Saturday, June 07, 2008

Affirmation Ana

She was already poised to become #1 in the world on Monday, but Ana Ivanovic still had some unfinished business to take care of in Paris on Saturday.


With the 20-year old Serb's 6-4/6-3 denying of Russian Dinara Safina yet another life in her back-from-the-edge existence at this year's Roland Garros, AnaIvo is now forced to make some room on her mantle for the trophy she'll receive for claiming her first career grand slam title. I'm sure the "household chore" will be worth the effort, even if she will receive a mini replica of the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen rather than a full-size keepsake.

The take-home prize's size doesn't matter... but what it means surely does.

Even before Saturday's final, AnaIvo had always LOOKED like a champion, seemingly calm and impervious to pressure on the surface -- quite the opposite of her wear-her-heart-on-her-sleeve compatriot Jelena Jankovic, who Ivanovic defeated in the semifinals to claim the #1 ranking. But looks can be deceiving, for while she's managed to never appear an emotionally overmatched figure sweating buckets of pressure on the big stage in the past, she's most definitely felt the overbearing weight of the moment on the inside.

The Serb had been rattled in previous attempts to secure her first career slam title. She was barely present in last year's Roland Garros final against Justine Henin, and was competitive for only one set in the Australian Open final against Maria Sharapova in January. As she handled her opponents with relative ease for most of the past two weeks, there was obviously still a worry within her inner circle that she wasn't yet past her stumbles. How else to explain the decision to actively prevent her from knowing that her SF match against Jankovic had literally become a battle for #1 before the first ball was ever struck?

But with #1 secure, there was no hiding the importance of the match against Safina. In a way, everything in her tennis life had built to this one moment for Ivanovic, from smacking shots down the line while inside a dry pool in Belgrade with bombs waiting to be dropped on the city, to the biggest match in her life taking place while Henin waited in the stands to take part in the post match ceremony. Yes, THAT Henin (but more on that in a bit).

This time, Ivanovic was ready.

She grabbed an early 4-1 lead in the 1st set, and only a running forehand smacked down the line by Safina on a break point prevented the Serb from stretching the advantage to 5-1. But the just missed chance led to the set's momentum swinging in the Russian's favor, much like the changing tide that occurred in AnaIvo's SF with Jankovic and Safina's dual back-from-two-match-points-down comebacks against Maria Sharapova (4th Round) and Elena Dementieva (QF) earlier in the tournament.

At 4-3, Ivanovic led 40-love on her own serve, but a few odd service tosses and three errors led to her previous advantage disappearing when Safina hit a backhand down the line to knot things at 4-4. AnaIvo didn't buckle under the pressure, immediately breaking back, but neither did the Russian. Serving for the set, Ivanovic battled back against the opportunity to break that Safina had carved out for herself. The Serb saved a BP with a crosscourt forehand, then regained an advantage with strong serving. A final AnaIvo forehand behind Safina, who struggled to get a racket on the ball and sent it long, gave the set to Ivanovic at 6-4.

In the 2nd set, tied at 1-1, a 26-shot rally gave Ivanovic an early break point, and a tired Safina, while never degenerating into the capitulating player of her past, was never quite the same. Ivanovic broke to go up 2-1, then held at love for 3-1. Safina's Russian language growls and Marat-esque hand gestures signaled that she realized her grand slam chance was slipping from her grasp.

Down 2-3, Safina had a shot at breaking Ivanovic's serve and getting back into the match, but she squandered a break point opportunity on a second serve. An AnaIvo backhand down the line, another deuce point, and two Safina errors wide and long gave the Serb the game and a 4-2 lead as the Russian's running self commentary heated up again (punctuated by a ball hit into the net with anger). Ivanovic's name was being readied to be etched into the Coupe Suzanne Lenglen.

But no longer one to give in, and having made it this far in the tournament because of her new trait, Safina made Ivanovic earn the title. Through a seven-deuce serve game, the Russian gave hope to her supporters that she won't be a one-slam wonder, as she held serve (getting a reversal on a call that would have given Ivanovic a break and a 5-2 lead) and forced AnaIvo to serve out the match.

Showing no hint of nerves, she did just that. She quickly went up 40-love. When Safina wasn't able to get back a shot into the short court on match point, Ivanovic's journey was complete. All that was left was for AnaIvo to make like a Spider-Woman and climb up (Eek! Don't climb onto a flimsy chair like that!) to celebrate with her family in the stands. Well, check that... there was ONE more thing.

For sixteen years after she witnessed, with her mother at her side, Monica Seles win a Roland Garros title in 1992 and plant a seed that led to her winning four of her own, the now-retired Henin was in attendance in order to take part in the post match trophy presentation. The sight of La Petit Taureau on the victory platform, precisely where everyone expected her to be in a different capacity a few months ago, was both a welcome and disconcerting one. While it provided a nice "changing of the guard" photo for history, it also served as a reminder of the notion that she could have worked over either of these two players on this day if her mind and heart were in it.

While the 2008 Roland Garros won't officially have an asterisk beside it, it'll take a few years to forget the vacuum left by Henin's retirement that turned Paris into the Land of Opportunity for two weeks before AnaIvo finally stepped forward as its new queen (for now, at least... or, at worst, for a few weeks before someone else takes her turn).

But "what if's" and "or's" aside, Ivanovic's victory over Safina and the champion's essence she exuded the past two weeks did do one thing without question -- they collectively affirmed AnaIvo as more than just a "potential" superstar. Crisp groundstrokes, better fitness and improved defense had put her on the cusp of something great before this season began, and now she's taken her first big step toward achieving it. Her formerly-lacking court movement was supposed to make RG her worst shot at a slam title, but she's now managed to reach back-to-back finals. Obviously, she's adapted her game far better than now-former #1 Sharapova to the red clay. She's also been a RU at the Australian, a semifinalist at Wimbledon and won the U.S. Open Series in 2006 (she'll be looking to improve on her best-ever 4th Round result in NYC come late summer).

Unlike Sharapova, Ivanovic can be a true threat RIGHT NOW at all four slams. Unlike Serena Williams, she can be healthy and in the right frame of mind to compete at a high level at all four slams. Unlike Svetlana Kuznetsova, she's proven she can actually win a singles title outright on the court at some point over the last year and a half. And unlike Jankovic, she's shown she has a complete enough game, both mentally and physically, for there to no longer be any lingering questions about her ability to handle the inherent pressure of playing for the game's biggest prizes.

Whether Ivanovic can do what she did in Paris on a slam-by-slam, four times a season, year in and year out basis is still left to be proven. But, at 20 and showing marked improvement in her game and training at each slam stop, there's really no reason to think AnaIvo's rise won't continue.

"The Club" has a new member. Both on and off the court, Ivanovic is officially tennis' newest superstar.

Let's just hope Ana doesn't let it go to her head.

...although she lost in the final, the Spring of Safina was nothing to sneeze at. In her last two events, Safina defeated the then-#1 Henin, the new #1 Sharapova, #4 Kuznetsova, the soon-to-be #5 Dementieva, #6 S.Williams and the eventual RG quarterfinalist Kaia Kanepi. Not too shabby a lineup, even without a third #1 (well, technically a #2 until the new rankings come out) scalp when the Russian couldn't pull yet another Lazarus act on Day Fourteen.

Hey, but cats are supposed to land on all fours, and the Russian Cat of Roland Garros needs to find a way to do so the rest of the spring and summer to make this past month a monumental one for the REST of her career, and not just have it be her career highlight. Remember, Marion Bartoli was a grand slam finalist a little less than a year ago, too. How's that workin' out for La Trufflette?

...only one RG women's final in the 2000's has gone three sets. In 2001, when Jennifer Capriati outlasted Kim Clijsters in a 12-10 final set.

...twenty-one Roland Garros championships have been played since Ana Ivanovic was born in November 1987, with ten different women claiming titles. Of those ten, counting AnaIvo today, seven of them can state that they won the first grand slam of their careers in Paris. The most recent who won a title before Ivanovic was born? That's be Chris Evert, whose last RG title came in 1986. Yep, she won her first slam at Roland Garros, as well -- in 1974.

The ten different champions from 1988-08, and the seven who claimed their maiden slam at RG:

Jennifer Capriati
Steffi Graf* (in 1987)
Justine Henin* (in 2003)
Ana Ivanovic* (in 2008)
Iva Majoli* (in 1997)
Anastasia Myskina* (in 2004)
Mary Pierce
Arantxa Sanchez Vicario* (in 1989)
Monica Seles* (in 1990)
Serena Williams

...and, finally, three doubles titles were won on Day Fourteen. Pablo Cuevas and Luis Horna won the Men's, while Polona Hercog & Jessica Moore won the Girls Doubles, and Henri Kontinen & Christopher Rungkat took the Boys Doubles.

2004 Anastasia Myskina/RUS & Elena Dementieva/RUS
2005 Mary Pierce/FRA
2006 Svetlana Kuznetsova/RUS
2007 Maria Sharapova/RUS
2008 Ana Ivanovic/SRB

07 AO - Madison Brengle, USA
07 RG - Mariana Duque-Marino, COL
07 WI - Urszula Radwanska, POL
07 US - Kristina Kucova, SVK
08 AO - Arantxa Rus/NED & Jessica Moore/AUS
08 RG - Simona Halep/ROU & Elena Bogdan/ROU

3...Maria Sharapova, RUS
3...Serena Williams, USA
2...Agnieszka Radwanska, POL
2...Flavia Pennetta, ITA
2...Lindsay Davenport. USA
2...Justine Henin, BEL

22...Steffi Graf
18...Martina Navratilova
18...Chris Evert
9...Monica Seles
8...Serena Williams
7...Justine Henin
7...Evonne Goolagong
6...Venus Williams
5...Martina Hingis
4...Arantxa Sanchez Vicario
3...Maria Sharapova
3...Lindsay Davenport
3...Jennifer Capriati
2...Tracy Austin
2...Amelie Mauresmo
1...Kim Clijsters

=(most recent title)=
Anna Chakvetadze (2008)
Kimiko Date-Krumm (1996)
Nadia Petrova (2007)

2003 Bob Bryan/Mike Bryan
2004 Xavier Malisse/Olivier Rochus
2005 Jonas Bjorkman/Max Mirnyi
2006 Jonas Bjorkman/Max Mirnyi
2007 Mark Knowles/Daniel Nestor
2008 Pablo Cuevas/Luis Horna

TOP QUALIFIERS: Maria Jose Martinez Sanchez/ESP & Yanina Wickmayer/BEL
TOP EARLY ROUND (1r-2r): Ana Ivanovic/SRB
TOP MIDDLE-ROUND (3r-QF): Ana Ivanovic/SRB
TOP EARLY RD. MATCH (1r-2r): 1st- Sharapova d. Rodina 6-1/3-6/8-6
TOP MIDDLE-RD. MATCH (3r-QF): 4th- Safina d. Sharapova 6-7/7-6/6-2 [Shar. 2 MP]
TOP LATE RD. MATCH (SF-F): SF- Ivanovic d. Jankovic 6-4/3-6/6-4
FIRST SEED OUT: #15 Nicole Vaidisova/CZE (1st-Benesova)
IT GIRL: Dinara Safina/RUS
CRASH & BURN: Serena Williams/USA (3r- lost to Srebotnik)
ZOMBIE QUEENS: Maria Sharapova/RUS [2 pts from 1st Rd. loss]
Dinara Safina/RUS [came back from 2 MP down in both 4th Rd. & QF]

LAST PASTRIES STANDING: Alize Cornet & Emilie Loit (both 3rd Rd.)
DOUBLES STARS Anabel Medina-Garrigues & Virginia Ruano-Pascual, ESP/ESP
JUNIOR BREAKOUTS: Simona Halep/ROU & Elena Bogdan/ROU

All for Day 14. More tomorrow.


Blogger Topaz said...

I was disappointed that big bro Marat didn't go and support his sister's first grand slam final appearance. Especially after seeing her cheer him on in Davis Cup matches, and how she interviewed saying that she still cries when she watches Marat's AO win over Fed.

Sun Jun 08, 05:26:00 PM EDT  
Blogger Todd Spiker said...

Yeah, you'd kind of liked to have seen him there. Maybe it's a big brother thing. I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt and think that he was at least watching the match on television in England.

Sun Jun 08, 08:17:00 PM EDT  

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