Ana unable to salvage gloomy year

9/2/2009 - Tennis

NEW YORK -- Tennis turns on its seasons-within-seasons, each one holding the promise of a new mini-start. But 2009 has been one long autumn for Ana Ivanovic, landscaped with falling leaves and bare branches. She's hoping it will make way for new growth.

Ivanovic was the top seed at the U.S. Open last year when she was upset by a little-known French qualifier in the second round. Only one result could have been worse, and sure enough, that came to pass Tuesday as Ivanovic let a match point slip through her strings in a third-set tiebreak and lost to No. 52 Kateryna Bondarenko of the Ukraine.

The Serbian's graceful bearing masks the self-judgmental heart of a compulsive competitor. It's unlikely that any reporter in the postmatch press conference asked a question that Ivanovic hadn't already asked herself, whether it was about dented confidence or her entourage or whether she needed a vacation.

Ivanovic answered them anyway with an occasionally tremulous voice, somehow finding a laugh or two and fighting to control her emotions nearly as much as she did during the 2 hour, 25 minute match at Louis Armstrong Stadium. She is too stubborn and proud to write off an entire season, but she admitted there are times when she'd like to fast-forward to the new year.

"Yeah, I do," she said. "I do, many times. I wish that.

"But, you know -- as much as it hurts and was disappointing, I feel I learned a lot from it. I learned a lot about myself and you know, people around me and about what I have to do in order to become a better player. Because there was a point that, you know, I really trusted the team around me, so I didn't question many things that were happening. Many times, you know, I didn't know why I was doing certain things."

The 11th-ranked Ivanovic spent a brief stint with coach Craig Kardon this season before they split, and lost her longtime fitness coach Scott Byrnes in July in what her manager, Gavin Versi, called an amicable parting. For strategic guidance, Ivanovic opted to return to the familiar climate of the Adidas corporate team, where her former part-time coach Sven Groeneveld awaited. That became more appealing with the recent addition of tactical savant Darren Cahill.

"It's no secret she was eyeing him as a coach, and then this coach she would have liked to hire herself became available through Adidas," Versi said.

But that mid-course correction hasn't proved enough to salvage an unproductive year. It's been 10 months since the former No. 1 beat a top-10 player, seemingly eons since she won the 2008 French Open. Ivanovic reached one final this season, at Indian Wells; she hasn't advanced past the round of 16 in any major in 2009.

Ivanovic tore a thigh muscle while serving against Venus Williams in the fourth round at Wimbledon and had to retire from the match. It was the latest of several minor injuries that have put nails in her tires recently, including a sore right shoulder that compelled her -- like so many top women at the moment -- to adopt a shortened service motion as a stopgap.

It's not patty-cake, and Ivanovic says she's getting more pace on the ball while still protecting her arm, but it's not a she-wolf way to start a point, either. Ivanovic struggled to hold serve even as she won the first set. She fared well when she went to the net and came back from a 4-1 deficit in the third set to force the tiebreak, but she was ultimately worn down by Bondarenko's digging, no-quit rallying.

Although Ivanovic's ailments have forced her to stop playing at times, they've also put her on a treadmill of play-rehab-train-play that has prevented her from taking a real break for the last few years.

The cumulative toll has become visible. Ivanovic joked that it would show up in the bags under her eyes, puffy from crying and lost sleep, but it's more apparent in small gestures on the court -- a slight shrug of exasperation or a fractional hesitation to step into the court. With the match on her racket in the third-set tiebreak, Ivanovic blew a sitter of a forehand, usually her most reliable shot; when the ball rocketed into the net, it was as if a faithful dog had turned around and sunk its teeth into her leg.

"Many times when I'm in a position, I just don't trust myself like I did before," she said Tuesday. A bit later, Ivanovic said she may be guilty of working so hard between matches that she's not fresh when she gets there, and labeled it a Catch-22 situation -- a sophisticated pop culture reference that appears to be dead-on.

"She'll get it back," ESPN analyst Mary Joe Fernandez said confidently. "She's super young." Ivanovic is just 21, in fact, and said she sometimes has to concentrate to remember her biological age. With the foreshortened perspective of a precocious athlete, she said her tribulations this season have made her feel old, perhaps as old as 25.

Ivanovic suffers from the mixed burden and blessing of intelligence, drive and analytical ability. She picks at the scabs of defeat, trying to figure out how she can keep from being wounded again, and in the process may overlook the fact that all winners accumulate their share of scar tissue. That knowledge comes with the years, which is why she'd be well-advised not to wish time away.

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