Queen of the courts hopes to reign again

Winning the French Open a year ago made Ana Ivanovic world No 1 and the darling of the circuit. Now, after a year of frustration, she explains to Paul Newman why she is ready to defend her crown
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The Independent Online

It is not always easy being either the world's most beautiful sportswoman or the No 1 player in your sport. Twelve months ago Ana Ivanovic was both, her triumph at the French Open underlining her status as the new glamour queen of tennis and putting her on top of the women's world rankings, but at the grand old age of 21 the Serb is having to prove herself all over again. Although Ivanovic will be the star attraction here today when she attends the draw for this year's clay-court finale, which begins on Sunday, she knows that her hard-won reputation – as a sportswoman if not as a face on a magazine cover – will be on the line over the next fortnight. Having had the world at her feet when she celebrated her first Grand Slam victory here last June, she is now hoping to put a year of frustration behind her.

The fact that Ivanovic is now the world No 8 tells you much about her last 12 months. Troubled last summer by a persistent thumb injury and by a loss of form, she has won just one title on the Sony Ericsson tour since last year's French Open, a minor event in Austria in October, and has suffered humbling defeats in the three subsequent Grand Slam tournaments, losing to lowly ranked opponents on each occasion.

Even when she thought she had put her fitness problems behind her, having started 2009 believing she was in her best shape for years, Ivanovic ran into more trouble last month when she hurt her right knee. The injury forced her to withdraw from the Madrid Open, which was to have been her final warm-up for Paris, and she was advised to rest. She has since returned to the practice court, but it remains to be seen whether the knee will stand up to the demands of a Grand Slam tournament.

If injuries are a way of life for most professional athletes, few have to handle the demands of celebrity that accompany a sportswoman with looks like Ivanovic's. Generally she does not complain about the media attention, but was shocked by the intensity of it when she started dating the Spanish player Fernando Verdasco towards the end of last year, a relationship that lasted only a few months.

"It was something new for me," Ivanovic said. "I hadn't realised that people would be so interested in my private life, but all of a sudden that changed. People followed us around and took photographs. To be honest, it took a lot of energy out of me. All of a sudden I was facing these questions and everyone was approaching me about it. Whenever I went out people were looking at me. I was always in the spotlight. I just felt: 'I can't even have an evening to myself, an evening in private.'

"I think it's important to keep a balance between your professional and private lives. I have learnt from this experience. Next time I would handle things differently and talk less about it. I just think it's important to live your life. Obviously, being in the public eye you have less privacy, but it's important to keep a bit of your life private."

That is one reason Ivanovic has been happy to live in Basle. Having been brought up in war-torn Belgrade, where she practised to the sound of Nato bombs falling on the city and spent winters training on cramped tennis courts in a converted swimming pool, she has been eternally grateful to Dan Holzmann, a Swiss businessman who sponsored her from an early age and gave her the chance to work in better conditions.

Is she recognised in the street in Basle in the way that she is back home? "Not as much. And even if people do recognise you I think they're more used to seeing famous people. There are quite a lot of famous people who live in Basle, like Michael Schumacher, so they keep their distance and give you privacy. That's something that I like. They also have a different mentality. They're much more laid-back and reserved than Serbians, who can be very emotional and have short fuses."

The success of Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic and Novak Djokovic has transformed the Serbian sporting landscape. "Tennis is now one of the major sports and everyone knows about us," Ivanovic said. "Even if I'm just sitting in a car people hoot their horns and stop. I'm recognised everywhere. It's impossible to go for a walk in the city by myself or with a friend. In fact, I rarely go out of the house. I just stay with my family or go to the houses of relatives and friends.

"There is one restaurant near the river that I like to go to occasionally with my parents, but people still come up and ask for photographs. Some even come over to offer me advice on my game."

Ivanovic insists that the glamorous photo-shoots and fashion parties have not distracted her from tennis, though she admits she enjoys that side of her life. "It's very flattering," she said. "Over time I've learnt how to enjoy that a little bit. Every girl likes compliments. But I also realise it comes with the way you play and the way you perform and the things you achieve on court, because there are many good-looking tennis players who are lower ranked and they don't get as much attention. I just have to work hard and achieve things because my main goals are still on the court. But I wouldn't be telling the truth if I said I didn't enjoy it."

Nevertheless, Ivanovic has work to do if she is to get back to where she was a year ago. "Playing Wimbledon was very hard for me after the French," she recalled. "I was emotionally quite empty. After that I was injured and I couldn't practise properly for a month. The injury was very frustrating. Nobody knew why the inflammation kept coming back. I played the US Open when I really shouldn't have, because I had only five days' practice. After that when I was back to feeling 100 per cent I assumed that I would be in the same form, but it doesn't work like that. I had to be patient. I had some disappointing losses. I took them very hard and very personally."

Uneasy about the intensity of working with a permanent coach, Ivanovic had done without one for more than two years until she appointed Craig Kardon three months ago. The American has an impeccable pedigree, having also coached Martina Navratilova, Lindsay Davenport, Mary Pierce and Jennifer Capriati. Ivanovic's results have improved – she reached the final in Indian Wells – though with only three clay-court matches under her belt she looks underprepared for the challenge of Roland Garros.

Nevertheless, a smile is rarely far from Ivanovic's face and she points out that she had only five matches on clay before last year's tournament. "The pain and inflammation in my knee has gone away so I have been able to practise this week," she said. "My timing is pretty good and I'm optimistic about my chances."

From Paris to Paris: 12 months of pain

June 2008 Wins first Grand Slam in Paris but loses to Zie Jheng (world No 133) in 3rd round at Wimbledon.

July Suffers injury to right thumb while practising in Spain.

August Misses the Olympic Games because of injury.

September Loses to Julie Coin (world No 188) in US Open 2nd round.

October Wins tournament in Linz, Austria, her only title in the last 12 months.

November Loses two matches in season-ending Sony Ericsson Championships before pulling out with virus.

January 2009 Loses to Alisa Kleybanova (world No 31) in the 3rd round at the Australian Open.

February Appoints Craig Kardon as her new coach.

March Reaches final at Indian Wells (beaten by Vera Zvonareva) in her best performance of 2009.

April Suffers knee injury playing in Fed Cup and subsequently misses Madrid Open, her final warm-up before French Open.