New starlet graces courts

New starlet graces courts

By Toby Forage; Fox Sports editor
MARIA Sharapova may be a doubtful starter for the Australian Open, but those more interested in eye-candy than tennis talent need not fear - eastern Europe has thrown up yet another darling.
Ana Ivanovic, currently playing for Serbia and Montenegro in the Hopman Cup and a former teammate of Jelena Dokic, beat the Russian darling to the top of a tennis fans' poll of "sexy" players late last year.

Defending Australian Open champion Marat Safin won the men's poll, but talk in Melbourne this year could well centre on the young Ivanovic, should she fulfil the promise she showed in 2005.

Ivanovic has proved quietly throughout the past 12 months that she is certainly no mug with a tennis racquet - unlike that other rather famous Anna of the game, some might say.

The 18-year-old brunette, who calls Belgrade home when she's not on tour, boasted an immensely strong record throughout the year, her first on the WTA Tour.

She rose from No.97 in the world to finish at No.16, the biggest rise of any player on the women's tour during the 12-month period.

She achieved that by passing the first round stage at each of her grand slam debuts, making the last eight in the French Open at Roland Garros last May and beating home favourite Amelie Mauresmo, who was seeded No.2, along the way.

It was a sweet revenge over the Frenchwoman, who had beaten the starlet in Melbourne last January.

Standing an almost Amazonian 1.83m, Ivanovic also powered down the fastest serves both in Paris event and on the grass at Wimbledon, where she released a 196km/h thunderbolt from her strings.

While not distancing herself from the inevitable "beauty queen" headlines that will no doubt fall her way this summer, Ivanovic knows her results are as important as her looks to potential sponsors and fans.

"Although (the award) is very flattering, I know that all these awards are ultimately based upon my tennis results and therefore I am very pleased to be receiving them," she told tennisreporters.net, the second largest tennis website in the United States and the sponsor of the "sexiest players" poll.

"My fans mean a lot to me and I appreciate all of their support."

Ivanovic, a right hander with a double-handed backhand, will have no shortage of support in Melbourne, where some of her family lives.

She lists the Victorian capital as one of her favourite places to visit, which could mean she'll feel right at home when the Australian Open starts in a fortnight's time.

She also loves the hard courts, as she proved beating determined American veteran Lisa Raymond in the Hopman Cup yesterday.

She'll be very hopeful of a strong summer in Australia this year, backing up the promise she showed last year when she won her first WTA Tour tournament in the nation's capital.

Ivanovic won the Canberra women's tournament in almost anonymous fashion as a 17-year-old rookie with braces, a performance that nobody predicted would propel her into the world's top 20 by year end.

What made the victory more impressive was that she won as a qualifier, playing three extra rounds to those granted main draw places.

She secured a place in the Australian Open main draw, where she came from a set down to upset No.32 seed Iveta Benesova in the first round, before earning a seeding of No.18 at the year's final grand slam, the US Open in New York.

What this year holds, we, and Ivanovic, are about to discover.