Sears offers Ivanovic a clearer future path

Former champion climbs rankings with British coach

At the age of 24, Ana Ivanovic is working with the sixth coach of her professional career, without counting the adidas coaches to whom she has turned temporarily in the all-too-frequent periods when she has been seeking fresh guidance. Those who do not know the former French Open champion could be forgiven for presuming she is a prickly prima donna who blames anyone but herself when things go wrong, but you would struggle to find anyone in the sport with a warmer and kinder disposition.

So how come Ivanovic sacks coaches as regularly as a power-mad football chairman?

"I made some choices that weren't right in the past," the former world No 1 admitted. "It cost me in terms of my confidence and everything. But I think that some things happen for a reason and I think it was my fault as much as someone else's. I'm just happy now that I've found the right person and that I didn't give up, because it has been hard at times."

The "right person" is Nigel Sears, arguably the most experienced British coach in tennis. Sears, 55, used to work with some of Britain's leading men, including Jeremy Bates and Mark Petchey, but latterly he has worked almost exclusively with women. He coached Amanda Coezter and Daniela Hantuchova and spent five years as head coach of women's tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association, until Ivanovic came calling last summer.

The relationship between players and coaches is often more fraught in the women's game. Men can change their coaches as frequently – Andy Murray has had at least six in his senior career – but the relationships are usually more straightforward. In the women's game they are often complicated by the fact that there are many more fathers who coach or at least retain a strong degree of control. Men are usually coached by men – with one or two notable exceptions – and so are women.

The itinerant life of a professional means that player and coach often spend more hours in each other's company than they would in most other sports. Ivanovic has sometimes felt uncomfortable with the intensity of her relationship with her coaches.

"Our job is quite strange in that we hire a coach and therefore we're the boss," she said. "But coaches tell us what to do, and I think some coaches might struggle with the idea of a girl being the boss and telling them, 'I don't want to see you now. I want to have some time to myself.' So many coaches try to hold on and are too controlling – and that doesn't make for a healthy relationship. That's why I think you find a big difference in the relationship between men and their coaches and between women and their coaches."

Sears and Ivanovic agree it helps that he has a daughter (Kim, Murray's long-term girlfriend) of the same age. "I think it's very important to keep some distance, so that once you go on the court you can become more professional," Ivanovic said. "He really respects it if I want to spend time with my friends and don't want to have breakfast, lunch and dinner with him. There are times when the only people you spend time with are the people in your team. That's hard, because I think, 'I'm a girl. I want to hang out with other girls. I just want to be a normal young woman.' "

Sears understands. "We have a good professional working relationship and we give each other some space," he said. "I've learned over the years that this is a healthy thing."

According to Sears, "every day is different" with women players. "More than anything, you're dealing with a greater swing of emotions," he said. "I'm not saying that in a negative way, but you have to be sensitive to that. You also have to figure out what women respond to and perhaps be a little bit more sensitive than you would be when dealing with men. You can probably afford to be a little bit more direct with the men in terms of communication. I think you have to practise your listening skills with women. I'm really happy I'm now working at a time when I've had a lot of experience. Believe me, I draw on that experience every day."

Nevertheless, Ivanovic says she likes the fact that Sears, like her, is a perfectionist who is not afraid to criticise.

"Most of the coaches just tell you, 'No, no, you're doing well. This is fine.' But I actually want someone who will tell me what I didn't do right, so that I can improve."

After some difficult times following her annus mirabilis in 2008, Ivanovic has climbed back to No 14 in the world rankings.

"I enjoy working with Nigel and I think we've found a balance between what's enough and what's too much," she said.

Sears prefers never to look too far ahead. "I feel that she's made some good steady progress, that there's been some substance to it both in the way she's played and also in her results and ranking," he said. "You always feel that there is more to do but at this stage, within the time frame, I feel that it's gone pretty well."

Male players, female coaches

Jimmy Connors: Gloria Connors put a racket in her son's hand when he was two and was always involved with his career in some capacity.

Andrei Chesnokov: The Russian, a former world No 9 who won seven titles from 1987-91, was coached by Tatiana Naumko.

Mikhail Kukushkin: The world No 49 from Kazakhstan is coached by his wife, Anastasia Ulikhina, who is a post-graduate PE student.

Michael Llodra: Amlie Mauresmo joined the Frenchman's coaching team last summer. A shared passion for fine wine probably helped.

Denis Istomin: The world No 41 from Uzbekistan has been coached by his mother, Klaudiya, since his junior days.

Donald Young: The former world junior No 1, now No 48 in the senior rankings, is coached by his parents, Donald Snr and Illona.

Sergiy Stakhovsky: The world No 86 worked last year with Olga Morozova; the former Wimbledon finalist coached Elena Dementieva and Svetlana Kuznetsova.

Paul Newman

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