Did Ana Ivanovic Win a Slam Too Early?

Ana Ivanovic won her first slam at the French Open this year but things haven’t gone so well since.

Jelena Jankovic has been called the weakest number one the WTA has ever had because she has a grand total of one slam final but she’ll end the year at number one. I remember Lindsay Davenport getting a lot of grief for ending the year at number one in 2004 because she didn’t get past the semifinals in a slam that year, and again in 2005 when she had two slam finals but, again, no slam.

Davenport can be excused because she already had three slams and an Olympic gold medal by 2004, but the problem will continue until the WTA changes the rankings system to reward wins over higher ranked players rather than rewarding the player who enters the most tournaments.

Davenport is a courtside commentator at the WTA championships in Doha this week – is that a tacit way of acknowledging her retirement? If so, it’s not surprising in the least that she’s doing it with such little fanfare. The discussion about JJ’s weak status as number one came up in the opening match between JJ and Ana Ivanovic and the way the match played out led me to wonder: Did Ana win a slam too early in her career?

Wouldn’t be the first time. Pete Sampras won a slam in his third year on tour and it was a watershed experience for him because he won the first one with no pressure. He got to another slam final two years later but by then the pressure had ramped up and he couldn’t deal with it. By the third year after his first slam, he’d finally worked out that, yes, he did want to win a slam and, yes, he was willing to have the target on his back that came with it.

Serena Williams won a slam in only her second year of playing them and it took her another two years before she could figure out how to do it again. Svetlana Kuznetsova won the US Open in her third year of playing slams and she hasn’t done it since. Davenport, by the way, won her first slam in her eighth year of playing slams.

Ana won her first slam at the French Open this summer – her fourth year of playing then. After that, her year fell apart and she didn’t reach a semifinal until the middle of last month as she dropped from number one to number four. The thumb injury seemed to affect her confidence and she wasn’t looking so good against JJ in Doha either.

Ana was 5-0 over JJ in the past two years but she lost her very first service game in the match and Jankovic was up 3-0 before Fernando Verdasco could turn his head. He was sitting in Ana’s box with her parents and wow, is he a handsome dude. That pairing would certainly turn out some dark haired beauties. Her first slam and now a boyfriend – that’s enough to throw your life into a tizzy.

Ana managed to break back in the middle of the set but she gave up her serve again and lost the first set 6-3. She looked out of sorts. More than a few times she looked over at her box with a look that was a mix of desperation and resignation. (More about that later.)

While Ana has been struggling, JJ has been rolling along. She won three tournaments this fall and she’s going through a rare patch without injuries of any kind. It’s worth noting that JJ is pretty good about playing with injuries – a good thing as she’s had many of them – while Ana’s confidence seemed to dented pretty good by her thumb injury. It’s also worth noting that JJ has two years on Ana and maturity is part of our theme today. It takes time to grow into fame and learn to manage the pressure of winning and Ana may be experiencing the growing pains that go along with it.

Ana lost her patience in the first game in the second set and it looked as if she still couldn’t find her rhythm. She lost the game to go down a break but she showed signs of life with JJ serving at 3-2. JJ hit a lazy serve and followed that up with a loopy backhand and Ana just crushed the ball down the line to pull even at deuce and won the game to get back on serve. But she gave the break right back and then broke down altogether.

While serving to stay in the match at 3-5, she pulled up in the middle of a point, bent over in discomfort, and called for the trainer. Her movement didn’t betray a muscular problem and it wasn’t muscular – she was having trouble breathing. The Olympic organizers in Beijing must love that after U.S. cyclists walked off the airplane wearing facemasks to avoid pollution.

Ana popped up off the chair after the timeout and finished off the game but JJ served out the match and the reason for those mournful looks towards her box and the breathing problems became apparent after she lost her second match (to Vera Zvonareva) and it was reported that she’s suffering from a flu bug.

A bad thumb, a flu bug, sagging confidence. It’s not been a kind year since Ana won the slam and she’s got finalist points to defend in the Australian Open only three weeks into next season. It could get worse before it gets better. To me, Ana is a young 21 years old and I fully expect her to get it together, but I also wouldn’t be surprised to see it take her another year or so to get her second slam.

I’m off to Brazil tomorrow for a week – I have a short film in the International Festival of Erotic Animation if you can believe that. I’ll check in as much as I can but, remember, you can create your own blog if you like and lay down your thoughts. Consider it.