tennishead feature

tennishead feature

The new issue of British tennis magazine tennishead includes a lengthy feature about Ana, focusing on her partnership with coach Nigel Sears.

The following is a reproduction of the story by Paul Newman:

Dream Team

British coach Nigel Sears has helped Ana Ivanovic rediscover her best tennis in 2012. They make the perfect unit, says the Serb

Her season did not finish the way she would have wanted, with Serbia losing to the Czech Republic in the Fed Cup final, but it has still been a memorable year for Ana Ivanovic. After repeatedly struggling to live up to the promise of her 2008 French Open victory, the 25-year-old Serb finished 2012 at No.13 in the world rankings, her highest year-end position for four years, and enjoyed her best season in Grand Slam competition since her Roland Garros triumph. Most importantly of all, she has at last found a coach, Nigel Sears, who she believes can take her back among the world’s elite.
 
Ivanovic appeared to have the world at her feet when she won the French Open and subsequently became No.1 in the world. However, her results in Grand Slam tournaments tell the story of her subsequent decline. Until this year’s US Open, Ivanovic had failed to reach the quarter-finals of 17 successive Grand Slam tournaments, suffering four first-round defeats along the way and losing to unheralded opponents like Ekaterina Makarova, Kateryna Bondarenko and Johanna Larsson. In the spring of 2010 she even dropped out of the world’s top 50, less than two years after topping the rankings. Injuries played a part, but what appeared to be at the root of Ivanovic’s problems was her failure to find the right coach. Until linking up with Sears, she had worked with five different coaches since starting out on the women’s tour, not counting the adidas personnel to whom she kept returning on a temporary basis when she found herself working on her own again.
 
“I made some choices that weren’t right in the past,” Ivanovic admits. “It cost me in terms of my confidence and everything. But I think that some things happen for a reason and I think it was my fault as much as someone else’s. I’m just happy now that I’ve found the right person and that I didn’t give up, because it has been hard at times.”
 
Sears was head coach of women’s tennis at the Lawn Tennis Association in London when Ivanovic approached him in the summer of 2011. He first made a name for himself coaching some of Britain’s leading men, including Jeremy Bates and Mark Petchey, but in more recent times he has worked almost exclusively with women. He coached Amanda Coezter and Daniela Hantuchova and then spent five years at the LTA, where he helped a succession of British women to make their mark on the international stage.
 
Given her track record in terms of coaches, you might think Ivanovic was a difficult player to work with, someone who always blames others when things are going wrong. However, the description could not be further from the truth. The Serb is one of the sweetest natured players on the women’s tour and seems to have a smile and a kind word for everyone. She admits, nevertheless, that she has felt uncomfortable with the intensity of her relationships with some of her coaches in the past. The itinerant nature of professional tennis means that players and coaches often spend many hours a day in each other’s company, which can put major pressures on both parties.
 
“Our job is quite strange in that we hire a coach and therefore we’re the boss,” Ivanovic said. “But coaches tell us what to do and I think some [male] coaches might struggle with the idea of a girl being the boss and telling them: ‘I don’t want to see you now. I want to have some time to myself.’ So many coaches try to hold on and are too controlling – and that doesn’t make for a healthy relationship. That’s why I think you find a big difference in the relationship between men and their coaches and between women and their coaches.”
 
When Ivanovic played at last year’s Hopman Cup in Perth alongside Novak Djokovic she looked with envy at her fellow Serb’s relationship with his entourage. “I saw how much fun they have and how relaxed they are,” she said. “That’s always something that’s going to help you perform better because you’re in a positive environment. Girls are a little bit different to guys. We are so much more stressed about everything. It was such a nice thing to see. I was thinking: ‘Why can’t I do that within my team?’”
 
Both Sears and Ivanovic think it helps that he has a daughter – Kim, Andy Murray’s long-term girlfriend of the same age. “We have a good professional working relationship and we give each other some space,” Sears said. “I’ve learned over the years that this is a healthy thing.”
 
Ivanovic agrees. “I think it’s very important to keep some distance, so that once you go on the court you can become more professional,” she said. “He really respects it if I want to spend time with my friends and don’t want to have breakfast, lunch and dinner with him. There are times when the only people you spend time with are the people in your team. That’s hard, because I think: ‘I’m a girl. I want to hang out with other girls. I just want to be a normal young woman.’”

Sears says that “every day is different” with women players. “More than anything, you’re dealing with a greater swing of emotions,” he said when asked to compare working with men and women. “You also have to figure out what women respond to and perhaps be a little bit more sensitive than you would be when dealing with men. You can probably afford to be a little bit more direct with the men in terms of communication. I think you have to practise your listening skills with women. I’m really happy that I’m now working at a time when I’ve had a lot of experience. Believe me, I draw on that experience every day.”

The Briton, nevertheless, is not the sort to hold back in his criticism, which is fine by Ivanovic. “Most of the coaches just tell you: ‘No, no, you’re doing well. This is fine,’” she said. “But I actually want someone who will tell me what I didn’t do right, so that I can improve. Sometimes it’s important to lie a bit and build up a player’s confidence, but at other times you want to hear the truth.” Can Sears be quite hard in his comments? “Yes – and sometimes it upsets me,” Ivanovic said. “But I think it’s better that way because it pushes me to improve. And as much as I’m a perfectionist, he’s a perfectionist too. He’s always trying to make me better – and that’s the only way to work.”

Ivanovic’s British connections do not end with Sears. She has been a frequent visitor to London to see her brother, Milos, who has been studying there, and to consult Mark Bender, a physiotherapist who worked with her at three of this year’s Grand Slam tournaments. She has also trained at the National Tennis Centre at Roehampton. The director of her management company is another Briton, Gavin Versi, who is a former freelance journalist.
 
Joseph Sirianni, a former top 200 player from Australia, has joined her team as a hitting partner at several tournaments this year and she hopes to use him more in 2013. Ivanovic is spending most of the off season training in Dubai before heading to the Hopman Cup in Perth, which will be her only tournament before the Australian Open.

Players of Ivanovic’s stature tend to judge themselves on their results in the biggest events and it has been her performances at Grand Slam level this year that offer her the greatest encouragement for the future. Having reached the fourth round at both the Australian Open and Wimbledon and the third round at the French Open, Ivanovic played in her first Grand Slam quarter-final for four years at the US Open before losing to the eventual champion, Serena Williams.
 
“Nigel and I have worked very well this year,” she said. “I’ve made good progress, as shown by my improvement in ranking. Perhaps more importantly, I was able to finally reach a Grand Slam quarter-final after so long. I feel like I’m well-placed to achieve my goal of getting back to the top 10 early next year, then see how far I can go. Next year I’m looking for greater consistency. I feel like I played some great matches this year, for example against [Caroline] Wozniacki in Indian Wells, but I also had some disappointing results. But I’m definitely moving in the right direction and I’m close to the top 10. Unfortunately I didn’t win a WTA title, but on the other hand we enjoyed a lot of success in the Fed Cup.”
 
Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic were the inspiration as Serbia reached their first Fed Cup final. In the end they fell just short of emulating the Davis Cup feats of Djokovic and company two years earlier, but Ivanovic, whose preparations had been disrupted by a hip injury suffered the previous month in Moscow, had the satisfaction of keeping the final alive on the second day in Prague with her victory over the home favourite, Petra Kvitova. It was the sort of win that Ivanovic used to enjoy regularly, for she was no one-hit wonder: in the five Grand Slam tournaments from the French Open of 2007 to Roland Garros in 2008 Ivanovic reached three finals, one semi-final and one fourth round.

Does her coach believe she can rescale those heights? Sears is too wise an owl to burden his player with any such expectations. “I stay away from that kind of question,” he said. “You just focus on getting better every day. She’s already been world No.1. She’s already won the French Open. If she just concentrates on getting better and reminds herself that she is that kind of level, then you have a lot more chance of achieving those things again. Firstly you have to see the ranking go up. You have to have wins registered against other top players. And she’s starting to do that again. Then you have to find yourself in the top 10 and in the second week of Slams regularly before you can start talking about winning them.”