EXCLUSIVE: Ana Ivanovic - Embracing expectations and learning to let go

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Purple patch: A resurgence in form saw Ivanovic arrive in Dubai this week firmly entrenched in the WTA’s top 10.

It’s often a cruel thing growing up in the spotlight, having every move you make scrutinised and being constantly judged for not meeting expectations. 

It took Ana Ivanovic a long time to embrace the attention that came with her profession as a tennis player. 

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And while it remains a work in progress, she is trying to rid herself of the pressure that has followed her since she rose to No1 in the world back in 2008 after winning the French Open at 20 years of age. The Serb, now 27, was an exciting talent when she broke through eight years ago, reaching her first slam final in Paris in 2007, and making the Wimbledon semi-finals a few weeks later.  

Her natural beauty and likeable personality also contributed to her becoming an instant hit with fans worldwide and high-profile relationships with fellow tennis player Fernando Verdasco, ex-world No1 golfer Adam Scott, and her current boyfriend, World Cup-winning footballer Bastian Schweinsteiger, have only fuelled the public’s interest.

Earlier this month, she hosted a costume party for Schweinsteiger’s entire Bayern Munich team in Germany where she dressed up as The Lone Ranger. If only she could walk around hiding behind a mask all of the time.

Ana Ivanovic dressed as The Lone Ranger for the Bayern Munich, western-themed fancy dress party.

“It’s perfect, right?” Ivanovic jokes when discussing her costume, and the thought of how a mask could help her go out unnoticed. “But still it didn’t work.”

It certainly didn’t. Photos of her at the party swiftly made their way to the tabloids.

“The theme was Wild West. It was fun because you don’t get a chance to do that very often and you have to go all out,” she told Sport360 on the sidelines of the Dubai Tennis Championships, where she lost in the last 16. 

Asked about how she has finally reached a point where she is at ease with her life in the spotlight, she adds: “I realise I have no choice. Unfortunately sometimes you have to embrace it. When you mature, you also get more secure about yourself. You see things differently. Now some things I don’t take it so hard and so personally as I did in the past.”

Ivanovic describes herself as an emotional person, both on and off the court. After her heroics in 2008, it took her four years before she made another grand slam quarter-final, and she’s only reached one more since then.

Her ranking slipped to as low as 63 at one point but last season, she fist-pumped her way back into the top-five for the first time since 2008.

“I think in every person’s life you have ups and downs. You learn so much about yourself sometimes even more in the down times,” she says. “Unfortunately I had to go through it in public, which was not easy. It was different when I was young, aged 20 playing the French Open. I didn’t have so much experience. I just played tennis because I loved the game. 

“With experience you understand expectations, you understand consequences, but sometimes it gets a little bit hard, especially for me that I’m a perfectionist, I want to analyse everything. And sometimes it’s most important to just let go and trust your instincts. This is what I need to do more of.”

Now an established member of the world’s top-10 once again, Ivanovic can pinpoint the moment that helped spark her resurgence.

“A little bit more than a year and a half ago, just around Wimbledon time in 2013, I remember there was a moment where I spoke to my brother for hours and then all of a sudden things clicked and I’m like ‘I really have to have a different approach’,” she recalls. 

“Because it was so much about tennis it became such hard work. And he told me ‘you really need to find things that you enjoy that can relax you and can help you find balance’. 

“And since then I really tried to make a conscious change about it. And it doesn’t happen overnight, you know you fall back into old patterns and it’s still a process to be honest. But obviously it’s much better. That was probably a turning point for me.”

That pep talk had a great effect and last year Ivanovic won four titles, also making the quarter-finals at the Australian Open. But she still suffered early defeats in the other three grand slams. “Sometimes at the big events I put too much pressure on myself instead of just enjoying it like I do in every other event. So it’s something that I really want to work hard this year on. To try to find that balance, still work hard and compete well but not put so much pressure on myself,” she adds.

In hope of finding that balance, Ivanovic changed her coaching staff a couple of times since Wimbledon 2013. First she replaced Nigel Sears (the father of Andy Murray’s fiancée Kim) with Serbian Nemanja Kontic. 

A year later, she split with Kontic and hired another Serb, Dejan Petrovic, who had previously captained the Davis Cup team and had worked with Novak Djokovic.

She believes having a compatriot as a mentor is much more helpful to her and says she has no interest in hiring a ‘super coach’ in the way Agnieszka Radwanska has hired 18-time major champion Martina Navratilova or Djokovic has added Boris Becker to his team.

Ivanovic high fives her coach Dejan Petrovic during this year's Australian Open.

“For me it’s a lot about the relationship with the person. And with my team I want to have really good communication, feeling like we’re all on the same page. Sometimes with those kind of people (super coaches) they are more important than maybe another person in the team and I don’t like this. I really like that everyone feels comfortable in the working environment,” she explains.

“Dejan is very calm and very experienced. I’m very very emotional and I think that he can bring a little bit of a balance. But still he’s very funny so it’s important to actually not take everything so hard, to enjoy it too.”

One thing you can never really prepare for is bad luck, and Ivanovic started her 2015 season with a touch of it. After making the final in Brisbane, she accidentally smashed her toe against a wall when walking out of her bathroom, four days before the Australian Open. She didn’t have an x-ray on it and played and lost her first match in Melbourne to world No142 Lucie Hradecka – suffering yet another disappointing early exit at a slam. After the match, a scan revealed her toe was broken and that she shouldn’t have played to begin with.

“It is tough because I really felt that I was in great shape. I was coming into the Australian Open very excited and prepared. So it’s very, very unlucky,” she admits. “Obviously it hurts and it wasn’t easy to get over that but you know sometimes there are things out of your power. You just have to accept it and move on and I think the season is still very young.”

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