May 5, 2010

Where'd That Come From?

If you'd written off Ana Ivanovic from the top tiers of women's tennis recently, you probably weren't alone.

The former world #1, '08 Roland Garros champ, hadn't put together back-to-back wins since Brisbane in January. The last time she beat a top-twenty player was at Wimbledon, she's been title-less since Linz two years ago and watched her ranking drop into the high double-digits after a disappointing showing in Indian Wells. Ana has done some things to get back in form, hiring Steffi Graf's former coach among them, but it hasn't seemed to do much good.

At least not until this week.

For months we watched Ana put up a fight -- she actually had several leads over Kim Clijsters at the Billie Jean King exhibition match in March and kept things close against Aggie Radwanska at two straight tournaments -- but never quite pull off the win. So when she got past Elena Vesnina in the first round in Rome on Monday, I thought it was a fluke. A straight set win over ninth seed Victoria Azarenka yesterday, I considered encouraging.

But I never gave her a chance against Elena Dementieva in the third round. The Russian had won all four of their previous matches -- at least one on every surface -- and ceded only two sets. Sure, Elena has one of the weaker serves on the Tour but, if possible, Ana's is usually worse. But all the new coaching seems to have successfully, and suddenly, paid off. Ivanovic has dished out eleven aces already this week, outnumbering her double faults almost two-to-one.

Today she won seventy percent of her first serve attempts and held Dementieva to only a third of the points in the first set. She rolled through the first half with a 6-1 win. The ladies traded breaks in the next set and ultimately forced a tiebreak, which Ana won, 7-5. After less than a hundred minutes, she's made only her second quarterfinal in the past twelve months.

Of course, by virtue of a low rank and no seeding, the road ahead will be tough. Ivanovic faces a feisty Nadia Petrova in the next round, a woman she hasn't beaten since 2007, and a third straight match with Radwanska looms in the semis should she make it. Then again, in a tournament which has already seen so many casualties -- Sam Stosur withdrew, while Caroline Wozniacki, Dinara Safina and Svetlana Kuznetsova all lost early -- there's plenty of room for surprises.

And it may just be Ana's strategy to catch the whole tennis world by surprise.

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