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Steve Flink: One on One with Craig Kardon

5/11/2009 12:00:00 AM

by Steve Flink

Across the first half of 2008, one of the game’s brightest personalities fully captured the imagination of the public. That was none other than Ana Ivanovic. She was playing the kind of tennis that could take her almost anywhere she wanted to go. The fans responded to her exhilarating style of play with unabashed enthusiasm practically anywhere she went. Ivanovic had it all going for her. She reached the final of the Australian Open last year before losing to a nearly impeccable Maria Sharapova. At Roland Garros, she collected her first major championship, ruling on the red clay by completing a terrific fortnight with victories over Jelena Jankovic and Dinara Safina.

The enormously attractive Ivanovic--- who had finished 2007 at No. 4 in the world--- concluded 2008 at No. 5. She fell into a difficult slump during the second half of the year. At the start of 2009, she continued to struggle inordinately, losing in the third round of the Australian Open to Alisa Kleybanova. But the following month, she brought in a new coach on a trial basis. The highly regarded Craig Kardon stepped into that role in February at Dubai, and he took over that position on a full time, official basis during the Sony Ericsson Open in Miami.

Kardon brings a wealth of experience to the job. His first major coaching stint was with Martina Navratilova from 1988 to 1994. In the years since, he has worked with Lindsay Davenport, Mary Pierce, Lisa Raymond, Alexandra Stevenson and others as a coach. Kardon understands the mentality of champions, recognizes the potential pitfalls, and seems to have a knack for making his players believe in themselves. Although Ivanovic at the moment is still confronting some daunting problems--- she hurt her knee last week in Rome, pulled out of Madrid this week, and her status for a possible defense at Roland Garros is questionable--- Kardon will have the chance later this year, and hopefully in the years ahead, to bring the best out of a player he is convinced will in the long run recover herself her conviction and achieve great things again.


I spoke with Kardon late last week by phone. Despite Ivanovic’s predicament, he sounded upbeat about the prospects for Ivanovic to eventually move back to the top of her game. “I really think Ana is a champion,” he says. “She can do really well in this game but she just needs some direction. Ana is young. She’s only 21. I believe she has a very good career ahead of her. She is still getting used to her own game, getting used to competing as a professional day in and day out. I am more of a patient, long term thinker. Young professionals at Ana’s level want it all right now, every week. Ana is very hard on herself, almost too tough on herself. She expects to win every match every week, which is both good and bad. But I have worked with some other champions, and that is how they think.”


As he recalls his initial conversations with Ivanovic after they started working together, Kardon made certain that she realized precisely how he felt about the state of her game. As he puts it, “Basically the first thing I told her was that her game is fine. It does not need to be fixed. What she needs is confidence. She needs to believe that what she has is good enough. She just has to make the weapons she has better. I told her she needed to trust her game.”


Having said that, Kardon knew he could also encourage her to add some elements to the already advanced structure of her game to more thoroughly exploit her considerable strengths. “I tried to change a few things,” he clarifies. “I wanted her to come to the net more to recognize the opportunities she creates for herself with her big forehand. Ana has got one of the best inside-out forehands in the game. It is a bit of a flat shot and a lot of coaches and critics argue that she basically hits the ball too flat. I don’t think so. Every professional athlete has a style of their own. You can criticize that style or you can shape it to make it a little better. I am just trying to shape it to make it better.”


Coach Kardon has also been grooming Ivanovic to make her superior at the net. As he explains, “I have tried to solidify her volleys a bit more. We have worked on her volley technique to make her backhand volley more solid and to help Ana get more under the ball on her forehand volley. She has pretty good technique already, but I wanted to make her even more solid to where she is hitting crisp volleys and not just kind of carving the ball so much.”


Kardon has learned many lessons from joining forces with so many leading players over the years. Being on and off the tour for more than 20 years with a wide range of players and personalities has made him value the notion of being prudent about when and where to convey tactical or technical thoughts to his players.  Putting his coaching philosophy into perspective, he asserts, “I have learned to really trust my instincts but I know not to get too emotional right away about implementing every idea I have with their game. You really have to pick your spots to present your ideas and sometimes you have to sell them. Sometimes you have to take out the stat book and look at what the player did in certain matches. And other times you get this five minute window of opportunity to get an idea across when you least expect it. That could be something subtle that you have been harping on for months and months and all of a sudden the player has a flashbulb moment and they get it right then and there.”


It is indeed a precarious business for coaches in professional tennis. They can never be absolutely certain of their status. They can’t ever get too comfortable because relationships with players are constantly evolving and subject to unexpected and even sweeping developments. Kardon knows well that in his shoes you have no alternative but to be philosophical. You simply try your hardest, hope for the best, and realize that the rest is up to chance.


As Kardon explains, “You just have to be confident about your ideas and disciplined with your player. You have to be patient. That is the most important thing. Billie Jean King gave me a tip long ago that was really important. For professional coaches in tennis, the merry go round can be incredible. You never know when you might be fired. Billie Jean told me that you have to walk on the court every day prepared to get fired for what you believe in. I have always held onto that thought. And it has helped me to really believe what I believe and stand by that. Because it comes down to this: if you don’t trust what you are telling the player, they know it. You can’t be just telling them things just to make them feel better or throwing ideas out there because you simply think you should. Sometimes it is better not to say anything and just display quiet confidence. That can say a lot to a player. Your presence and support and the player knowing that you know what is going on can give them confidence and make a big difference.”


Those are not idle words spoken by someone with only remote knowledge of what life is like for those in the arena. Kardon carries around powerful and provocative memories of his time with top of the line players he has guided. He says, “Martina Navratilova was great and I learned a lot from her in our six years together. I was only 27 when I started working with her. Lindsay Davenport was only 18 at the time I began coaching her and I probably pushed too hard for her to be more aggressive. Mary Pierce was interesting. She was ranked about 15 in the world when we started and she went up to 5 and we got along great, as we still do."


“With Mary I learned when to take that five minute window and drive a truck through it because most of the time she didn’t want a lot of input. With her I was able to say the right thing at the right time. We knew when to analyze and when to push hard, even if we did not always agree. I also worked with the USTA which was great since I got to help with the young kids. I also worked with Xavier Malisse at Wimbledon and I was coaching Alexandra Stevenson when she got to the semifinals of Wimbledon [in 1999]. I have enjoyed all the work.”


At this point, he is eager to do all he can to make Ana Ivanovic realize her full potential. Understandably, the results have not come overnight. Ivanovic has performed with sporadic brilliance, yet she has not been the same commanding player who was often such a breathtaking performer during the first half of 2008. Kardon is determined to use his coaching acumen to bring renewed vigor to a player he respects without reservations.


Their highlight as a team thus far was at Indian Wells in March, when Ivanovic made a spirited run to the final before losing in straight sets to Vera Zvonareva. The conditions that day in California were almost impossibly bad, with the wind blowing ferociously throughout the match. In the end, Zvonareva had the edge that day because her game is much more percentage oriented and she takes fewer risks than the adventuresome Ivanovic. Ivanovic was much more severely compromised that day.


"“The conditions were horrendous,” recalls Kardon. “It was really bad. If you weren’t there you can’t appreciate what it was like. But Ana had two or three set points in the first set and I think if she could have gotten through that set she would have been fine.”


From Indian Wells, Kardon and Ivanovic went to Miami. Ivanovic faced Agnes Szavay in the third round and lost that contest 6-4, 4-6, 6-1. Says Kardon, “Ana was a bit emotional during that match. She needs to not allow herself to get worked up over things she can’t control and that is true of every professional player. You tend to let your mind wander and worry about things that you probably should not be worrying about. You need to just play tennis, but that is easier said than done.”


All told, Kardon has been encouraged about Ivanovic’s play the last couple of months. But last week was a tough one for the Serbian. She played the Italian Open in Rome. In the round of 16, Ivanovic built a 4-0 lead in the final set over Agnieszka Radwanska, but could not close the deal. As Kardon comments, “She had played well in Rome. It had rained for about four hours and then she played a night match against Francesca Schiavone. I have never seen Ana more controlled emotionally, tactically, and strategically. She was almost perfect. Her first serve percentage was above 70% the whole match and she made so few unforced errors. After that match, she had some physical problems with the knee issue and a toe issue. But I thought she would be able to get through Radwanska and she almost did. She was playing great after losing the first set and she went up 4-0 in the third. But Radwanska raised her game quite a bit and Ana did not take advantage of some opportunities down the stretch. She had several opportunities to come to the net and just didn’t do it.”


As we spoke last Friday, Kardon was waiting to find out just how serious the Ivanovic knee injury would be. He knew it was a big deal for her to pull out of Madrid this week, but still hoped she would be ready to give herself a chance to defend her crown at Roland Garros.


"Obviously the pressure is on her and she is feeling it for the French. Right now I am not sure if she is even going to be able to play the French Open because of this knee injury. I know her confidence is still pretty high and her level of play is good enough for Ana to win it again. That being said, we are looking at a bit of a hiccup [for her] after losing from 4-0 up in the third in Rome, and she has got the injury problem. But that might take the pressure off her going into the French if she can play it. That is how I would approach it with her. With a player like Ana who has won Roland Garros and made it to another major final when nobody expected her to, and then reached No. 1 in the world, there are a lot of expectations that people put on her. She just has to keep building her game and letting her game grow. That is how I am looking at it.”


In the final analysis, Kardon is entirely optimistic about where Ana Ivanovic is going from here.  Making a long term prognosis, he concludes, “She just needs to not be too tough on herself and she will be fine. She can win a few more Slams. I really believe that.”

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