Concrete Elbow by Steve Tignor - That Word Again
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That Word Again 09/01/2010 - 4:06 PM

Ai It wasn’t quite 11 A.M. in Ashe Stadium, but the seats were already burning, the Blackberries were blazing, and the few tentative spectators scattered around the stands appeared to be cowering in their seats, frightened of what the air might do to them. Whoever was programming the music over the loudspeakers did his best to make it all seem like fun by pumping out the Beatles’ cheerful “Good Day Sunshine.” Nobody was buying it.

Ten minutes later, Ana Ivanovic and Zheng Jie were almost done with their warm-up; the chair umpire had called “2 minutes.” It seemed that the only witnesses to their match would be the beefy, yellow-shirted bodyguards who ringed the court. But the U.S. Open has to start sometime, especially when it’s this hot and getting hotter. I had the feeling, though, that this under-the-radar A.M. time slot might be just the thing for Ivanovic, who has famously struggled with scrutiny and expectations—along with serves, forehands, ankles, backhands, and pretty much everything else involved with the sport of tennis—over the last year.

I guess I was right, because Ivanovic demolished Zheng 3 and 0 in 56 minutes to advance to the third round. The old-fashioned term “overmatched” was the only way to describe it. Ivanovic was on top of Zheng’s serve and in control of virtually every rally from the first ball.

“I feel like I’m playing like a Top 10 player,” Ivanovic said afterward. “I have confidence that I can beat these players. That’s huge for me.”

There’s that word again: Confidence. Or con-fee-dense, as Ivanovic says it. And she says it a lot. When she was asked today about how she dealt with the heat, I half-expected Ivanovic to chalk it up to having the confidence to stay on your feet out there, the confidence to stay hydrated. But there’s a reason she emphasizes it. She knows that it’s the only real explanation for her long nosedive in the rankings (the former No. 1 is 40th now). As today's match showed, while there may have been moments in the last couple of years when the Serbian Ana appeared to be following the career trajectory of the Russian Anna, there's no question that Ivanovic is more physically and athletically gifted than all but a few of her WTA peers. Zheng is a quality opponent, and she could  barely stay on the court with her.

Ivanvovic is not alone in her obsession with confidence. For a tennis player, it's an infuriatingly elusive state of mind that’s liable to appear and disappear, swell and recede, rise and fall, 20 different times over the course of one match. Even a match like today’s. Judging from its score line, you might think Ivanovic is back to her old form, and that she suffered no lapses in confidence. But you’d be wrong. It was when she went up 5-1 in the first, when she seemingly had everything under control, that she threw up her first wayward ball toss. The yips are a sickness that can flare up exactly when you least expect it.

“I worked a lot on [my toss],” Ivanovic said. “but there are some bad tosses, like everyone else. I hope I’m not as famous for them anymore. But yeah, I do feel a lot more confident (that word again). Just playing lots of matches, it does help get your confidence up."

I was a little stunned to hear Ivanovic use the term “Catch-22” today—I thought her literary choices ran toward the Dalai Llama, not a war novel by Joseph Heller. While she didn’t use it quite correctly, the term certainly applies when it comes to tennis and confidence. Like a job application that demands that every prospective employee already have three years of experience doing that job, you can’t build confidence unless you play tournament matches, but you can’t play a whole lot of tournament matches unless you have the confidence to win them. Since Ivanovic was “all the time losing, losing,” as she put it, she never had a chance to try her toss out in pressure situations. Now, after a couple of successful events this summer, she’s had that chance. The result today was a qualified success. Ivanovic seems to have the right attitude about it. She seems satisfied not to seek perfection with her serve, but  to manage the problem as well as she can. She still has a strange little hitch in her delivery—she can’t seem to bend her left leg naturally when she tosses the ball. That may prove to be a factor if she does face a few more pressurized moments later in the tournament. But she seems to have learned to live with it, which is all you can do.

How far along the long road back is Ivanovic? There were things to like and not like today. “Moving forward” is a mantra that has been cropping up in her pressers, and she clearly wanted to do that today. Not all the way to the net, necessarily, but starting with her service return, Ivanovic tried to take as many balls as she could inside the baseline. She pressed the issue with virtually every shot. It’s less a tactic than an outlook: Like Darren Cahill has said, it can help just to keep the thought of moving forward in your head as you play, even if you don’t fully act on it very often.

While Ivanovic won easily, she was still hit and miss. Two crisp winners were routinely followed by two unforced errors. Apparently she felt there was no time to shift down a gear or try to construct a point. Which was fine today—never change a winning game, as they say. At the same time, it was hard to get a gauge on how Ivanovic might do if she has to hit more than four or five balls at a time. She said she couldn’t practice for 10 days after her ankle injury in Cincy, so you don't know how her long-term consistency will be affected.

Still, Ivanovic beat a seed and is through two rounds at the U.S. Open, cause for minor celebration all around the WTA. She plays Virginie Razzano next; they’ve split two three-setters, with Ivanovic winning their last meeting, in 2008. It’s a one-day-at-time tournament for her at this point, but the best news may be that Ivanovic says she’s happy to finally be able to take what she’s been doing in practice and put it in play during matches. That may sound like a simple concept, but implementing it is anything but.

Besides her improved serve, Ivanovic showed off one other trick that I'd forgtten about: A slightly delayed body turn and uppercut fist pump that she does with her left hand—it seemed more pronounced and thought-out than ever today. While I wonder about the value of a fist-pump in the first game of a match—doesn’t it take you out of your normal rhythm and make you too tense too early?—I enjoyed seeing Ivanovic getting a chance to indulge in it. The move may seem forced, it may be counterproductive, but it’s good to know that Ivanovic is still con-fee-dent enough to look a little silly letting it fly.


Posted by Foot Fault 09/01/2010 at 04:38 PM

I find Ana Ivanovic very endearing. I think her image is more glamorous than the person beneath. Her fist pump (with the thumb sometimes wrapped in her fingers) is childlike and kind of funny compared to, say, Serena or Maria. I've never seen anyone who cried easier than she does.

But I also remember her ascent in the rankings, and what a powerful forehand she possesses. She's complicated. I hope you continue to write about the complicated players from time to time. You capture her very well here.

Posted by Marko from Belgrade 09/01/2010 at 05:03 PM

Nice text about our lovely Ana. I am from Belgrade, Serbia Ana's hometown. Regarding author's comment about Catch-22, I would like to say that this is not a surprise since that book is very popular here. In general, you can hear many bad connotations about Serbia society in media, but before wars we use to live pro-Western, modern life style. Literacy, culture and arts are not unknown to us. Unfortunately many people are struggling to survive now, so it's not unusual to meet doctor of philosophy who earns his money as a cab driver.
Maybe you've heard Ana's story about playing tennis in an abandoned swimming pool as a kid. Well I used to swim in that pool. I still remember the day I came and found the swimming pool empty because the roof construction started to collapse. If they didn't convert it to tennis court, maybe Ana would choose another path. We are all glad she didn't, and hope to see her in dozens of finals in the future.

Posted by Milan Vidmar 09/01/2010 at 05:25 PM

KAKVI NE SMEMO DA BUDEMO! Posted by Marko from Belgrade "Literacy, culture and arts are not unknown to us. Unfortunately many people are struggling to survive now, so it's not unusual to meet doctor of philosophy who earns his money as a cab driver."
Ovo je primer kakvi ne treba da budemo! Kome se Marko udvara!!!???
"war novel by Joseph Heller"...that book is very popular here.

Posted by Libby 09/01/2010 at 06:29 PM

Ivanovic seems like a nice person and I've felt sorry for her and her struggles, but great balls of fire that lame ass fist pump has GOT to go.

Posted by fedfan 09/01/2010 at 06:49 PM

Very nice post. Let's hope that Ana's and Serbia's trajectories are upward from here on out.

Posted by denise 09/01/2010 at 08:08 PM

it is a lame fist pump, no doubt.
and yes, it is weird to see it on the 2nd point of the match, but Rafa's 2-5, 15-40 down fist pumps aren't much better.
Maria's are def. annoying too.

I guess Roger's and Serena's are the best. they don't do it on EVERY SINGLE point.

Posted by Curtis 09/01/2010 at 08:42 PM

People who constantly complain about fist pumps are the annoying ones. Get a life, people.

Posted by sigmund 09/01/2010 at 09:55 PM

Steve, you turned the Dalai Lama into a "Llama", the animal. Just pointing it out.

Thanks for the article on Ana. I also agree that she's an intruiging, complicated character. So sensitive, and yet so positive, competitive, and with a great game to watch when she's at her best. Her game is special to watch when she's on. She also has a good demeanor on and off court.

And I also agree people have to stop complaining about fist pumps. That's what players do to encourage themselves, and some just does it cooler than others, and I believe it's kind of a competitor's reflex to pump their fist when they win a point. I don't think for one moment it's ever done intentionally to annoy the opponent, which Jankovic for example likes to think. I will never forgive JJ for her unclassy on-court imitation of Ana.

I like Ana Ivanovic and Maria Sharapova not because they're beautiful women (that too), because despite the reputation they've gained for their looks, they have maintained a very professional attitude and seem like decent and hard-working human beings. People might be surprised that Ana and Maria are actually the same age. Both at 22, it would be nice if they develop a good rivalry in the coming years. I wish both of them luck at this US Open.

Posted by Terry 09/01/2010 at 11:35 PM

This is a senseless article.

Posted by deuceThe3rd 09/02/2010 at 01:31 AM

I think the tournament director for Montreal should get credit for Ana's turnaround. It started with the whole kerfuffle about why she wasn't given a wildcard there. He said what me and many others were thinking. 'she just isn't that good any more.'

It was a wake up call and I am glad she has proved people wrong in that assessment.

Posted by Azhdaja 09/02/2010 at 03:10 AM

This was more a good try to make a good article than a good article, Steve. Well, I do not blame you because at this moment no one knows where Ana is going to. She is coming back for sure, but no one knows how close back she is??

SO, you took on a very difficult subject to analyse and that's a good for you. You had a lot of self "confeedense" thanks to that. That was a challenging subject to wrestle with.

My opinion is: young, wealthy, beautiful, famous and adored were the enemies that Ana Ivanovic had to fight over last two years. There is a champion in her no doubt. So, now where the champion will return depends on how much she conquered those 5 enemies in her?? As she said in her interview that she is different person now (than 2 years ago coming to USO), this might indicate that the champion is winning that battle.

I am pretty much certain that she didn't realise what she actually won and did once she got on top of the WTA and won RG title two years ago. Once she realised what she achieved, she got intellectual drunkness, and the hagnover lasted for 2 years.

Apparently the hangover is over now as she looked and acted 100% sober in term of her tennis game on court, but to cure the damage out 100%, it might take a little more to get back on track where she was before the "drunkness". So, in this USO she might go as deep, yet I wouldn't put her on a titlist. Maybe following AO could be the place where tehre will be full return of a champion.

in any case it was nice to see Ana delivering aggressive play again. Good for her.


Posted by Mestengo 09/02/2010 at 03:46 AM

Maria used to use the same goofy fist. So is it a copy or just another girl that's never thrown a real punch in her life and does not know she would break her thumb if she did?

Posted by petewho 09/02/2010 at 04:58 AM

Anna's game went downhill after Tobascco spiced it up.

Posted by Fern 09/02/2010 at 09:40 AM

Ana always seemed a gracious, good natured girl, with an exciting, powerful game. I'm surprised by all the grumbles about her fist pumps - so what?! She became world no.1 perhaps too young and too fast (with Justine's sudden retirement); players need time to adapt to being the top player with all the extra pressure that entails and then becoming the hunted, not the hunter. I think players are written off far too quickly when they have a slump - be it through injuries, personal life, whatever. I'm pleased that Ana's doing well again, would love to see her go deep at USO.

Posted by Debra 09/02/2010 at 10:04 AM

Get a life Steve. I was at the match and Ana is a true competitor. She was a puppy when she won her first major and acted as any 18 year-old would act. Good for her. Give her a break. This article was nothing more than an attempt to gain attention to yourself. By the way, when was your last win? What does your fist pump look like? Who the hell are you? Oh yeah, your a LOSER.

Posted by Roddick fan from Virginia 09/02/2010 at 11:10 AM

Hope Ana wins her next match and faces Kimmie. Kim should win that match, but you never know.

Posted by Geellis 09/02/2010 at 11:16 AM

wow, rather strong feelings. I don't think in all the time I've been reading Steve's blog I've seen someone react so personally to him. I'm fairly sure he has a life and, to the point, you should get a life. He's writing about things that interest many of us fans and, if you don't like it or find his article interesting, you know what you can do. Vote with your feet and don't come back. Just saying.

Posted by petewho 09/02/2010 at 11:21 AM

That was uncalled for Debra , Steve is very fair judge of character and Annas exploits off court had drawn her considerably slack when it comes to her on court results.

Posted by catq 09/02/2010 at 12:23 PM

Geellis and petewho, way to go. Steve, keep writing! Ana, keep working on it, girl!

Posted by dragOn 09/02/2010 at 02:48 PM

@Milan Vidmar

Milan please write on English (it's "easier" then "SRPSKI"), YOU ARE 100% RIGHT (i have same thoughts reading Milan post)...

Posted by Laura 09/02/2010 at 05:48 PM

actually, I think that when someone writes a blog, an article and so on... It is good to have pros and contras, positive opinions and negative opinions about the article itself, not about the person mentioned there or the person who wrote it... But all kinds of evaluations help you mature as a writer. Maybe Debra just used too harsh words...

Posted by Laura 09/02/2010 at 05:52 PM

Just another thing to inform, the only thing that leaded to this slump of Ana are injuries, pressure! (first innate pressure, then ofc the outside - journalists, fans, critics, WTA itself) and wrong guiding by coaches... Not the off court activities. If any of you here thing of photos, just forget it, in the last couple of years she had a very small no. of sessions, most of them she had in 2007! (yes, 2007, she was what? playing well then? oh my, how surprising) and 2008. She never stopped working hard, ok, maybe a little by the end of 2009 because she was mentally drained of tapping in the same place or even worse sliding back all the time.

Posted by parker 09/03/2010 at 12:41 AM

I saw Ana defeated at the Australian Open by Dulko; the only thing more annoying than her constant complaints about line calls was the pack of teenage horndogs cheering her every move.

Posted by SexyCommenter 09/03/2010 at 11:38 AM

Aussie Ana is very much like Andy Roddick. Any player with the last name containing the word IC is not a serious grand slam contender anymore. Here is the list: Ana Ivanovic, Jelena Jankovic, Novak Djokovic, Andy RoddICk, Ivan Ljubicic, Mario Ancic, Marin Cilic, Janko Tipsarevic, Ivo Karlovic and Amer Delic. Why? Because IC stands for nsignifiCant (player). Logical?

Posted by Uncle Toni taps Rafa's @$$ 09/03/2010 at 11:50 AM

Good Article Steve. I think that the issue of Confeedenz would get resolved if she just got it over with: pose for playboy. Everyone wins. She gets cash and Confeedenz, legions of male fans and maybe starts winning more matches. Unlike Harkleroad, she has game, but as some post in the comments, she's still immature and too much of a shy little girl that needs to assert herself.

I really liked the analysis in the article. An in-depth look at Maria Sharapova is also warranted as I think there is a lot more to her than people think. Is she really a "gritty fighter" that shows her competitive spirit? or is she really bitchy as I suspect she is?

Good work Steve!

Posted by Ivana 09/03/2010 at 06:57 PM

@SexyCommenter What a pathetic comment... I wish your daughters married the guys with last names with IC.

Posted by Azhdaja 09/04/2010 at 01:26 AM

SexyCommenter: Because IC stands for nsignifiCant (player). Logical?

ahahaha...LOL...must be. All those you listed must be insignificant??! lol
what a logic!?? go home and learn something about tennis.

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