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Ivanovic puts on game face

The 20-year-old Serb, known for her kindness off the court, sweeps past Safina, 6-4, 6-3, for her first French Open title.

June 08, 2008|Chuck Culpepper | Special to The Times

PARIS -- Two young women have become the world's newest Grand Slam titlist, and they'll share the world's No. 1 ranking beginning next week.

One goes by the name Ana Ivanovic, and the other goes by the name Ana Ivanovic.

One comes into interview rooms and resonates such resolute 20-year-old sweetness that there's an urge to want to protect her against the world's vast reservoir of wolves. She pretty much evokes Bambi.

The other goes out on the tennis court and increasingly practices a steady ruthlessness that showed on offense and defense Saturday in a 6-4, 6-3 triumph over onrushing Dinara Safina that gave Ana Ivanovic -- and Ana Ivanovic -- her first French Open title after twice being the runner-up.

As a South Carolina-sized, landlocked, former international pariah of a nation, Serbia celebrated its second Grand Slam winner this year -- Novak Djokovic having won the men's title at the Australian Open -- the world can expect to keep seeing the two Ana Ivanovics.

Meet the first Ivanovic, and it's hard to imagine the depth of the latter Ivanovic's revulsion for losing, even hard to imagine her serial fist pumps and shouts in Serbian of "Adje!" -- "Come on!" -- that punctuate her matches.

Of her lopsided French Open final loss to Justine Henin in 2007, Ivanovic said, "Obviously it hurt at the time and it hurt after, but she's a great champion. I lost to a great champion and I learned a lot from her, from the way she handled herself in that final."

Of her Australian final loss to Maria Sharapova last January, Ivanovic told of several nights thereafter that went sleepless, relief coming only from her commitment to play in the ensuing Federation Cup.

This, from a woman who won't turn 21 until November, yet apparently arrived on earth -- Belgrade, 1987 -- with the must-win chromosome.

Almost three hours after winning on Saturday, Ivanovic told of a time at age 14 when she'd just signed on with her manager, Dan Holzmann, a businessman who invested in her. She'd hoped to impress Holzmann but lost 6-2, 6-3 -- she recalled the score -- to somebody who shouldn't have beaten her in her opinion.

"I went to the locker room and I locked myself there and I wouldn't come out for about four hours," she said. Her camp "wanted to leave and they were like, 'Come out! It's OK!' "

On Saturday, Holzmann stood in the players lounge where Ivanovic's parents and kid brother and friends swigged champagne and in one case wore a Serbian flag as a cape. Ivanovic's parents -- a lawyer (Dragana) and a businessman (Miroslav, former semipro basketball player) -- crave the background, but Holzmann spoke.

"She's very nice and you always need to be cautious of people not abusing her," he said, then referred to her as a "killer" on court.

Then, "When she finishes she grabs and kisses the girl on the other side and it's, 'Thank you,' and she's almost embarrassed that she won," he said.

By a cloudy, chilly Saturday as she crossed Safina's remarkable path to the final (match points fended off in two separate matches, one-set and 5-2 deficits in two separate matches), Ivanovic looked the sturdy veteran of the two. She usually controlled a thick match that featured 20 deuces in 19 games.

When Safina's last lunge at a forehand dribbled harmlessly -- Safina noted "tiredness" -- Ivanovic dropped her own racket, buried her face in her hands, and soon received the trophy from the newly retired defending champion, Henin.

Ivanovic had watched tennis on TV from age 5 and saw the great Serb, Monica Seles, remembered a tennis school's phone number from a commercial and implored her parents to dial. While NATO bombed Serbia in 1999, she practiced famously in an empty swimming pool. She moved to Switzerland for tutelage. She even dined with Seles herself last summer in New York.

Now the person Ivanovic realized what the tennis Ivanovic had just done and said, "After the match, it was like time stopped. I didn't know whether I wanted to cry or laugh or scream."

With two personas and a great night ahead, surely she could do all of the above.

--

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

TODAY'S MEN'S FRENCH OPEN FINAL

Roger Federer, Switzerland (1) vs. Rafael Nadal, Spain (2). They play their third straight final opposite each other, and, if Nadal wins, he'll match Bjorn Borg's record of four straight French Open titles, a mind-bending feat given the gruel of this event. And if Federer wins, he'll have the only Grand Slam title he lacks and, as Borg himself said Saturday, "Well, if Roger wins tomorrow, he definitely will be the greatest player to ever play the game." Not that it's a big match or anything.

-- Chuck Culpepper

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