Saturday, 27 September 2008

Down and Out...

Ana Ivanovic has lost once again to Zheng Jie in the quarter finals of the China Open, 7-6 (4), 2-6, 6-4.

I actually thought she played a lot better than she has been recently; she seemed to be strking the ball with more confidence
and while she has never exactly been 'fleet of foot', its clear she has been working on her movement and footwork.
Much has been made recently of Ivanovic's run of poor form since winning at Roland Garros this year. After getting to the final of the AO and then winning at Indian Wells and of course Roland Garros, she was widely expected to be a regular feature at the latter stages of most majors. That she has come short in such dramatic fashion and on some of the biggest stages, (where, buoyed by her recent Grand Slam successes, she may reasonably have been expected to d
eliver) is surprising but also somewhat symptomatic of a mini crisis in women's tennis.

Now I'm not one of these purists who, while rightly lamenting the loss of Henin, seem to think women's tennis has now irretrievably gone to the dogs. But most anyone who has followed tennis closely over the years will readily admit that, aside from the Williams Sisters (when they are uninjured and playing frequently enough) there is now no longer an elite band of players, any one of whom is capable of seeing things through on the big stage. It was different around say 2005 when apart from Henin and the Williams Sisters, we had Sharapova, Clijsters, Davenport and to a lesser extent Mauresmo, Kuznetsova and Dementieva all giving us high quality, competitive encounters. (Yes I know we've also had some horrendous women's finals too.)

To be honest its a real shame that Sharapova has had the injury problems she's had. I thought she was back in the big time when we had what most agree was the best women's match of last year at the season ending Championships in Madrid against Henin. She did of course win the AO right after that but has since lost form again and had more shoulder problems since.
I bring her up because although I've never been drawn to her less subtle, hard hitting game, she is quite possibly the best at that brand of baseline tennis; and coupled with her mental strength (which is second to none IMO) was my pick to take on (and run with) the number one ranking.

When Ivanovic took the number one ranking earlier this year, I felt somewhat short changed. Not that she didn't deserve it either: she has been the best performing player for the first half of this year and was one of the most consistent last year. I suppose thats what my point is: in the current landscape its sufficient to be
merely consistent - to perform, on average better than everybody else. But thats not what the number one ranking should be about.

I've got nothing against Ivanovic, shes got just about the best groundstrokes in the business - we all know her forehand is an absolute A-Bomb of a stroke. Its also a very classic action - no wide lassoo style swings here! I just don't think we'd be considering her any more than a competent top ten player, were we to have had better competition. She belongs to a group of players who are able to dictate play provided they are receiving the ball right in their hitting zone; move them around, get them off balance and they suddenly look very vulnerable indeed. They don't have a great deal of variety, rarely throwing in a slice and pretty much avoiding the net like the plague.

To her credit, Ivanovic has worked very hard with her movement. She can run down balls better than ever before but her defence will never be that of Jankovic or Dementieva; she also lacks the mental qualities that brought Sharapova such success despite her somewhat stiff movement. All this makes her particularly vulnerable to a player like Jheng Zie who kept her pinned behind the baseline both in Beijing and earlier this year at Wimbledon.

So in some ways I'm not too shocked at Ivanovic's recent loss of form; she'll recover before long I'm sure, and continue to improve - she's too talented not too. But in the meantime, we do in Serena, at least have a worthy number one.

Image by franz88 distributed under the CC by-nc-sa licence.

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