The new AI   

Updated: January 24, 2008, 5:28 PM ET

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This is a different type of beauty from the one that first introduced us to the initials. The face, the frame, the flawlessness. Oh, his has those too. But hers is different. Almost the "anti" of what we've grown used to. Who would've thought it would be someone like Ana Ivanovic to carry on the legacy of sports' most notorious initials.

It took wins over Venus Williams and Daniela Hantuchova to get her to the finals of the Australian Open. She'd been close to this place of reverence before, reaching the French Open final and the Wimbledon semifinals last year, but nothing like what she's about to seize now. Even if she doesn't beat Maria Sharapova -- based on Sharapova's dominance in the tournament so far, Sharapova will likely win -- the "other" AI is finally playing the game like she's out for fame.

And fame is about to finally find -- and fall in love with -- the 20-year-old Serbian.

The potential, the personality, the total package: the left-hand fist pumps after winning big points, the subtly sexy adidas outfits, the hair, the smile that never seems to leave her, the execution of fundamentals on the court, the rise in rankings from below 15 to top five in less than two years, the "complete player" tag Darren Cahill placed on her after the Williams win, the extra work in the offseason, the month she's spent in Australia preparing for this moment. The only thing missing in Ana Ivanovic becoming "next" is …

Ana Ivanovic

AP Photo/Dita Alangkara

Ivanovic seeks her first Grand Slam title, playing Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final.

Nothing can explain how a girl from Serbia can become a threat to everything the tennis world has tried to sell us on Sharapova. Nothing except the fact that Serbia has slowly become the tennis equivalent to Russia in boxing. But Ivanovic (unlike the other Serb superstars who are invading tennis -- Novak Djokovic, Jelena Jankovic and now Janko Tipsarevic -- has found a way to transcend the game and still make other players on the circuit begin to fear her. Thus the comparison to Iverson, where "the culture" of the sport will exist through her, where she becomes the idol and hero to kids, where the world may love and hate her at the same time. The new AI is on the verge of becoming something we've never seen in women's tennis before: Gabriela Sabatini's beauty married to Steffi Graf's game.

Right now -- even with a loss to Sharapova in what Patrick McEnroe called "a photographer's dream" final -- Ana Ivanovic is giving the world nothing to hate. She is coming into her own as a tennis player and living in Switzerland (maybe trying to pick up on whatever Roger Federer got from being born there). She's a superstar waiting to happen, the dream girl who's been waiting for her close-up. After her performance this week, the camera is pointed at her face, shutter ready to close.

She picked up a racket at the age of 5 after watching Monica Seles on television. Thank you, Monica. And because of that moment, the last 15 years have been an exercise in perfecting a craft in a world that is infatuated only with your shell. And in order to carry the "AI" acronym, she'll have to do so much more than be beautiful. Her heart has to believe that she's the best, then her game has to follow.

In Melbourne there are yellow "Love It!" signs that have become the new fad in the stands of Rod Laver Arena. In the next three Grand Slams, a lot of those signs are about to read "Love Her!"

Scoop Jackson is a columnist for Page 2.


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