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ANA IVANOVIC:
THE NEW ĎITí GIRL OF TENNIS

Ana Ivanovic
( Photo credit: Art Seitz ©2009 )
ana Ivanovic
Ana Ivanovic photo courtesy
of dh management

Ana Ivanovic is often compared with Maria Sharapova. But the Serbian sensation says, "Itís strange, Sharapova doesnít say a word to anyone, whereas I talk, smile, laugh!"

That openness and geniality is reflected in the battle of the websites. According to Alexa, the popular Internet traffic monitoring website, www.anaivanovic.com is the most-visited website (551,000 unique visitors and 87 million hits in January) of any sportsperson in the world, including David Beckham, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant and Sharapova.

A 6í1Ē brunette with movie star looks, Ivanovic ranks No. 2, ahead of No. 5 Sharapova on the WTA Tour. But the 6í2Ē blonde Russian champion leads in what counts most, Grand Slam titles (3-0), and stopped fast-rising Ivanovic 7-5, 6-3 in the Australian Open final.

One day, both 20-year-old Eastern Europeans will be able to tell their grandchildren compelling stories about how they surmounted adversity as extremely determined youngsters. Sharapova was only seven when she and her father Yuri arrived in Florida. With just $700, no other relatives or friends, and speaking almost no English, she dreamed of future tennis stardom. Ivanovic overcame even greater odds. In 1999 when she was 11, NATO warplanes bombed military targets in Belgrade near where she lived (in a successful bid to oust Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic). For 79 days Ivanovic was forced to practice in a converted swimming pool between 6 and 9 each morning after the all-clear siren blared.

Today Ivanovic, No. 3-ranked Novak Djokovic, the Australian Open champion, and No. 4 Jelena Jankovic, a semifinalist in Melbourne, have amazingly turned Serbia - a country with only 9.4 million people and little tennis tradition - into the sportís preeminent nation. Whatís more, the three have become charming ambassadors for their resurgent homeland.

In this candid and wide-ranging interview, Ivanovic talks about her unlikely story, becoming the new ĎItí girl of tennis, and what it will take to reach the top.

You have the most-visited website of any sportsperson in the world, including David Beckham, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods and Maria Sharapova. How does that make you feel? And why are you so popular?

Itís very flattering. It almost doesnít make sense because those guys have achieved so much more than me. I am only really just beginning my career. I think a lot of the popularity of the website is because of the great team we have Ė they work very hard on it and keep it up-to-date. I know by reading fansí comments that they really appreciate that I spend some time on it, writing a diary and answering their questions. Obviously if it wasnít for the fans we wouldnít be able to play tennis professionally, so I am always happy to do it. Itís fun. The News section of the site, I have no involvement in, so even I check it, and itís interesting for me to read what they are writing.

ďWe are called bad Serbs by the world. We are treated like we are all [Slobodan] Milosevic. Djokovic is sweet and funny. Iíve met Ivanova. She is ... a star from the heavens. We love her,Ē Ljubica Peric, a Belgrade businesswoman, told the Christian Science Monitor newspaper. I donít know if you remember this woman, but what has the tremendous success of Novak, Jelena and you meant to the Serbian people?

Actually I donít know who she is. But I can say that tennis has become amazingly popular in Serbia. Before it was just basketball and football, but now I think we have joined those two sports and maybe even overtaken them. Itís unbelievable. Whenever I go back to Belgrade, I always see kids walking around carrying their rackets. Itís great to see, and the support they give us is amazing. Even when weíre playing in the middle of the night, they are staying up to watch on TV.

ďPeople have to understand that all that we have in tennis here came from mud, from nothing,Ē said Janko Tipsarevic ranked No. 38, on why Serbia has three top 3-ranked players. ďNo one invested one dollar or one Euro into any one of our players Ö the only people who we can say thanks to today are our families.Ē Do you agree with Janko?

I agree in part. For sure we received no support from the Federation and we really had to make it on our own. I owe my family a lot because they gave me incredible support. But I also owe a lot to my manager Dan Holzmann. He really believed in me, and his help made it possible for my mom and me to travel to junior tournaments. Who knows where I would be without his support [reportedly almost $500,000], so I have to say ďthanksĒ to him.

Of your mother, Dragana, you recently said, ďSheís my best friend, too. Itís so important to have her on the road with me.Ē In what ways does your mother help you?

She is a great advisor. I feel like she understands me, and gives me the best support you could imagine. She never really gets angry with me, she just wants to see me happy and enjoying my tennis. Sheís also my best friend and we can talk about everything

Mary Joe Fernandez, an ESPN commentator and former French and Australian Open finalist, said you remind her very much of highly popular Kim Clijsters because you are so friendly and relaxed that you talk to your opponents before matches. Would you please tell me about that.

Thatís nice to hear. Kim is a great person. I do sometimes talk to my opponents, and I like to think I am quite a friendly person. I am very competitive too, but I canít say I am very close to any players.

You have something else in common with Clijsters. She was beloved in Australia when she was engaged to Lleyton Hewitt and was nicknamed ďAussie Kim.Ē Now you are called ďAussie Ana.Ē Why has Australia adopted you as its favorite foreigner?

You should ask them! Iíve always loved Australia and have been visiting each Christmas for the past five years, because my uncle Branislav lives there, and I am close to his family. Itís my favorite country. I love the weather, the laid-back mentality of the people, and also the culture of watching sports. This yearís Australian Open was really a special experience for me, especially because of the incredible support I received from the crowds. They were even calling me ďAussie Ana.Ē That is definitely the best support Iíve ever had, and it made it feel like a home tournament for me.

Some tennis observers accused Kim Clijsters, who won 34 career singles titles but only one Grand Slam title, of being ďtoo niceĒ to be a champion. You are genial and often smiling. Are you ďtoo niceĒ to be a champion?

Definitely not. To be honest, this is a silly idea. When I am on the court, I want to win as much as anyone. I am extremely competitive. I am learning to be tougher on the court, but I donít think you have to be mean or a bad person in order to win. I think Iím a great fighter when Iím on the court, and Iíve won some tough matches almost with determination alone.

Please tell me the story of how you, as an enterprising little girl, got started in tennis.

I was watching Monica Seles playing in some tournament, and during the commercial they showed an advert for a tennis center. It looked like a lot of fun so I remembered the number and wrote it down, then begged my mom to take me there. After maybe one month of me pestering my mother, she took me for my first lesson and I loved it straightaway. A few weeks later, for my fifth birthday, my father gave me a tennis racket, and that was one of the happiest moments of my life.

What was life like for you, at age 11, and your family when NATO bombs were destroying buildings and killing Serbs near your home? Did that experience strengthen and mature you?

Yes, for sure, it made me stronger, and also more determined. All those experiences made me the person I am today. It also taught me to look on the bright side and try to always be positive. The bombing itself was a scary time, but actually it wasnít quite as scary as people might think, because my parents did a great job of protecting me and my brother Milos from it. On the first night of the bombing, we went to the cellar and it was terrifying. After that my parents said we would never go there again. Instead, we stayed at our house, and there were always many friends and relatives visiting. The house was always busy, because there was no school and no one was going to work. We came though it together.

What were you thinking when you had no alternative but to practice tennis inside the walls of an empty swimming pool, instead of on a tennis court?

I was just enjoying it. I didnít know any better, so I always loved going to the swimming pool to train. Actually I was lucky to be able to play there, even though, looking back, itís hard to imagine that we did that.

A turning point in your career came when you were 15 and met a Swiss businessman. Who is he, and what did he do?

His name is Dan Holzmann. Heís a great guy and one of my best friends. My mom and me, we went to Basel to meet him, and we got on very well. I needed some financial support, to travel to tournaments, and he agreed to pay my expenses. He did this for two or three years, until I was able to pay him back. Now he is the president of my management company. Itís more of a friend-friend relationship than player-manager. One of the things I enjoy most is when Dan and his wife Melanie are at tournaments and we all go out to dinner together. I am also good friends with his father Gregory, and I always enjoy seeing his kids.

Before the first day of the Australian Open, in your diary for USA Today, you wrote: ďI am quite an excitable person and I do dream about certain scenarios.Ē What scenario were you dreaming about then? And what scenarios are you dreaming about for 2008?

Iím not sure if I was dreaming about anything in particular, but for sure I dream about winning Grand Slams from time to time. Itís funny to think that I used to dream about it when I was a kid, and now I have the chance to achieve it. For 2008 my goal is to win a Grand Slam.

After the Australian Open semifinal, Daniela Hantuchova questioned your sportsmanship by accusing you of putting her off by squeaking your shoes before returning serves. You commented, ďI was disappointed to hear that. I thought we played a great match, and Iím a little hurt that she made those comments, which were completely untrue. I think this shows how difficult it is to be friends with other tennis players.Ē What did the other women on the tour think of this incident? Do you have friends on the tour?

I didnít talk to any other players about it, and no one said anything to me, so I canít tell you. I have some friends on the tour, for example, Svetlana Kuznetsova and Sanja Ancic, but they are not close friends. Itís hard to be close to other players when you have to compete against them. In tennis, everyone has her own team, and most players socialize with their team rather than with each other. This is true even for many doubles players.

Since some tour players actually have close friends on the tour, do you regret the fact that you do not?

No, I think itís just the way it is. Itís natural that when you are competing against players, you canít get too close to them.

After more than 5 million votes were cast in 2007, you ranked No. 73 on AskMen.comís ďTop 99 Most Desirable WomenĒ list among famous females deemed to be the yearís most alluring, not only for sex appeal and beauty, but also for intelligence, humor, charisma, and ambition. What is your reaction to that? And what is your ranking goal on this list for 2008?

I donít have any goals for a list like this. My goals are all to do with tennis and being on the court. But itís always very flattering to be included in something like this, and I know that it means people are watching my tennis, which is a reward for me.

You are known for your attractive and appealing smile. Last year you told The Telegraph (UK), ďI think smiling is a curve that can straighten out a lot of things.Ē What exactly did you mean by that?

I heard this phrase some years ago. It means that you should always stay positive, and not get too down about things.

Your website has as many photos of you modeling as playing tennis. How much modeling do you do now? And does a career in modeling interest you after tennis?

I donít do much modeling Ė maybe one photo shoot every six weeks or so. Last year I did maybe 10. Itís always fun to put on some beautiful clothes and work with professional stylists and make-up artists Ė I can learn some things from them that I can use in my personal life. It makes a nice change from playing tennis, especially because I am all day in my sports clothing, and I like to dress up from time to time. Itís important to keep a good balance, and of course tennis will always come first. I donít see myself being a full-time model, thatís for sure.

ďThe Serbs are not only great players, they all seem so bright and intelligent,Ē renowned TV tennis analyst Mary Carillo told the San Francisco Chronicle. ďTheir tennis is interesting because they are interesting. Theyíre dramatic, well-spoken, and they have a good concept of the sport.Ē What do you think of Carilloís comments?

Thatís also very nice to hear. We are all very positive people, and supporters like to see that. I think weíre very good ambassadors for Serbia. I have experienced some negative reactions just because I am Serbian. It was especially bad just after the war, when I was playing junior tournaments around the world. People would find out we were from Serbia and treat us with suspicion. I really hope that we tennis players can change some of those perceptions.

Are some of the girls on the Tour jealous of your success, your looks, or your fame?

Jealousy isnít an uncommon thing between women, and there is for sure some jealousy in tennis. There are players who arenít friendly at all Ė they donít even look at you or say ďhello,Ē but I donít know if itís because of jealousy, or just their personalities. One of the nicest things about the locker room is that players often congratulate each other on recent success. For example, if you havenít seen someone since you won some tournament, they will often say ďHey, well done in LuxembourgĒ or something like that. Kuznetsova is always very friendly, so is [Tatiana] Golovin.

What do you think of Novakís impersonations of other players, especially the serving ritual of Maria Sharapova? Would you like him to mimic you?

Novak is a funny guy. I enjoy watching him do those impersonations. Actually at the Australian Open I asked him to think of an impersonation of me, to see how good he really is!

When you played Maria Sharapova at Melbourne, the Australian Open ranked No. 1 for Open Era finals in terms of beautiful women. How important are beauty, fashion, glamour and sex appeal in womenís tennis?

Itís something extra that the fans enjoy. Fashion and what the players wear are always interesting, and it adds something else to the game. These days itís becoming more and more important, and if it helps the popularity of tennis, then I definitely support it. Personally, I enjoy wearing some new dresses and finding out what adidas has designed for me. My favorite dress so far is probably the classic white one with the pink stripe, that I wore last year at the start of the year. It was so comfortable and looked very feminine.

Serbia has never won the Fed Cup or even reached the final. But with you ranked No. 2 and Jelena No. 3, what do you think your chances are to win the Fed Cup during the next five years?

I would say we have quite a good chance, but donít forget we donít have much experience. To be honest, we played terribly in the last round, and if we play like that again, we will have no chance. Rankings arenít so important in Fed Cup because itís a totally different situation to a tournament. Itís the only time we play in a team situation, so there is a different sort of pressure.

Your mother is a lawyer and your father a consultant for a telecommunications company. Both are quite successful and highly educated. How are you pursuing your higher education?

Education is very important to me. I finished high school last year, and now I am studying finance at a private university called Singidunum-FEFA in Belgrade. They are very good to me, they allow me to study at my own pace and take exams when I can. I am sure I will be doing much more studying in the future, especially when I finish playing tennis.

You played a charity exhibition tiebreaker against Andre Agassi, as part of Steffi Grafís Children For Tomorrow foundation in Manheim, Germany, last October. Why have you called this one of the most memorable experiences in your career?

The main event was a mixed doubles match with Agassi and Graf playing [Goran] Ivanisevic and [Justine] Henin. I played Agassi after that. Agassi is one of the most exciting players ever. He was a hero for me when I was a kid, so it was a special experience to play against him. He was also a great guy, very friendly and kind.

Looking back at your young career, was Montreal - where you beat six top 30-ranked players, including Jankovic, Safina and Hingis in 2006 - your breakthrough tournament?

I actually didnít beat Jankovic there Ė she withdrew with an injury so I got a walkover. There were a few turning points in my career, and this was one of them. I played a great match in the final and beating a player like Hingis gave me a lot of confidence. Other important moments were winning back-to-back titles in Japan on the ITF circuit in 2004 Ė I had to qualify for both, so I won 16 matches in 15 days Ė and my match against Venus in Zurich that same year. Even though I lost 7-6, 7-6, it showed me that I could compete with the top players.

Youíve reached the French and Australian Open finals and the Wimbledon semis. What is your best surface? And are you capable of winning major titles on every surface?

I actually like all surfaces. I used to say hard courts, but I love playing on clay, and grass too can be a very good surface for me. Iím comfortable on all surfaces, so I think I have a good chance at all the Grand Slams.

You have said you are emotional. What - on and off the courts - makes you most emotional?

I cry quite a lot. Sometimes about stuff that isnít even that important, like a movie or a book. For example, I recently watched ďThe Deer HunterĒ and ďSliding DoorsĒ Ė two very different films, but I cried in both. On the court I am learning how to control my emotions better. I used to get angry with myself if I didnít play perfect tennis, but I am learning how to relax more, which has been important for my improvement. I do some yoga, and that helps with my relaxation and well-being.

How has Scott Byrnes, your strength and conditioning coaching since July 2006, when you were ranked No. 22, helped take your game to the next level?

Scott has introduced many interesting new things into my fitness regime. He has done a great job with my fitness, improving my speed and movement so much. He is also so, so good when it comes to recovery. His discipline is amazing, and without him, I would not have been able to play so many matches last year. We also have a great relationship Ė you have to when you spend that much time with someone.

Do you have a boyfriend?

No, I donít have a boyfriend. I would like one if it happens Ö itís not like Iím on the lookout or anything. But it would definitely be nice to find somebody.

Are you concerned, as Maria Sharapova said she is, that itís very possible a man might like you for your money and fame, and not for your other attributes?

Itís obviously a danger, but not just for me as a professional athlete Ė there is always a danger that someone likes you for the wrong reasons. For me these things arenít important, and it would not be too difficult to determine if someone was only interested in me for those things.

You changed rackets last December. Why did you do it? And how has it worked out?

Itís been a great change for me. I really love Yonex rackets. I had never played with any other racket before, except for Wilson rackets that I used since I was about seven. So when I had the opportunity to test some Yonex rackets, I was very excited. The testing involved the hiring of an independent racket technician, and Yonex sent three of their staff halfway across the world for it. It was a long process because I had to be totally sure I wanted to change. I was pleasantly surprised that the new RQiS-1TOUR adds something to my game. My backhand has already improved, because I can hit a heavier ball. Yonex takes great care of me and provides a great service, so I am grateful to them. (Client manager Gavin Versi wonít divulge the terms of the Yonex contract because he signed a confidentiality agreement, but reveals that ďif Ana were to become No.1 with the racket, it could be the biggest deal in the history of tennis.Ē)

What other endorsements do you have?

Adidas is my clothing sponsor. In Serbia I have a contract with Verano [the most lucrative endorsement ever for a Serbian athlete], who import Peugeot cars. Then there is Juice PLUS+, which is a company of my manager. I take Juice PLUS+ capsules every day. They help me stay healthy and free of illnesses.

Why did you become UNICEF National Ambassador to Serbia? And what are your responsibilities?

It was a great honor when they asked me. This isnít something I ever dreamed of, but when they approached me I was very flattered and actually quite emotional. The inauguration ceremony in Belgrade last September made me very emotional. I take a special interest in child-friendly schools and the ďSchools Without ViolenceĒ program. This means that I work on raising money, as well as awareness, about the dangers children face in schools. Itís important that we all do what we can to make sure that children are happy and safe in schools. This can be done by simply talking to them about their school life.

In your column you wrote, ďThe biggest gossips are the coaches and agents.Ē What did your coach, Sven Groenefeld, and your agent, Gavin Versi, think of that? And what do players gossip about?

Sven didnít say anything about it, but Gavin laughed! But itís true, he loves gossip as much as anyone, so he couldnít complain about me saying that. But, in general, women gossip more than men. In tennis, people gossip about all kinds of things Ė romance, fights, this sort of stuff.

Last year you scored 14 wins over top 10-ranked players - more than any player aside from Henin Ė and boasted a terrific 8-3 record against the season-ending top five players. Why have you been so successful against elite players?

I actually didnít know the exact numbers. Playing against the top players is a big motivation for me. They are great competitors, so I know that I have to be at my best to beat them. So I am very focused on my game, and very motivated.

To win major titles and rank No. 1, however, one usually has to beat the best player. Justine Henin has a 4-0 record against you, although you came close at Sydney in January when you had a 6-2, 2-6, 6-4 battle. What is the difference between Henin and you now? What do you have to do to beat her?

Henin is a great player. Sheís so tough to play against because she makes very few mistakes, which means that she puts you under a lot of pressure. In order to beat her Ė and I did this quite well in Sydney Ė I have to move forward more and try to end points at the net or in mid-court. I am really looking forward to our next match.

On the other hand, you dominate your rivalries with compatriot and world No. 3 Jelena Jankovic and No. 4 Svetlana Kuznetsova, holding 5-1 records against both of them. Why have you been so successful against them?

Actually, I think Iíve lost to Kuznetsova twice Ė both times in Australia. Again, I am always so motivated to play against the top players. My game matches up quite well against Jelenaís because I am an attacking player. Svetlana and I have had some great battles, and I have been fortunate to have won most of them.

In the 2007 French Open final against Henin, you were quite nervous and had trouble hitting the ball in the court. In the 2008 Australian Open final, you werenít nervous, but you appeared over-anxious to hit great shots every point. Do you think the next phase in your evolution is playing smarter and better percentage tennis?

I think I improved in this area quite a lot Ė my shot selection. But for sure it can continue to improve. I hit a terrible drop shot against Sharapova when I was ahead 5-4, 0-30 Ė that was poor shot selection. But my consistency has improved, so I think itís more about getting more experience and developing shots like my serve and volleys.

Tennis magazines around the world use photographs at each stage of your service motion in their instruction sections. For classic technique and smooth rhythm, I consider it the best in womenís tennis. Who deserves the credit for teaching it to you? And do you consider it, day in and day out, your best shot?

Thanks, thatís very nice to hear. Iím pleased that it looks good, but it still needs to improve. I need to become more consistent, so that it is a reliable weapon. I have been working on it quite a bit with Sven Groeneveld, but the person who deserves the credit for teaching me the serve is my first real coach, Dejan Vranes. He is probably the most important coach in my career. He coached me when I was a kid, and now he is the Serbian Fed Cup captain. I consider my forehand to be my best shot. Itís always been my favorite.

The sky-blue dress you wore at the Australian Open was one of the prettiest Iíve ever seen. Please tell me about it.

I like it a lot, too. I first wore it in Madrid. I was happy when I saw the designs. It was a coincidence that the color matched the color of the new [Plexicushion] courts [at the Australian Open] because dresses are designed over a year in advance, and the new court color was not known then. There are some more very pretty dresses to come in the next year or so, so Iím looking forward to wearing them.

When Maria Sharapova was asked what she did on an off day during the Australian Open fortnight, she replied, ďThe life of a tennis player is not all itís cracked up to be Ö itís just tennis, tennis and tennis again.Ē Do you agree with that?

Not exactly, but I understand what Maria means. For me, I like to do very little during an off day. I will have practice, maybe a quick lunch at the club, then go back to the hotel to relax. I will read, maybe surf the Internet, watch some DVDs, and in the evening I will have a nice dinner. I actually avoid tennis in these hours, although during the Australian Open I would usually watch tennis just before I went to bed. I was mainly watching menís tennis. I prefer to watch menís tennis because I think I can learn more from them.

You once said that your greatest goal is not to win a Grand Slam event or even be No. 1, but something else. What is it?

Well, actually my greatest goal is to be No.1. But I once said that I sometimes dream about playing the perfect match. I know itís impossible, and maybe thatís why Iíve dreamt about it. Iíve played some very good ones. For example, I beat [No. 3] Mauresmo [6-3, 7-5] in Sydney two years ago, the Montreal final [over Hingis 6-2, 6-3] in 2006, and the matches against [No. 2] Sharapova [6-2, 6-1] in the French Open [semis] and [Patty] Schnyder [6-0, 6-2] in Stuttgart last year. But Iíve not played the perfect match, and I probably never will.

What book has influenced you the most? And why?

Probably it is Warrior of the Light by Paulo Coelho. It had some interesting philosophical points that helped me for my mental preparation in tennis.

I learned you may be involved in the Eurovision song contest show in Belgrade in May. Is singing yet another talent you have?

No! Trust me, you definitely wouldnít want to hear me sing. I might be involved in the show in some way, but it definitely wonít be singing.

Youíve had some rather unusual autograph requests. Would you please tell me about the most unusual and weird ones.

There have been some funny ones. Last year a guy asked me to sign his boxer shorts. Another guy asked me to autograph his stomach. Then there was a guy at the U.S. Open who wanted me to sign his forehead. I agreed to the first request too, even though I was embarrassed to do it. But I couldnít sign a guyís forehead. I would have felt bad for him, walking around with a sign.

What is the best prank you ever played on your traveling team, or the best prank they ever played on you?

Unfortunately, the best prank I ever played has to remain a secret, because it would get someone into trouble. My fitness coach, Scott Byrnes, played a good one on me in Zurich last year. He had just bought a Swiss phone and texted me pretending to be someone who, letís say I didnít want to hear from, and saying that he was in town especially to see me. I freaked out a little bit, then I realized it was a joke.

Whatís the funniest thing that has happened to you on the pro tour?

It was probably in Zurich last year, during the tournament. Scott and I went to dinner with Sven, who was my coach for this tournament, and Mats, my hitting partner. Scott and I left while Sven and Mats were paying the bill. They thought we had gone straight back to the hotel, which by the way was in quite an isolated area. But we were actually hiding in a bush, and we jumped out with sticks in our hands. They screamed and freaked out so much. We were laughing about it all night.

Youíve had a highly interesting and unusual life so far. If you wrote an autobiography now, what would the title of it be? And why?

It would be My Story: From the Bottom of the Pool to the Top of Tennis. All the experiences I went through as a kid made me the person, and also the player, I am today, so the title should refer to the past as well as the present. Another title could be, How to Become a Tennis Champion and Still Have Fun, because having fun is very important to me.

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