Two years ago Ana Ivanovic was the darling of the Australian Open, having charmed the locals with her good looks, disarming smile and evident affection for Melbourne, where she has family connections. “Aussie Ana” reached the final here that year, losing to Maria Sharapova, before winning her first Grand Slam title later that summer at the French Open.
Having risen to No 1 in the world rankings, Ivanovic seemed to have a glittering future ahead of her, but her results in the subsequent Grand Slam tournaments tell their own story. The 22-year-old Serb has not been beyond the fourth round in seven attempts since that victory in Paris and today added a second-round exit from the Australian Open to her list of disappointments.
Ivanovic was beaten 6-7, 7-5, 6-4 by Gisela Dulko, an Argentinian with her own growing band of admirers who is making a habit of upsetting some of the game’s equally glamorous figures, having knocked out Maria Sharapova at Wimbledon last summer.
Dulko, 24, reached a career-high No 26 in the world rankings five years ago but is hardly a feared opponent among the top players. This is the first time in seven attempts that she has gone beyond the second round here and in 26 Grand Slam tournaments she has reached the fourth round only once. Nevertheless the world No 36 could soon find herself overtaking Ivanovic, who is already down to No 21 in the rankings and likely to fall further after her early exit here.
It was a gruelling match, lasting 18 minutes short of three hours and featuring 146 unforced errors, 75 of them from Ivanovic’s racket. Her serve was broken nine times and she hit 11 double faults.
Twelve months ago Ivanovic tried to halt her slide by appointing a new coach, Craig Kardon, but the relationship did not last long and she has started working again with Sven Groeneveld, one of the Adidas team of coaches. A series of injury problems has not helped Ivanovic’s cause and last month she began working on a trial basis with a full-time fitness trainer, Damian Prasad, from the Australian Institute of Sport.
Shoulder problems forced Ivanovic to change her service action last summer and a respiratory tract infection, the latest of a series of physical difficulties, saw her finish her season early in October. She took a lengthy break back home in Belgrade before resuming physical training the following month and then working with Groeneveld.
Ivanovic has time on her side, though she recognizes that a new generation of players has emerged during her travails. “I just feel like a veteran at 22,” she said when asked here about her younger rivals. “Victoria Azarenka is doing a really good job and Sorana Cirstea played really well in Paris. There are lots of them coming through, most of them from eastern Europe. It’s good to see that. They bring a lot more excitement to the game.”
As for her own progress, Ivanovic said she had to be patient. “It’s a process,” she said. “It will take some time. I do feel better on the court. I'm playing much better. I feel like my old self. There are still some areas that are not there for me to rely on when I need them the most. Some matches it's there, some not. I just have to keep my head up and try to improve. There are things I'm working on.
“The serve is a big part of that progress. I feel it's been going well at times, but it's just not as consistent as I would like it to be. It just might take some time and I have to accept that, although it's hard.”
Despite today’s defeat Ivanovic believes she is back on the way up, having been pleased with her form in the pre-Australian Open tournament in Brisbane. “I think I'm striking the ball better now than I did in 2008 or any previous years,” she said.
“My movement is also getting there. Last year my fitness was really lacking, and now I'm putting things in place. It will take some time for it. Considering tennis, I'm playing much better than I was. It's just that that sometimes I put expectations on myself and it's very overwhelming.”
Ivanovic agreed that she had taken form and fitness for granted in the past. “When you have it, you just feel like it's going to be there, but you have to keep reminding yourself how hard you worked to get there and to carry on working work hard and stay there, though you also have to be smart in your work.
“I think at one point I was over-trained and I just didn't want to be out there competing because I felt exhausted. I wanted to have some time off. It's very important to find that balance. You can learn from people's experiences, but sometimes I guess you have to go through it yourself.”