Ivanovic hoping respite is the answer
Ana Ivanovic is on vacation in an undisclosed sunny locale, which is what she's been saying she needs for a while now, and exactly where her fans should want her to be.
The former No. 1 shut things down a couple of weeks ago, withdrawing from the China Open with a respiratory infection and foregoing any more play in 2009. Most players are content with revealing a minimum amount of information on such occasions, but not Ivanovic, who wrote an earnest, blunt confessional to her fans that also was e-mailed to journalists.
"I guess having to withdraw from Beijing is an appropriate ending to a very disappointing season,'' Ivanovic began. She was No. 11 at the time and has since slipped to No. 14, but readily admitted the numbers aren't reflective of her play or state of mind: "I have no idea how I am ranked so highly, but to look on the bright side, I can't play any worse than I did this year, and I'm still in the top 20!''
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The 21-year-old Serbian has suffered through a lot of minor yet troublesome injuries in the 13 months since she fell from her perch at the top of the WTA rankings, but by far the worst bleeding was internal. After a heady run to the 2008 French Open title, her confidence drained almost visibly week by week.
Both in her recent letter and in a gallant, teary-eyed press conference following an ugly, first-round loss to Kateryna Bondarenko at the U.S. Open, Ivanovic described a self-destructive cycle where she would push too hard in rehab, press too much when she got back into matches, then get injured again and interrupt any small momentum she'd built up. "Instead of being patient and accepting that my best form was almost impossible due to physical limitations, I was always over thinking things, and I never dealt with it very well,'' she wrote.
The worst disappointments came at the worst times. Ivanovic has not managed to advance past the round of 16 in six Slams since she won Roland Garros. She looked as if she might be turning things around at Wimbledon this summer when she breezed past Samantha Stosur in straight sets to book a fourth-round meeting with Venus Williams, but hurt her thigh during the match and was forced to retire in the second set.
"If she only could have at least completed the match against Venus, it wouldn't have been as devastating, but there she was, doing physiotherapy on what was supposed to be a holiday,'' said her agent, Gavin Versi.
ESPN analyst Pam Shriver agreed with Ivanovic's tough self-assessment, saying the building blocks of her game have toppled like dominoes. "Whatever aura she had ran out, and people realized she was vulnerable,'' Shriver said. "While [Dinara] Safina had her meltdowns in the late stages of Slams, Ivanovic was having hers in the early rounds.''
Ivanovic's serve -- once deconstructed, lauded and depicted in a full-page graphic in the New York Times under the headline "When Ana Ivanovic Serves, You Better Duck" -- went first, and disintegrated, right down to yips on the ball toss. This summer she experimented with an abbreviated motion to protect a tender shoulder, which seemed to make things even worse. Once back on her heels in service games, Ivanovic stopped dictating points with her forehand, leaving her weaker backhand exposed, Shriver said.
"Having dwelled on all those negative things, there are a lot of people out there saying, 'Darn, I hope she figures it out,''' Shriver said. "She's one of the more likeable players on tour -- classy, genuine, everything you'd want in a top player.''
Ivanovic tried to shake up her approach in several ways, including hiring veteran American coach Craig Kardon early this season. The two worked together from February through the French Open. Ivanovic has since returned to a part-time coaching arrangement with adidas coach Sven Groeneveld.
Kardon described a player whose above-the-neck assets -- intelligence and passion -- can also be her worst enemies.
"She internalizes a lot,'' Kardon said. "She felt a lot of outside pressure. The fans' perception of her, and people's expectations, she really takes that to heart.
"She has the ability and talent to win more Slams, but she has to find a way to allow herself to win even when she's not at her best, not at the level she wants to be. She has to trust her game, move forward and build on it. Most of what I tried to do with her was just instill confidence.''
Versi said that Ivanovic plans to start training again next month. She said in her sad season wrap-up that she's hopeful she can return to her old service motion and her old assertive self. Her longtime fruitful collaboration with fitness trainer Scott Byrnes ended this season, and she has hired another, as-yet-unnamed trainer on a trial basis.
There's been much talk in women's tennis recently about the wisdom of taking timeouts before burnout sets in. Ivanovic's problem is slightly different. "If anything, she has too much motivation,'' Versi said. "People-pleasing is a big part of her personality and she's still ultra-competitive. This break should do her a world of good after a series of disappointments. It's crucial that she switch off.''
Most great athletes are terrifically hard on themselves. Ivanovic's perfectionism is an important part of her engine, but being overwhelmed by the emotional responsibilities of success puts sugar in the gas tank. Pulling out of this tailspin will require her to do perhaps the most difficult thing of all for a bright, analytical athlete -- keep it simple.
Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.