fastest riser through the ranks
The startling Serb who has rocketed nearly 700 places
Stephen Bierley, Wednesday June 15, 2005, The Guardian.

When Ana Ivanovic was 11 she went out to the practice courts in Belgrade to take her mind off the war. "I was a little bit afraid at first. But then you realised that they were not bombing everything, just special buildings."
Even now life can be awkward. "I have so many problems getting visas to go abroad. They want us to use the nationality Serbia-Montenegro but then in our passports we are Yugoslav." Yet, if these logistical problems, coupled with the vivid childhood memories of the troubles and the turmoil, might lead anybody to suppose that this 17-year-old would be short of confidence or conviction, they would be wrong.

When Wimbledon paid homage to Maria Sharapova last summer, Ivanovic finished runner-up for the junior title. At the start of last year more than 650 ranking places separated the two teenagers. Now Ivanovic has narrowed the gap to 19.

Even those who watched her as a junior have been taken aback by the rapidity of her ascent. She is now world No21. Off court she remains a little shy and reserved; on court the power of her shots, in particular her crushing forehand, has begun to jolt some of the best.

There is a serenity about her that belies the intensity of her ground strokes, as Venus Williams discovered last October in Zurich when she struggled to contain Ivanovic, then a 16-year-old qualifier ranked No 156, in the semi-finals of the Swisscom challenge.

It was when Ivanovic was five, and watching her fellow Yugoslav Monica Seles on television, that the tennis bug bit. "There was a commercial between games for a club. So I remembered the phone number by heart and asked my mum to call it. Then my father bought me a small tennis racket as a birthday present and a month later I started practising."

Success was not instant. "I didn't have any great results when I was young but coaches kept telling me that I was really talented, so I just keep practising. I always enjoyed that, even if it meant missing some birthday parties or not seeing my friends."

Last year she rose an astonishing 608 places, finishing just inside the top 100. Then in January Ivanovic won her first WTA title in Canberra, a victory made all the more spectacular because she had to come through three rounds of qualifying.

Thereafter this year she frequently found her path blocked by Amélie Mauresmo, the world No3, who beat her three times, in the Australian Open, in Doha and in the quarter-finals of the Nasdaq-100 at Key Biscayne. It was in that last tournament that Ivanovic pulled off the biggest win of her short career against Russia's Svetlana Kuznetsova, the reigning US Open champion. "It was a huge result for me."

Then, in the third round of the French Open, and much to the chagrin of Parisians, Ivanovic finally got the better of Mauresmo, and went on to reach her first grand slam quarter-final, where she was beaten by Russia's Nadia Petrova, the world No8.

The teenager, who is coached by the Hungarian Zoltan Kuharsky, comes from a middle-class background. Her mother, Dragana, is a lawyer who travels with her daughter while her father, Miroslav, is an economist based in Zurich.

Ivanovic, who has her own website, has overtaken her compatriot Jelena Jankovic, 20, while the career of Jelena Dokic, a Wimbledon semi-finalist five years ago when only 17, has all but come to a halt. "There are a lot of other talented kids in our country but they don't have money to go abroad. That stops their progress, particularly as our federation does not have much money."

There is no secret to her success - "I like to hit forehand winners all around the court." At a time in the women's game when power is all pervading, it has been a weapon, coupled with her excellent serve, that has cut a swath through the lower orders. Now she is no longer the surprise package and the tests will become ever sterner.

She remains unfazed. Her progress over the last 18 months suggests it will not be long before she reaches the top 10, and her ambitions do not stop there. "I love the grass and have good memories from last year." Ivanovic is a young woman in a hurry and one who could figure deep into the second week of this year's Wimbledon. The player she most looks up to is Roger Federer. She would dearly love to emulate him.
Guardian