Sony Ericsson WTA Tour CEO Stacey Allaster must be breathing a sigh of relief after hearing the news that Ana Ivanovic won her first title in two years yesterday defeating Patty Schynder 6-1, 6-2 in Linz. Ivanovic, who will now rise to No. 26 in the rankings, has been quietly playing out of the more intriguing storylines of the 2010 season where every tournament she’s played at has earned her both praise and scorn, not only just for her own game, but for the entire WTA Tour itself as if Ivanovic was the poster child for everything wrong with the women’s game. Although Ivanovic’s many fans are in sheer heaven, they will be the first to tell you that a long road remains ahead if the uber-popular Serb has a chance to contend again for Grand Slam titles. But the fact remains, no matter what the state of Ivanovic’s game is, her presence is not only welcomed, but absolutely essential.
Despite starting 2010 with a semifinal run in Brisbane, Ivanovic’s game and ranking still suffered from a sub-par 2009 season. No one can forget her early round loss in Melbourne to Gisela Dulko where Ivanovic’s service toss betrayed her almost every time she stepped up to the line forcing the Serb to bury her face underneath her visor as if to protect herself from the misery that she sensed waited for her if she lost. But it was only the beginning of Ivanovic’s troubles. After fellow Serbian Federation Cup teammate Jelena Jankovic publicly chastised Ivanovic’s poor performance in their tie versus Russia, another early loss in Indian Wells caused Ivanovic’s ranking to plummet into the low 50’s and soon enough Ivanovic earned comparisons with Dinara Safina who was starting her own slide in the rankings. Ivanovic then faced criticism for her racy Sports Illustrated swimsuit photos that appeared almost with cruel synchronicity at the same time her ranking dropped causing many to say Ivanovic should spend less time earning cash as a swimsuit model and more time on the practice courts. The former No. 1 and French Open champion had gone from being hailed as the future of the WTA to a cautionary tale for younger pros.
Even when Ivanovic hired Heinz Gunthardt, Steffi Graf’s former coach, to sort out her service toss and her shaky confidence, many were skeptical if even Gunthardt could figure out the Ivanovic mind. Despite a nice semifinal run in Rome, early round losses in Paris and at Wimbledon seemed to confirm for many that it was too late to turn around the Serbian’s game. Still her faithful fans continued to believe that it was only a matter of time that Ivanovic would figure it all out. But it wasn’t just her fans that hoped for a “Serbian miracle”. When the summer hardcourt season started, the absence of Serena and Venus Williams, Justine Henin plus the limited playing schedule of Kim Clijsters, only magnified Ivanovic’s popularity with fans, and more importantly, her ability to sell tickets for smaller events lacking in big names. When Ivanovic beat Victoria Azarenka in the first round of Cincinnati on her way to the semis, the support she received from local fans in America’s heartland only confirmed Ivanovic’s “one-name” status, even if her ranking was well south of where it should be. Even though Ivanovic ended her summer with a fourth round loss to Clijsters in New York, the feeling of panic for Ivanovic’s fate shifted to one of hopeful optimism.
With her title run in Linz, an event she didn’t plan to play in but did so after Serena Williams pulled out of, once again proving the Serb’s star status, Ivanovic now finds herself back in the top 30 where she started the year and will most likely be seeded somewhere around there for the 2011 Australian Open. For her diehard fanbase, her win is a celebration for those who kept the faith that the likable 23-year-old would return to her former glory. For the WTA, it’s a welcome sign that one of their most popular and bankable stars is once again showing promise of going deep in major events. But for Ivanovic to rise into the top 20 or even the top 10, she will have to start beating the big names at the big events and that’s something, despite some good results, she’s yet to prove on a consistent basis.
One thing is for sure. tennis needs Ana Ivanovic. She is one of the few stars in the game, for both the men and women, who casual sports fans know of and are willing to tune in to watch on television or pay money to watch live in person. It’s hard to say if she will match the heights of Maria Sharapova or Serena Williams in terms of balancing on-court success and off-court marketing deals, but the amount of attention placed on Ivanovic all year, both positive and negative, proves her value is much higher than her current ranking.