Ana featured in USA Today newspaper

Ana featured in USA Today newspaper

Ana was this week featured on the front page of the Sport section of USA Today, the biggest selling newspaper in North America. Please note that the article was written before Ana's knee injury was assessed, hence the reference to her participation in the forthcoming San Diego tournament.

By DOUGLAS ROBSON
Special for USA TODAY

To trace Ana Ivanovic's meteoric rise in women's tennis, Montreal is as good a place to start as any. That was where, last August, the Serbian teen slugged her way to her first big title, beating former No. 1 Martina Hingis 6-2, 6-3 in the final.

"I can say that was one of the breakthroughs I had," said Ivanovic, whose win in Canada catapulted her to the U.S. Open Series title and marked another milestone in her budding career.

"Winning the U.S. Open Series was also something special for me," Ivanovic said in her a trademark breathless, rapid-fire English. "When you look at the people who won Montreal or the U.S. Open Series, it was big names. It was pretty amazing that I was one of them."

This time around, it wouldn't look so amazing.

In just six weeks, Ivanovic transformed herself into a serious Grand Slam contender with big showings at the French Open and Wimbledon.

In Paris, the 19-year-old rising star beat top-five players Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova before freezing up in the final against Justine Henin, who won her fourth title at Roland Garros.

At Wimbledon she reached the last four, losing to eventual champion Venus Williams, who assessed her opponent as someone with "a lot of talent, a lot of power, a lot of potential."

The results on clay and grass have forced Ivanovic, now at a career high No. 5, to throw out the idea that cement is her best surface.

"I always used to say I like hardcourts the most," she said, "but now I can say I like them all."

If Montreal represented one breakthrough, Ivanovic's meeting with 36-year-old Swiss entrepreneur Dan Holzmann in 2002 was another.

Like fellow top-five Serbians Jelena Jankovic and Novak Djokovic, Ivanovic and her family endured the hardships of living through the 1999 NATO bombings, six-hour bus rides to the nearest airport and a virtually nonexistent tennis infrastructure at home.

Indoor tennis in their war-torn homeland meant practicing in an Olympic-sized swimming pool that had been drained of water, laid with carpet and converted into two courts.

"It was impossible to play crosscourt, because it was this far from the wall," Ivanovic said last month while gesturing with two fingers close together. "So we had to keep playing down the lines."

Holzmann, co-owner of a successful vitamin company, had heard about Ivanovic from his tennis instructor, a man of Serbian descent. Soon after, 14-year-old Ivanovic and her parents flew to meet Holzmann in Basel, Switzerland.

Intrigued and aware that Ivanovic's sponsor was facing bankruptcy, he agreed to provide an interest-free loan for coaching, travel and equipment that eventually reached $500,000.

"I asked Ana what she wanted from life," Holzmann said of the day they met. "She looked me in the eye and replied, 'I want to be No. 1 in the world.' I was smitten at that moment. I took a quick decision that I would help her with financial assistance."

It turned out to be one of his best investments. Ivanovic, who has earned more than $2.5 million in prize money, paid back the loan within two years of turning pro, and Holzmann is now her full-time business manager.

"He always believed in me, and that's been very important because coming from Serbia it was very hard," Ivanovic said.

Fanfare has come quickly for the likable Serbians, whose charm and stellar play have been the talk of the pro tour this season.

Following Roland Garros, where Ivanovic, Jankovic and Djokovic reached the semifinals, they received a hero's welcome in Belgrade. From a balcony outside the parliament buildings, 15,000 boisterous fans cheered.

"Everything has happened too fast; it's still hard to absorb everything," Ivanovic said.

Despite the crush of attention at home and increasingly abroad, Ivanovic has handled the scrutiny with aplomb and graciousness while keeping her feet firmly on the ground. The truth is, she's not just a player with pinup qualities (her personal Web site got more hits last month than that of global icon Sharapova). She's genuinely nice.

Put on the spot about her good looks by tabloid reporters in London, Ivanovic politely replied that she was flattered. Her peers seem to like her. For this interview, she thanked a reporter for his time -- twice.

"Ana has never involved herself in petty jealousies, never moaned that her poster somewhere was smaller than someone else's," Holzmann said.

However, Ivanovic's sweet nature has invariably drawn questions about her killer instinct. That line of thinking was amplified by her performance at Roland Garros and Wimbledon.

In the two biggest matches of her life, the 6-foot-1 Serb with the killer forehand played tentatively and scared, managing a total of just nine games in the two lopsided losses.

"I have to learn how to deal with it better," said Ivanovic, who lost 6-2, 6-4 to Williams at Wimbledon.

Holzmann, for one, isn't concerned.

"When on the court, she does have a killer instinct," he said. "But I do believe that you can be No. 1 and still be nice."

Ivanovic says she is looking forward to defending her U.S. Open Series crown, but her trimmed-down schedule will make that more challenging.

With so many matches the past few weeks, she plans to enter just two events before the Open, San Diego and Toronto (the men and women alternate between Montreal and Toronto each year), down from three last year.

"I feel I need some time off," she said. "By the time you get to the U.S. Open, you get a little bit tired and exhausted."

She also hopes to improve on last year's performance in New York, where -- between shopping runs to Fifth Avenue and SoHo -- she lost to eight-time Grand Slam champion Serena Williams in the third round.

"I am really excited to go back this year," she said, "and try to go even further."

Copyright 2007 USA TODAY