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Wednesday, October 29, 2008
Welcome back, Ana

The day before Ana Ivanovic lost her second-round match at the U.S. Open, her part-time coach, Sven Groeneveld, wasn't particularly hopeful about his pupil's chances in Flushing. Ivanovic had missed most of the summer, including the Olympic Games in Beijing, because of a wrist injury. When she did play, she didn't do it well.

It wasn't just her wrist, or a lack of matches, that held her back, though. When Ivanovic won the French Open in June and took over the No. 1 ranking, she suddenly had very high expectations to meet. In Groeneveld's opinion, the pressure came too soon for the 20-year-old Ivanovic. If Justine Henin had not retired, he pointed out, few would have picked Ivanovic to win a major title this year, and especially not the French Open, which Henin had dominated for three straight years. No one would have looked to Ivanovic to dominate the tour.

"She will need a little bit more time," Groeneveld said. "She's on her way to developing into a great champion."

Ivanovic struggled mightily after the U.S. Open, too, losing early-round matches to Nadia Petrova, Zheng Jie and Dominika Cibulkova. But in Linz, Austria, last week, far away from all the attention she received in New York, Ivanovic found her game. In four matches, she dropped one set (to the relentless Agnieszka Radwanska) on her way to the title.

The fall tennis season is much-maligned, and for good reason: Players are usually banged up this time of year, and the tournaments lack prestige compared to the majors. For someone like Ivanovic, though, the fall season can provide an escape from the spotlight and a chance to rebuild both strokes and confidence. This can pay dividends -- just ask Amelie Mauresmo. In the fall of 2005, a struggling Mauresmo lost two consecutive first-round matches in Moscow and Zurich, the latter by the score of 6-2, 6-0 to Katarina Srebotnik. A few weeks later, she won a small tournament in Philadelphia and then won the season-ending championships. Mauresmo knew her best days were ahead of her.

"I was feeling very strong in my game, and my confidence was very high," Mauresmo said in an interview earlier this year. "Definitely, I was feeling like a dominant player."

Mauresmo won the Australian Open, her first major title, in early 2006 and followed it up with a victory at Wimbledon (she also regained the No. 1 ranking). Without those titles in late 2005, she said, she wouldn't have been ready for such success.

Mauresmo was a late bloomer, not uncommon for a crafty player who often charges the net and wins points with tactics rather than an onslaught of bludgeoned balls. Ivanovic doesn't have Mauresmo's quickness or agility, but she, too, is more tactician than basher. As Groeneveld said, Ivanovic -- who will celebrate her 21st birthday next week -- needs time to mature, both physically (she's much more fit than she once was) and mentally. She isn't going to win slugfests. She isn't going to win with speed and defense. Variety is her best weapon, but it's a weapon that takes years to master. If Linz is any indication, Ivanovic is once again moving in the right direction.