courtly behavior

Surging into tennis’s top rankings, 19-year-old Ana Ivanovic leads the sport’s Serbian uprising. By Coach Precious

Ana Ivanovic

The six-foot Serb commands attention on and off the courts. Stella McCartney dress. Christian Louboutin shoes. (Photo: Richard Bush.)  

Wimbledon does strange things to the British male. It is, for a start, the one fortnight of the year when the more serious newspapers can happily adorn their front pages with pictures of young women in short skirts and white knickers. Each year an unspoken beauty contest is conducted and the winner is declared the new darling of Centre Court. During one golden Wimbledon summer, the critic Clive James was moved to write a poem about that tournament’s most golden girl: “Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini/For I know it tastes as pure as Malvern water…//Bring me the sweat of Gabriela Sabatini/In a green Lycergus cup with a sprig of mint./But add no sugar, the bitterness is what I want…”

Centre Court darlings come and go. Many—the Russian Anna Kournikova being the prime example—adorn more front pages than their tournament play deserves. Just occasionally, though, a player comes along whose prowess on court exactly matches her grace off it. The Argentinian Sabatini was one. And watching the 19-year-old Serbian star, Ana Ivanovic, this year, I was reminded more than once of James’s heartfelt plea.

Ivanovic arrived in London with a reputation. A month earlier she had reached the final of the French Open at Roland Garros with one of the game’s fastest serves (up to 125 mph), and she quickly endeared herself to the British crowd by scoring a ticket to the Princess Diana memorial concert at Wembley Stadium. In this world of hyper-focused athletes, Ivanovic displayed a rare quality: She seemed genuinely excited to be at Wimbledon.

That excitement persisted through two weeks of tennis. She prevailed wonderfully in her first Centre Court appearance, the quarterfinal, saving three match points and proving she has that secret ingredient of true darlings—beneath that perfect skin she has guts.

Ivanovic eventually lost a match, but not her smile, in the semifinal to Venus Williams. When I caught up with her at Heathrow Airport, she was flying off to Italy for a break before the U.S. Open, still breathless about the might-have-beens.

She wanted to be in the top 10 this year, but the speed of her success (she’s currently ranked fifth on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour) has taken even her by surprise: “It is all still so hard for me to realize.”

Ivanovic grew up in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia and was there during the 1999 NATO bombardment. It was there, she says, that she found her never-say-die dedication. “We knew when the air raids would come, so I had to organize my practice schedule around them. I used to be on court at six or seven in the morning.”

As parts of Belgrade were destroyed, she would play in an emptied swimming pool that had been converted into tennis courts, developing her ferocious power against the pool walls. Novak Djokovic, whom she has known since she was four, occasionally played alongside her. Djokovic, now ranked third, was also a Wimbledon semifinalist. “Who could have imagined?” she says.

At 15, Ivanovic moved to Switzerland and was sponsored by a businessman, now her manager, on the understanding that she would pay him back out of her prize money. She has long since returned the $500,000, and now lives in Basel. Does she find any time for romance amid all the excitement? “No,” Ivanovic laughs. “That is all in the future!” She has to run to catch the plane.

I, meanwhile, almost feel a poem coming on.