FHM magazine ranked her the sexiest woman in sports. A reader poll in Germany's biggest newspaper determined she has the most beautiful body in sports. Lustful viewers helped make her website the most visited of any female athlete in the world.
Her recent choice of books, "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer, was especially fitting. While reading the harrowing account of an ascent of Mount Everest, Ivanovic had embarked on her own climb back to the figurative mountaintop from which she fell.
Ana Ivanovic from Serbia is ranked 11th by the WTA.
(Richard Heathcote/Getty Images)
A year after winning her first Grand Slam at the 2008 French Open and taking over the No. 1 ranking as player and pinup girl in women's tennis, Ivanovic had dropped to No. 13. Her slump included a failure to win back-to-back matches during a stretch of five tournaments from July to October.
In the months leading up to the U.S. Open, which starts Monday, Ivanovic worked with three coaches and parted ways with her full-time fitness trainer.
"Every day I question the things that I'm doing and the things people around me are doing, what can we do to get back on top," Ivanovic said earlier this summer.
Getting to the top was an impressive climb in its own right.
Growing up in war-torn Serbia, Ivanovic practiced tennis in an empty swimming pool, one of the few safe venues available to players. The practice sessions were scheduled during the rare morning hours between NATO bombings. From that environment sprung a champion who seemingly has it all – brains, beauty and a great story – except for a clear answer for what went wrong after the 2008 French Open.
Off the tennis court, Ivanovic often retreats to the nearest bookstore. She began reading Freudian psychology about the same time her slump began – and quickly closed the book. She went in search of fiction – books to help her escape an obsession with tennis that bordered on unhealthy.
Freud created unwinnable mind games for Ivanovic, who at 21 is prone to over-analysis and emotional swings. During a fourth-round loss at the French Open this year, she suffered dizzy spells and, according to her coach at the time, called her trainer onto the court because she was having trouble breathing.
Ivanovic's publicist. Gaven Versi, said the symptoms stemmed from a medical condition diagnosed after the match, but neither he nor Ivanovic would disclose the condition. By contrast, Craig Kardon, Ivanovic's coach during the French Open, said he thinks the dizzy spells and breathing trouble stemmed from the intense pressure Ivanovic puts on herself.
"She keeps a lot of things inside of her," said Kardon, a widely regarded coach whose past clients have included Martina Navratilova, Jennifer Capriati and Lindsay Davenport. "I think she has a lot of emotions inside of her that she doesn't share with anybody."
The pressure isn't only from within, especially as her world has become increasingly public.
A crowd of 15,000 people waited for her in the main square of her hometown of Belgrade in June 2008, when she returned from Roland Garros after beating Dinara Safina in the finals of the French Open. The paparazzi and gossip columnists were waiting, too.
Ivanovic at times has struggled to maintain her composure.
(AP Photo/Alastair Grant)
Then came pictures of her sunbathing in Spain in July, bikini shots that ended up online. The rags and websites reported on her romance and breakup with Spanish tennis player Fernando Verdasco and published more bikini shots when they caught her frolicking beachside in Australia with her new boyfriend, pro golfer Adam Scott.
Her cover shot and swimsuit photo spread for FHM magazine came out soon after the conclusion of Wimbledon in August 2008, setting up critics for an overhead smash. As the London Daily Mail wrote, "Unfortunately, Ana's exposure in front of the camera lasted longer than her exposure on court and she too was out of the competition before the magazine was out on the shelves."
Despite being the top seed at Wimbledon, Ivanovic lost in the third round to unheralded Zheng Jie, then ranked No. 133. An injured thumb caused Ivanovic to withdraw from the Olympics in August, and the freefall was on.
At the U.S. Open, she lost in the second round to qualifier Julie Coin, marking the earliest loss by a top seed at the Open since the 1973 tournament. She reached the third round at the Australian Open in January and lost to Alisa Kleybanova.
None of it seemed to bother readers of the German newspaper Die Bild, who in October made her a landslide winner in a poll determining the "most beautiful body of any sportsperson." (Ivanovic won with 51 percent of the vote, and fellow tennis player Sharapova was her closest competitor with 14 percent.) Her status as sports' new pinup fascination was no consolation for a young woman who aspired to become the top-ranked women's tennis player – and stay there for more than 12 weeks.
The changes finally began.
Ivanovic left Sven Groeneveld and the coaching program he directs for adidas around the start of 2009. She hired Kardon, the first full-time coach of her career. She prepared for her defense of the French Open with unmistakable intensity – then lost in the fourth round during which she complained of dizziness and breathing trouble.
Despite the fourth-round loss, Kardon said he was relieved the French Open was behind them, that Ivanovic could stop worrying about defending her title at Roland Garros and start preparing for grass and the hardcourts, – playing surfaces Kardon considers his specialties.
But then Ivanovic fired Kardon. She never explained why, and Kardon said he's not at liberty to discuss the specifics.
"She's a perfectionist and she wants everything perfect," Kardon said. "It's a continual struggle.
"Obviously she's a very talented player and she's capable of playing at a high level and winning Slams. But I think she puts way too much pressure on herself."
After leaving Kardon, Ivanovic rejoined Groeneveld and began working with Darren Cahill, who had worked with Andre Agassi and mostly men's players before joining the adidas coaching staff earlier this year.
"I made a little mistake [in leaving Groeneveld]," she said this summer. "Because all of the sudden when I wasn't doing well, I started looking for answers in the wrong places.''
Oddly, she parroted much of what Kardon said he was trying to instill: a shoring up of her confidence and a trust in her skills. But he said he was just as committed to helping Ivanovic with the mental side of her game. The plan was to identify the root of Ivanovic's emotional struggles and get her working with a sports psychologist.
Ana Ivanovic: "I would always push myself and just go until I drop and that's not good because I found myself a little over trained."
(Jerry Lai-US Presswire)
But Kardon said he didn't have time to develop the closeness he needed to do that, and in the past Ivanovic has cited such closeness as a reason she'd resisted hiring a full-time coach. Should anyone plumb the depths of Ivanovic's psychology for answers, they might stumble across some telling anecdotes:
• When she was 14, her family signed a contract with Dan Holtzmann, a wealthy businessman from Switzerland who agreed to sponsor Ivanovic in turn for the right to serve as her manager when she turned pro. After signing the contract, Ivanovic lost her next match – and spent three hours in a hotel room sobbing, fearing that Holtzmann would cancel the contract.
• David Taylor, who later took over as her coach when she climbed in the rankings from No. 24 to No. 13, said he encountered a player who rarely needed to be pushed.
"She would die out there in practice," Taylor wrote in an email. "… We did her summer preparation the year she won the U.S. Open series in 2006 at a private court in Vevey, Switzerland. She wanted so much to impress me and work hard, she threw up at the side of the court. I was very impressed."
Asked about that session, Ivanovic, now ranked No. 11, nodded knowingly.
"I would never say, 'Look, I'm tired. Let's just take it easy,' " she said. "I would always push myself and just go until I drop and that's not good because I found myself a little over-trained.
"Growing up, I always had full trust in coaches and the people around me. And also I was letting them make a lot of decisions about my playing and about how much I'm going to practice and so on."
In recent months, Ivanovic said she has begun to assert herself more and make those decisions. She'd grown tired of deferring to those around her.
"Now I can speak a little more openly and communicate with them," she said. "… I'm not here to please them. I just want to get back and improve, so I have to be honest and say what I feel and what I think is going to help me get where I want."
Her play in recent months remained suspect, with a third-round loss at the L.A. Women's Tennis Championships in August to Samantha Stosur, then ranked No. 19; and a second-round loss the following week in Cincinnati to Melinda Czink, then ranked No. 59.
Funny thing, Ivanovic said, is that she knows precisely how she must play to reclaim her No. 1 ranking and win another Grand Slam.
"When I'm off the court, I know perfectly," she said. "And I can tell everyone what works best and how it should be.''
Here's how she knows it should be: aggressive. A self-confident Ivanovic is Ivanovic at her best.
"But then, obviously when I'm on the court and emotions start (to) kick in and then it's very hard," she said. "I start to overanalyze everything and doubt a lot of things."
How will she overcome that? A bemused smile stretched across her face.
"I'm still trying to figure that out."