Commentary

Murky outlook for Ivanovic, Sharapova

Originally Published: May 24, 2009
By Bonnie D. Ford | ESPN.com

PARIS -- It was too hot to don a champion's mantle here Sunday, and Ana Ivanovic insists she's starting from scratch at the French Open anyway. She entered Philippe Chatrier Stadium, the site of her breakthrough first Grand Slam title last year, promptly at 11 a.m. local time with no visible sense of entitlement.

She did permit herself a little nostalgia. "There were a lot of memories that were dormant and they awaken, walking on the court," Ivanovic said. "When I think of those emotions, you know, adrenaline kicks in a little bit more, and you sort of want to do the same thing again."

Ivanovic's refusal to rest on her laurels is probably a good thing given how challenging her return journey promises to be. She wore a sky-blue dress with artful draping and an asymmetrical neckline, accessorized with black physio tape in the shape of a rounded arrow encasing her right knee as if pointing out what's been in her way for the past couple of months. Inflammation and fluid buildup in the joint limited her to just three clay-court matches before arriving at Roland Garros.

The 21-year-old Serbian struggled in her first set against pesky, hard-hitting, 44th-ranked Sara Errani of Italy, sweating it out for 71 minutes before prevailing in a tiebreaker as each player dropped two service games. Ivanovic committed 38 unforced errors, double-faulted seven times and converted only 5 of 20 break points, but she also smacked 50 winners and persevered to win the second set 6-3 as Errani blew the key points. The crowd at Chatrier applauded Ivanovic warmly, clearly eager for her to extend her stay.

And why not? No. 8 Ivanovic offers attractively gift-wrapped talent that has inspired considerable affection from the tennis public since her emergence as a top player two seasons ago. Her absence from the draw in big tournaments leaves an unwelcome void, and she hasn't been the only such player missing in action lately.

Lurking in the bottom quarter of Ivanovic's half of the bracket is Maria Sharapova, her name entered in regular type rather than the bold accorded to seeded players. This may not compute, but Sharapova -- who entered the French Open last year as No. 1 in the world, courtesy of Justine Henin's abrupt retirement -- has tumbled all the way to No. 102 in the WTA rankings because of a shoulder injury that has idled her for most of the past 10 months. She kicks off her French Open against No. 64 Anastasiya Yakimova of Belarus on Monday.

When Sharapova and Ivanovic dueled for the 2008 Australian Open title, the matchup was hailed as a burgeoning rivalry with literal and figurative legs, glamour versus glamour, a marketer's dream. Cast both women in a James Bond movie, and 007 would become an afterthought in a hurry. They're fascinating hybrids: Sharapova's steel can sometimes mask a warm personality, while Ivanovic's bubbly enthusiasm can obscure her fierce competitive drive. Both have childhood backstories of successful seekers in promised lands, Sharapova from Siberia via Florida, and Ivanovic from Serbia via Switzerland.

Although Sharapova won convincingly in Melbourne, there was reason to hope for many more reprises between these two players, who were born just seven months apart. But they haven't played since. Given their current form, the odds of a potential rendezvous in the semifinals here seem slim. (They met in that round here in 2007 in a match Ivanovic won handily.)

Sharapova, sidelined since August 2008, played one doubles match at Indian Wells and returned to singles with two wins last week in Warsaw. Ivanovic is trying to play herself into a tournament that under normal circumstances would be her cup of tea. Sharapova, whose strengths tend to be muted by red clay, has the more modest goal of logging some matches before returning to the more hospitable grass of Great Britain.

"I think it's a great move," analyst and ex-pro Justin Gimelstob said of Sharapova's decision to play in Paris rather than waiting for greener pastures. "Clay is her worst surface, so she benefits from lower expectations, and she can get that shoulder battle-tested. She's such an incredible competitor that you can't count her out -- when the red light comes on, no matter how many matches she's played lately, she knows how to perform."

While Sharapova did her rehab in private, Ivanovic tried to play through pain late last season, with mixed success. Plagued by an injured thumb, she withdrew from the Olympics on the eve of the tournament, absorbed a wrenching second-round loss at the U.S. Open at the hands of French qualifier Julie Coin, then recovered to win her third title of the year in Linz, Austria. Her 2009 began inauspiciously with spotty play in Australia. In mid-February, after a lengthy period of working part-time with adidas consultant Sven Groeneveld, she began a trial run with veteran American coach Craig Kardon.

[+] EnlargeMaria Sharapova
Adam Nurkiewicz/AFP/Getty ImagesIt's safe to say expectations are not very high for Maria Sharapova, who was sidelined for nearly 10 months.

Kardon had been stalking Ivanovic -- in a nice way -- for about a year. "I contacted her agent," said Kardon, who has worked with Martina Navratilova and Mary Pierce, among other top players. "The style of her game, and her mentality -- I wanted to coach her a long time ago. I knew I could help her."

Uneven results had planted some doubt in Ivanovic's mind, and Kardon said his first priority was to restore her trust in herself and her shots. "The first thing I did was to reassure her that her game is fine," he said. "She wasn't clear on some things, and she's too good not to be clear. Her serve, her shot selection, her inside-out forehand are great. She doesn't need to change. I want to add to her game, but not all at once."

Ivanovic reached the final at Indian Wells and formalized her arrangement with Kardon before the clay-court season began. That coincided with her knee flaring up, so some of the tweaks Kardon wants her to make have had to wait. She played just one match in April (a Fed Cup win) and entered Rome earlier this month with high hopes, but her aching knee forced her to pull out after her second match. "I just started feeling so old," she observed mournfully in a pre-French Open news conference.

Kardon said they've made progress on her return game, her volleying and her backhand at her new base on the Spanish island of Mallorca, where the tennis karma from native sons Carlos Moya and Rafael Nadal should be strong.

Pre-tournament favorite and No. 1 Dinara Safina and surprise 2008 quarterfinalist Carla Suarez-Navarro of Spain are in Ivanovic's quarter, while Venus Williams and Amelie Mauresmo lie in Sharapova's path. Ivanovic and Sharapova obviously would have to overcome more than rust here to resume their career series, which Sharapova leads 3-2. There will be more than a few people rooting for them to collide again, if not here, then soon, at the intersection of grit and glitz.

Bonnie D. Ford covers tennis and Olympic sports for ESPN.com. She can be reached at bonniedford@aol.com.

Bonnie D. Ford is a senior writer for ESPN.com.