The Aussie Open's Serbian darling

Wimbledon crowds could learn a lot from the Australian Open. Like the British, the Australians have no players to speak of, so they do the next best thing and adopt a few for the purposes of the fortnight.

They fell in love with Martina Hingis.
Then it was Kimmy Clijsters, the Belgian obliging by getting engaged to Lleyton Hewitt until that relationship went the way of all soap operas. Now it’s Aussie Ana.

If Ana Ivanovic, who will face Maria Sharapova in the Australian Open final on Saturday, has said it once, she has said it a hundred times—that she just loves Australia.

A few moments after reaching her first Australian Open semifinal, she profusely thanked the crowd in the Rod Laver Arena for helping her get through the second set against Venus Williams, who she had just beaten for the first time in her short career, 7-6 (7-3), 6-4. The 20-year-old world number three has not missed a public relations trick in Australia, including a daily column in the Age that gives her fans a few extra insights into her life other than those already to be found on her website.

“A tennis match is like a school exam,” said Aussie Ana on the morning of her quarterfinal. “Good results should come if the lead-up work is done properly.”

It doesn’t always work out that way, sport being sport, but it did against Williams who—like her sister, Serena, against the other Serb, Jelena Jankovic—made far, far too many unforced errors and served poorly.

And so the Williams sisters, of whom much had been expected this time, were gone. There had been a genuine debate regarding another all-Williams final. Then came the double Serbian knock-out completed with radiant smiles and much good humour from both young women.

Serbia as a country continues to suffer from a chronic image problem throughout the world, yet its tennis players, including Novak Djokovic and Janko Tipsarevic, who came so close to upsetting Roger Federer on the first Saturday, could not be more personable and well liked. As ambassadors they have no equal, even though it is noticeable that most choose to live elsewhere.

Ivanovic’s big breakthrough came last year when she reached the final of the French Open, defeating Russia’s Svetlana Kuznetsova, the current world number two, in the quarterfinals and then Maria Sharapova.

The final was a disappointment, though perhaps hardly surprising given that the young Serb was up against Justine Henin, the outstanding clay-court player of her generation. Strangely, that defeat gave rise to the idea that Ivanovic was somewhat flaky against the world’s leading players, though she had a 14-6 record against her fellow top 10 players last year.

But there was a mental block against the Williams sisters. Prior to this quarterfinal, Ivanovic had not won a set against the Americans in five matches, four of them against Venus. Small wonder she was so obviously delighted with this win. It was not a pretty match, with no fewer than six successive breaks of serve in the opening set, but Ivanovic always managed to keep her nose ahead and then dominated the tiebreaker.

When Williams snapped back to lead 3-0 in the second set a few alarm bells began to tinkle in the Serbian camp. Ana’s father has relatives in the city, while her fitness coach, Scott Byrnes, is an Australian, so there were plenty of links and plenty of support, although Venus was by no means without a following. For a few minutes it seemed that Ivanovic might succumb to her Williams phobia, but once she had broken Venus’s serve for the fourth time, she steadied herself and finished with relish.

For such a relatively slight figure, Ivanovic can give the ball an almighty thump—one service return scorched past Williams before the American could twitch a muscle. And she is gradually adding variety. Sharapova is the overwhelming favourite now after her stunning victory over Henin, but Aussie Ana will not be far away. She’s a beaut, mate.—Â

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