Ivanovic defeats Safina for French Open title

Updated: June 7, 2008, 7:58 PM ET
Associated Press

PARIS -- At last, Ana Ivanovic overcame her stage fright.

In two previous major finals, Ivanovic was so overwhelmed by the setting, so shaken by the stakes, that her focus fell apart and her shots went awry.

[+] EnlargeAna Ivanovic
Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty ImagesA year ago, Ana Ivanovic was rattled early in the French Open final. This year she took early leads in both sets to win her first Grand Slam title.

Not on this day.

Already assured of rising to No. 1 in the rankings for the first time, Ivanovic collected Grand Slam title No. 1 by beating Dinara Safina 6-4, 6-3 in the French Open final Saturday.

Rather than erasing the memories of those lopsided losses in championship matches against Justine Henin at Roland Garros a year ago and against Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open in January, Ivanovic used the bitterness to help her.

"Many, many people ask me, 'Oh, you want to forget last year's final?' But I don't, because it was a great learning experience," said Ivanovic, a 20-year-old from Serbia.

She won only three games against Henin, then eight against Sharapova, and said of the latter defeat: "I had a few sleepless nights after that."

But in the months since, Ivanovic realized this: Part of her difficulty in those matches rested with either looking ahead -- "Hey, maybe I can actually win this thing," she was thinking against Henin -- or looking behind -- failing to put a few key points out of her mind against Sharapova.

Ivanovic lost two consecutive matches on clay before coming to Paris, and she knew she had to change something. She credits her strength and conditioning coach, Scott Byrnes, with helping find what she called a "tool" to make sure she stays focused on the court.

And it couldn't be simpler: Take the time to pause and breathe.

"My personality is I tend too much to think about what will be, and try to think too much in advance, which is definitely not too good," Ivanovic said. "So I found that breathing helps me to go back in a moment and just enjoy that very moment."

[+] EnlargeDinara Safina
AP Photo/Christophe EnaDinara Safina again proved resilient, but ran out of steam and could not mount enough of a comeback to deny Ana Ivanovic the French Open title.

That's what carried her through the tightest of times against the 13th-seeded Safina, the younger sister of two-time major champion Marat Safin.

In the men's final Sunday, No. 1 Roger Federer will meet No. 2 Rafael Nadal in their third consecutive title match at Roland Garros. Nadal seeks a fourth French Open championship, and Federer is hoping to complete a career Grand Slam.

Ivanovic was a point from taking a 5-1 lead in the first set when Safina showed some spark, using a running forehand winner and a swinging volley winner to get to break point. Ivanovic then dumped a forehand into the net, and 10 minutes later, when Safina smacked a backhand winner down the line, suddenly the score was 4-all.

"It was tough, because a lot of emotions build up inside," said Ivanovic, who was seeded No. 2 behind Sharapova at the French Open but will pass her in Monday's rankings. "All of a sudden, you're equal again. So to keep my composure at that point -- it was huge for me."

In the very next game, Ivanovic broke back with a backhand winner of her own, then pumped her fist and let out one of her many yelps of "Hajde!" (sounds like "HIGH-deh!") -- Serbian for "Come on!"

There were more tests to come.

Trying to serve out the first set, Ivanovic faced two break points, and squandered a set point, before closing it out with her signature shot, a forehand. That was part of a run in which Ivanovic took five of six games to go ahead 3-1 in the second set.

The final instance in which nerves might have come into play was in the seventh game of the second set, a 20-point tussle in which Ivanovic wasted two break points and Safina blew five game points. Adding to the tension, Safina kept backing out of her serving motion because the sobs of a child crying in the upper deck could be heard throughout the stadium. Eventually, Safina held to cut Ivanovic's lead to 4-3.

Potentially uplifting for Safina. Potentially deja vu for Ivanovic.

"Mental games out there today," Ivanovic said.

She remembered to stop and breathe and played with aplomb down the stretch, winning eight of the next nine points to end the match.

"Once you are on the court -- it's much easier said than done -- but you have to be a killer," Ivanovic said through a wide smile. "You have to put them under pressure and show your presence and stuff."

It might have helped Saturday that the recently retired Henin was in the front row in a red jacket, not on the court wielding a racket.

Safina sure can wallop the ball, but she's hardly as complete a player as four-time French Open champion Henin, and never made it past the quarterfinals at any Grand Slam tournament until this one.

Nonetheless, Safina was trying to become the first woman to win a major title after having saved a match point against two opponents. Against both Sharapova in the fourth round, and No. 7 Elena Dementieva in the quarterfinals, Safina trailed by a set and 5-2 in the second set, then was a point from losing at 5-3, before coming all the way back to complete the upsets.

Those were part of a 12-match winning streak Safina carried into Saturday, including six victories over top-10 opponents.

"This time? I tried," Safina said, "but I didn't have any more of that fire."

When it was over, Ivanovic stood on a line judge's chair to climb into the stands for hugs and kisses with her parents, her brother and other supporters.

She spoke afterward about the days when she rode her bicycle to practice, thinking of being a champion one day. Those dreams might have seemed far away when, growing up in a war-torn land, Ivanovic honed her tennis skills in the winter by practicing on the floor of a drained indoor swimming pool.

This is the second consecutive Grand Slam tournament with a champion from her nation of 7.5 million people. Novak Djokovic won the men's title at the Australian Open.

"I said, 'Come on, he could do it -- I could do it, too.' So it's something that for sure motivates," Ivanovic said, "and I hope also many young kids will get inspired from us."


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press