The Unexpected Return.

Ana Ivanovic won a tennis match at a Grand Slam. Serena Williams lost a tennis match at a Grand Slam.

While both being statements of fact, the second one continues to be met with a certain amount of disbelief. Williams is considered unbeatable. So when she does lose, especially at a major, it is treated as something of an impossible cosmic event. Like the appearance of baby lambs raining down from the sky. (That’s the first improbable image that popped into my head, you choose your own.)

But as Ivanovic correctly pointed out after defeating Williams 4-6 6-3 6-3, the World No. 1 is a human being. Human beings get injured and that is apparently what happened to Williams earlier in the week. Suffering from a back issue, Williams did not look or play at 100% in her fourth round match versus the Serbian. Yet Williams did not use that as an excuse for the loss as she gave full credit to Ivanovic who simply played, for many, the best match of her career.

What probably is adding to the overall surprise being expressed by Ivanovic’s win is the sheer unexpectedness of it. Ivanovic had never beaten Williams or taken a set off of the American before Sunday. Yet that didn’t seem to matter as Ivanovic blistered forehand winner after forehand winner while treating Williams’ serve, lauded as the best in the women’s game, with little respect. Time after time Ivanovic, ripped return winners with ease, like it was no big deal.

Before the Australian Open started, Ivanovic was rarely mentioned as a possible contender for the title. And there’s good reason for that. After winning the French Open in what now seems an eternity ago back in 2008, the former No. 1 has remained a bystander at subsequent majors. Her only other quarterfinal appearance at a major since that run in Paris was a last eight showing in 2012 at Flushing Meadows. Despite being a fixture in the top 20 for some time now, the ongoing saga of trying to “fix” Ivanovic continued to be one of the WTA’s tour biggest sub plots.

The likable Serbian employed a revolving retinue of top coaches, high profile experts and gurus over the last several years to help get her back to the form that took her to No.1. Those combined efforts added up to some extremely mixed results. Especially with regards to Ivanovic’s now infamous service toss that often makes watchers cringe when she tries to reach out to strike it.

So what’s changed so suddenly that now has Ivanovic riding a nine match win streak that includes claiming the Auckland title earlier this month? Probably the biggest is her now working with a not famous, yet effective team that includes coach Nemanja Kontic. Ivanovic says that she is able to express her thoughts with Kontic off-court in a more direct manner than she had with previous ones. And there’s also that Ivanovic, now age 26, is feeling more comfortable with herself and looking to take charge of her career. The angst that often seemed to follow Ivanovic at trying to live up to her early glory appears gone too.

Suddenly, Ivanovic finds herself now being talked about as a major title contender again. If she does make it to the finals is still up in the air. What’s also unclear is if this current form will repeat itself in other majors this year. Not only will Ivanovic hope so but likely the WTA itself. Ivanovic has long been a marquee name on the women’s tour, yet unable to live up to her billing on the biggest stages. To have Ivanovic back in the mix again will only help revive interest in a tour that some feel had become too predictable with Williams’ recent dominance.

Some will continue to argue that Williams was not at her best and that’s why Ivanovic won. But the reality is that Ivanovic closed out the match on her terms. That alone may be the most impressive aspect of Ivanovic’s win aside from her blazing forehand and return winners on the day. Williams, who stressed she will use the loss to only get better, will be back for sure. But yesterday was all about the return of Ana Ivanovic. Not only the shot itself, but also the woman whose unexpected victory is the best thing to happen for her and the women’s game so far this season.

And that, is also a statement of fact.


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