Ivanovic buries bad memories to secure first Grand Slam title

Serbian puts misery of defeat in last year's final behind her to break battling spirit of Safina. By Ronald Atkin in Paris
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The Independent Online

Justine Henin, holder of the trophy and champ-ion at the French Open for four of the past six years, was on the winners' podium again yesterday,but this time as a newlyretired lady, to present theCoupe Suzanne Lenglen to her successor, Ana Ivanovic.

And a worthy successor Ivanovic was, too, putting behind her the nerves and woes ofthe 2007 final here to repel the robust challenge of Dinara Safina6-4 6-3 and become Serbia's first female Grand Slam champion, on the heels of her compatriot Novak Djokovic, winner of the men's crown at the Australian Open in January.

So the 20-year-old who learned her tennis in war-ravaged Serbia, practising in an abandoned swimming pool, has triumphed in her third Grand Slam final. She used to ride to her tennis by bike; yesterday she needed not even that help. She was floating, as she had been for much of this bewildering match of brutal winners and banal errors, elegant in the extreme in her bright dress, dubbed by the sponsors Neo-Red.

As the 6ft 2in Safina, the sisterof the double Grand Slam champion Marat Safin, was left stranded by a final winning forehand, Ivanovic sank to her knees, her racket discarded on the baseline, knuckles pressed against her eyes in a mix of celebration and disbelief. There was the first prize of £800,000 to be collected,but first she was insistent on sharing the joy with her large team of coaches and supporters, climbing into the stands to hug everyone in sight.

Among that crowd was Avram Grant, a close friend of Ana's Swiss financial backer, Dan Holzman. It made a nice change for him to be on the winner's side, and he said: "Congratulations to Ana. She is a great player and a great person. I am very happy for her and am sure that this is the first of many Grand Slams she will win." Ivanovic admitted: "There were a few mental games out there today but I managed to stay strong and calm, especially in the second set."

Safina's tennis, which had carried her to a run of 12 wins, first at Berlin and then here, always veers sharply between extremes. Yesterday was the familiar jumble of the unstoppable and the unspeakable. Thunderous winners were balanced against five double faults and numerousoverhits, all carried out full blast.

Ivanovic will ascend to No 1 when the rankings are published tomorrow and will be among the favourites for Wimbledon, where she was a semi-finalist last summer. It all makes amends for the 2007 French, when she froze in the final against Henin, and Australia 2008, where she was the runner-up to Maria Sharapova. "Those losing finals were a great learning experience," Ivanovic said. "After Australia I had two sleepless nights, because part of me had already been thinking about holding the trophy. This time I tried not to think about that at all, and I controlled the situation much better. I thought if Novak could do it, so could I."

The 14th-ranked Safina, at 22 two years older than Ivanovic, got off to a dismal start, dropping serve in the opening game and facing an early 2-0 deficit. Ivanovic was more than willing to trade heavy groundstrokes, the rallies brutal and brief. Ivanovic's burgeoning confidence on the back of a second break, this one to love, which put her4-1 in front, was undermined by the loss of her own delivery when she had held a point for 5-1. It seemed it might prove costly against someone who has gained the reputation at this Roland Garros of the comeback kid, twice battling back from match point down. Sure enough, Safina won three straight games to pull level at 4-4, only to drop her own serve on a string of woeful errors.

Presented with the chance to serve out for the first set Ivanovic almost came a cropper in a six-minute game in which she fought off two break points, missed two set points and staggered across the line courtesy of Safina'sskied backhand.

A jubilant supporter promptlyhoisted a proposal banner: "Ana, I'm single too." Into the second set, and the intensity was upped a notch or two. As she put extra venom into her shots Ivanovic resorted to a squeaking noise, like a half-suppressed sneeze, while Safina marched on with the hit-or-bust tactics. The balance tilted the Serb's way when she broke for 2-1 and this time held off all attempts to torpedo her confidence, including a break-back point at 3-2.

This was the stage at which Safina had mounted previous comebacks, deep into the second set, but this time there was nothing in the tank. "I tried, but I didn't have any more of that fire," she said. "I was just tired, mentally and physically."

She delivered three double faults in one game before clinging on at 3-4, but it was the Russian's last hurrah. Ivanovic went 5-3 up and had to do very little after that to ensure her triumph, watching as Safina errors presented her with three champ-ionship points. She required only one. Memories of empty swimming pools and bikes are firmlyconsigned to the past.