Victory in battle of Belgrade puts new world No 1 Ivanovic in pink

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Yesterday she won the battle of Belgrade, tomorrow she will hope to conquer Paris and on Monday she will be on top of the world. The future is looking as bright for Ana Ivanovic as the salmon-pink dress in which she beat her fellow Serb, Jelena Jankovic, 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 here yesterday to reach the final of the French Open for the second year in succession.

Despite having frozen against Justine Henin in the final 12 months ago, 20-year-old Ivanovic will be the warm favourite to claim her first Grand Slam crown tomorrow when she faces the world No 14, Dinara Safina, who beat another Russian, Svetlana Kuznetsova, 6-3, 6-2 in the other semi-final. Whatever the outcome Ivanovic will be the new No 1 when the updated world ranking list is published on Monday, ending Maria Sharapova's short return to the top following Henin's abrupt retirement last month. Jankovic, the world No 3, would also have taken the No 1 spot had she reached her first Grand Slam final, but this was her fourth losing semi-final and she might be starting to wonder whether she has it in her to make the final breakthrough. Ivanovic has the clear edge over her rival, having beaten her five times in a row.

With Henin's departure, it will be no surprise if Ivanovic enjoys a long and happy reign as No 1. The current world No 2 gave a much better account of herself in her second Grand Slam final earlier this year, losing a tight match to Sharapova at the Australian Open, and the hard work she has put in to improve her fitness has been evident. Having lost weight, she looks much lighter on her feet than a year ago and gets to balls that would have evaded her in the past.

Jankovic, 23, has always been the more athletic of the two Serbs, who were both brought up in Belgrade and know each other's games inside out, but Ivanovic, taller and more strongly built, has the edge in power, particularly on her booming forehand. As if Ivanovic's advantages were not enough, Jankovic started the match wearing a support for an arm injury, having returned to Serbia for 24 hours earlier this week for treatment. Her physical problems may have explained why there were so few sightings of the broad smile that has lit up stadiums around the world.

Support for the two women was evenly divided in the stadium, with Ivanovic's sizeable entourage boosted by the presence of Avram Grant, the former Chelsea manager, who is a long-standing friend of Dan Holzmann, the president of her management company.

There were some splendid rallies as the players pulled each other from side to side in lengthy baseline exchanges. Ivanovic, who hit 50 winners to her opponent's 16, was more aggressive, though she found her range only after losing the first three games.

Errors soon started to flow from Jankovic's racket, but from a set and 1-3 down she made a spirited recovery. Under pressure from the sheer consistency of Jankovic's groundstrokes, Ivanovic lost seven games in a row and trailed 1-3 in the final set. When Jankovic served at 4-5, however, she was swept aside by three huge forehand winners and a beautifully disguised drop shot.

"There were lots of ups and downs and lots of breaks," Ivanovic said afterwards. "I just had to put everything on the line in the final set when I was a break and 4-3 down. I had to go for my shots because it was a very long match with a lot of long rallies. I had the feeling that I had to step up a little bit more and take risks. That last game was huge, and I stepped up and played some good tennis."

Jankovic was in tears after the match but still retained her sense of humour. Asked what she would be doing in the evening, she replied: "Kill myself? I don't know. No, I will have some dinner and maybe get drunk or do something."

The match was an infinitely better contest than the other semi-final. Safina made thrilling comebacks to win her previous two matches, coming from a set and 5-2 down to beat both Sharapova and Elena Dementieva, but she never had to raise her game to such heights against Kuznetsova. The world No 4's game was littered with mistakes and both sets ended, appropriately enough, with horrible mishits on her forehand. There were five breaks of serve in the first set and two more were exchanged at the start of the second before Safina made what proved to be the decisive break to lead 3-2. Saving two break points to hold in the following game, Safina went on to complete victory in an hour and 27 minutes as Kuznetsova failed to stem the flow of mistakes.

"It was pretty horrible," she admitted afterwards. "I wasn't comfortable at all out there."