Ana Ivanovic retires: From war-torn Belgrade to tennis elite, former World No 1 was a fighter

There will be a little less sunshine on the WTA Tour in 2017. Former World No 1 and French Open Champion, Ana Ivanovic, has decided to hang her racquets at just 29. The announcement came nearly as abruptly as she broke through the ceiling as a fresh-faced teenager. Ana Ivanovic’s rise from war-torn Belgrade to the main streets of tennis has been an impressive journey of resilience under trying circumstances.

The Serbian has produced scintillating tennis throughout her career, but her form would undulate between extremes – at times soaring high enough to tame the best and at others, to plumbing depths. Ana Ivanovic put her fans through a roller coaster – treating them to experiences ranging from ecstatic to numb.

 Ana Ivanovic retires: From war-torn Belgrade to tennis elite, former World No 1 was a fighter

Ana Ivanovic with her French Open trophy. Reuters

Her arrival on the scene, with an early victory at the Canberra International in 2005 followed by a reaffirming run the next season, pointed to a career of significant substance. Ivanovic’s victory over then No 1 Martina Hingis to win the Rogers Cup and the ensuing US Open Series in 2006 were resounding signs of her immense potential as a teenage tennis star.

Young and fearless, Ana threatened to take over the sport with her aggressive brand of power tennis. She had a solid serve, a lethal forehand and the legs of a runner. As a combination, the three tools helped Ivanovic run riot in the early stages of her career. She nearly kept up her end of the deal by reaching a maiden Grand Slam final in 2007, before going on to win her first and only major at the French Open in 2008. It was a grand statement of intent from a young and upcoming star.

It is also important not note that she was able to get over two big losses on her way to a maiden Grand Slam title – the first to Justine Henin in Paris 2007 and another at the hands of Maria Sharapova in Melbourne the next year.

The Serbian won a thriller against her compatriot Jelena Jankovic, coming back from a set down to reach the finals, before sailing past Dinara Safina 6-4 6-3 for a famously triumphant run in Paris. But her fortunes took a perilous nosedive from there, leaving the Serbian to pick up the pieces for nearly the rest of her career.

After a disappointing exit in the third round of Wimbledon that year, Ana Ivanovic suffered an inflammation of the carpometacarpal joint (thumb) which derailed her not just from the No 1 spot but also her progress as a tennis player.

The journey from there is a story of battles with injury, loss of form, and wavering confidence. Ana found it hard to grind and thrive on the tour during 2009, when barring a run to the finals of Indian Wells, Ivanovic could barely win two matches in a row. The experience seemed to scar Ivanovic deeply. She suffered from an enduring loss of confidence, which affected her ball toss among other things, robbing her of one of her most potent weapons, the serve.

Ana changed coaches nearly as frequently as clothes, but her enemy was closer home – the mind. It was best exemplified by a horrifying loss to Kim Clijsters in Miami in 2011. Ana was up 5-1, 0-40 (on the Belgian’s serve) in the third set, before finding an inexplicable path to a scarring defeat.

Once committed to nothing but tennis, life robbed the steel in Ivanovic’s mind. The loss to Alize Cornet in Cincinnati, 2013 – where she wasted five match points must have hurt. But what followed at the Tournament of Champions that year was even more damaging to her psyche.

Ana lost an opportunity to top her group, when she conceded defeat from 5-2 in the third set to Elena Vesnina, despite serving twice for the match. In the semifinal that followed, Ana lost to Simona Halep from 3-0 (with two breaks) in the final set.

But as much as Ivanovic was brittle in the mind, she was never lacking determination. Stung by those defeats, Ivanovic worked doubly hard during the holidays to reinvent herself on the court. The results were immediate.

The Serbian enjoyed a rousing resurgence in 2014 – taking a three set victory over Venus Williams for the Auckland title, before beating Serena Williams for the first time in her career to reach the quarters in Melbourne. She rode her success all the way into the top five again, with her last real run at glory. Ivanovic won four titles that season, the most in her career in a single season.

Since then, Ivanovic has stumbled around a bit, and even though she did reach the semifinals in Paris again in 2015, there was never enough consistency to push her back into reckoning. By the end of 2016, she had dropped to 63rd in the world, courtesy a first round exit at the US Open.

It would have taken another massive fightback from the Serbian to work her way back into the elite. That seemed just the thing on her mind. Less than two weeks ago, Ivanovic had shared an image of her bag and racquet, with a cryptic “Back in the office” message. It did not seem then that retirement was round the corner.

In hindsight though, it was a stark image that spoke volumes about the grind needed to be a professional athlete. It was also an image that reminded us that sport at the top can be a lonely pursuit.

Ivanovic knew she faced a tough climb up the hill. It would have taken an enormous effort and more sacrifices to scale back over the fences. Just as she got under the sun to train, something seems to have ticked off in her young mind.

A happy marriage to Bastian Schweinsteiger and an imminent move to the United States, where the German footballer is likely to go for Major League Soccer, may have also weighed in on the decision of Ivanovic.

As the Serbian departs into the sunset, the enduring memories of Ana Ivanovic will be those from her formative years as a professional. The young girl grew up in Belgrade, waking and training to music of NATO bombardment, practicing her craft on an abandoned swimming pool in her war torn state.

She was battle hardened and brought with her useful weapons, but constant media attention and an untimely thumb injury were enough to derail her journey.

The Grand Slam title and World No 1 ranking seemed to satiate the young woman’s hunger, helping her experience a sudden release. All the years of hard work bore fruition in Paris and Ivanovic was never quite the same athlete after that.

A career in the media, fashion and management await the Serbian star as she calls time on professional tennis. As shocked as her fans might be at her sudden decision, the message is loud and clear – nothing but the best does it for Ivanovic.

Updated Date: Dec 29, 2016 17:47:43 IST