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Steve Flink: Ivanovic Steps Up

6/2/2008 2:04:00 PM

by Steve Flink

PARIS - She has been at the forefront of the women's game for a year now, and has learned her lessons well. A year ago, she was trounced by Justine Henin in the Roland Garros, bowing 6-1, 6-2 in her first major final. In January of this year, she made it back to another "Big Four" final, acquitting herself honorably before losing that encounter 7-5, 6-3 to the much more seasoned Maria Sharapova. But now, after suffering through the growing pains, after paying her dues as an aspiring champion, Ana Ivanovic has come through to secure a Grand Slam singles title for the first time.
Watching her dissect No. 13 seed Dinara Safina 6-4, 6-3 in the Roland Garros final, I was struck by her poise, unwavering determination, and absolute sense of self. She handled this occasion exceedingly well, exploiting her experience to the hilt, maintaining her focus despite some bad patches, blending offense with defense very convincingly from start to finish. Ivanovic impressed me with her match playing acumen on this occasion because she recognized that she could not always control points in big hitting exchanges with the 22-year-old Russian. Ivanovic sensed correctly that she needed to make excellent use of her one-handed backhand slice and understood that blocking back the forehand to change pace was another avenue she had to explore in rallies.

In the end, she frustrated an overanxious Safina with superior tactical flexibility and better court coverage. When she was able to dictate play, she did so commandingly, stepping inside the baseline and rushing Safina into mistakes. But she skillfully stood her ground when she was pushed back behind the baseline. As a defender, she was decidedly better than Safina.

Let's consider how the match transpired. Ivanovic opened up a 4-1, two service break lead in the first set. She looked entirely capable at that stage of breaking the match wide open. But Safina—much to her credit--- battled back grimly and gamely. With Ivanovic holding a game point for 5-1, Safina laced a forehand down the line winner on the run that caught the Serbian completely off guard. The Russian broke back for 2-4, served a love game for 3-4, and then curled a two-handed backhand down the line for a sparkling winner to reach 4-4.

Here Ivanovic demonstrated her growing class as a match player. Safina got to 4-4, 30-30, but Ivanovic rolled a higher trajectory return to lure the No. 13 seed into an expensive error. At break point, Ivanovic produced a clutch two-handed backhand winner down the line to regain the initiative. At 5-4, Ivanovic served for the set, but Safina was fighting hard and unwilling to concede tamely. Safina reached break point for 5-5 but Ivanovic erased it with a stinging inside-in forehand that Safin could not handle. Ivanovic got to set point but an obstinate Safina saved it.

Safina was going all out to salvage the first set. She made it back to break point, but Ivanovic produced an excellent first serve wide to the backhand, and charged in confidently to put away Safina's floating return with an emphatic forehand drive volley. Ivanovic took command and closed out the set from there with a combination of power and purpose. That was a definite sign of her substantial inner belief.

On they went to the second set. Ivanovic surged to 3-1. Seeking to extend her lead to 4-2, Ivanovic was met with stern resistance from the Russian. In a four deuce game, Safina threw everything she had at Ivanovic, but the Serbian wasn't budging.

Ivanovic moved to 4-2, but a steadfast Safina was not yet discouraged. She survived a burdensome seven deuce game and held on to make it 4-3, using her wide slice serve in the deuce court to expose Ivanovic's vulnerability on the forehand return. Had Ivanovic managed to break there, she would have had a two break cushion, but she refused to be put off by that missed opportunity. In the last two games, Ivanovic swept eight of nine points to finish her business. It was a job awfully well done.

So now she stands deservedly alone at the top of the women's game, the world's No. 1 ranked player, and one of the game's brightest personalities. Ivanovic has the capacity to collect three more majors in her career. She is only 20, and the view here is that she is only just beginning to realize her potential. She will settle for nothing less than the best from herself; of that I am certain.

That is not say it will be easy to maintain her newfound status at the top of her profession. More will be expected of her, and she will demand more from herself. She will be surrounded by the likes of Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, and others more than willing to cut into her authority. Nevertheless, she has the drive, discipline, and gifts as a player to remain at least near the top for a long time.

As Ivanovic said after her triumph at Roland Garros, "Some days it's harder to win than others. Still, this [win] will help me in the future. Obviously, you know, being No. 1 now holds more pressure. But you're also a professional athlete, and if you want to achieve your goals you have to learn how to handle the pressure and realize that pressure is also a kind of reward because you put yourself in a position to do something memorable."

She has surely done that. Clearly, Ivanovic has the right kind of mentality. She will inevitably keep pressing on, searching for more opportunities to collect Grand Slam championships, hoping to make winning big titles more and more of a habit. The guess here is that she is heading into a golden stretch of her career. That would not hurt women's tennis in the least.

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