It was two years ago that the rankings confirmed what many fans felt: Ana Ivanovic was not an elite player anymore. Her confidence was gone, zeal had vanished, shots were misfiring, and she had just lost to Anastasija Sevastova in her opening-round match at Indian Wells, a tournament she'd won two years earlier and finished runner-up at in 2009.
But this loss, the most recent of a troubling number of second-round defeats (Ivanovic also lost in the round of 64 at the 2009 U.S. Open and 2010 Australian Open) was perhaps the most damaging. It pushed the former No. 1 outside of the top 50 for the first time in years. The young Serbian who attracted fans with her game and looks looked nothing like the marquee talent she seemingly just was.
Dinara Safina, another former No. 1, would endure something similar shortly after Ivanovic's plight and has yet to recover. But Ivanovic is a different story, even if she's yet to climb all the way back to the tour's loftiest perch. The tumble appeared to spark Ivanovic almost immediately; ranked No. 58, she reached the semifinals of the 2010 Italian Open in Rome.
In the summertime, at this point ranked No. 62, Ivanovic made the final four in Cincinnati and advanced to the second week of the U.S. Open, her bugaboo. It all came together for her that fall, when Ivanovic won a small tournament in Linz, Austria -- her first title in two years -- and closed the season as champion of Bali, the WTA's second-tier year-end championships. Things were looking up for Ivanovic, who ended the 2010 season ranked No. 17.
But instead of rounding the next hairpin turn toward the top 10, Ivanovic was stuck in neutral for the majority of the 2011 season. It started woefully, with a first-round loss at the Australian Open, and her quarterfinal showing at Indian Wells was good, if not up to her usual output. Her serving woes -- exacerbated by all-too-frequent wayward ball tosses -- crept into her game and put her at a disadvantage before a shot was struck. Though she came close, Ivanovic didn't reach a final in 2011 -- until Bali, her haven, where she again won a title at year's end. Ivanovic finished the 2011 season with a 32-20 record and ranked No. 22.
So, essentially, Ivanovic hit the reset button in advance of this season. Will it turn out differently, and more to the point, will she become the consistent, elite player we once watched? At the moment, I'm encouraged. At the Australian Open, Ivanovic reached the fourth round and gave second-seeded Petra Kvitova a serious challenge, losing 6-2, 7-6 (2).
But her performance at Indian Wells is what really made me take notice. Facing Caroline Wozniacki, a player whose consistency could trouble Ivanovic's sometimes erratic play, the Serb was superb. Her forehands were her devastating, pushing Wozniacki from the baseline and finishing points inside the court. Her serve was rarely an issue. Ivanovic still caught the ball occasionally, but her service motion was no worse for it, and her second serves -- when nerves have gotten the best of her before -- were confidently hit and well-placed.
Most importantly, Ivanovic enjoyed the moment. Each winner was followed by a look of encouragement, both inwardly and to her supporting team, and the crowd responded in kind. Ivanovic obliterated Wozniacki 6-3, 6-2, but the score doesn't reflect how imposing she was.
After defeating Marion Bartoli in a straight-sets quarterfinal encounter, Ivanovic arguably hit the ball even better against Maria Sharapova in the semis. It felt like 2007 and 2008 again, with the two starlets embracing the spotlight and playing, what I consider, some of the best tennis of the entire tournament. That meant Sharapova also was at her peak, of course, and she took the first set, 6-4. It turned out to be the only set completed -- in a cruel twist of fate, Ivanovic retired just a game into the second set with a glute injury.
It appears to be just a temporary setback; on her website, Ivanovic said the injury isn't serious. And on the whole, Ivanovic should take positives from her play at Indian Wells. Her strokes looked lethal, capable of competing with -- and beating -- any opponent she could face. A similar run in Miami, another event featuring slow, hard courts, doesn't seem improbable. But the next two months are when Ivanovic could, and maybe should, take greater strides. April and May consist of clay, a surface Ivanovic has mastered in the past, and a court on which many of the WTA's leading ladies -- including Victoria Azarenka and Kvitova -- are at their weakest. Like Rafael Nadal in the ATP, Ivanovic could give her entire year a boost with some strong results on red dirt.
And if that happens, Ivanovic could be heading to another year-end championships -- this time the more prestigious one in Istanbul instead of Bali.