The French Open is no longer a burden for Ana Ivanovic.
It’s six years since the Serbian won her first major title at Roland Garros and rose to the top ranking in women’s tennis. Her return to Belgrade -- where she practiced in a disused swimming pool in between air raids during the war in 1999 -- brought thousands of people into parliament square and an audience with then President Boris Tadic.
It was all too much for the 20-year-old, who was featured in Vogue magazine and signed a number of lucrative sponsorship deals after the win. Ivanovic finished 2008 as the world No. 5 and dipped to as low as No. 65 in 2010. She hasn’t made it past the quarterfinals of a major since winning in Paris.
“For a while, it’s been kind of a heavy memory, a burden because it felt like I had to back it up,” Ivanovic said in an interview at Roland Garros. “I never felt like I was able to.”
The No. 11 seed beat Ukraine’s Elina Svitolina 7-5, 6-2 yesterday to move to the third round in Paris. Ivanovic is having her best season since she won the clay-court Grand Slam and the tournament is opening up for her. With defending champion Serena Williams losing in the second round and former title holder Li Na of China ousted in the first round, the 26-year-old Serbian is now the third favorite at 8-1 to win the title at U.K. bookmaker William Hill Plc.
Today, Roger Federer, the 2009 champion from Switzerland, plays Russia’s Dmitry Tursunov, while 2012 winner Maria Sharapova of Russia faces Argentina’s Paula Ormaechea. Second seed Novak Djokovic plays Croatia’s Marin Cilic while American teenager Taylor Townsend plays Spain’s No. 14 seed Carla Suarez Navarro. The 18-year-old Townsend is the youngest American woman into the third round since 2003.
Ivanovic was ranked ninth on Forbes’ 2014 list of the best-paid female athletes, with annual earnings from prize money and endorsements -- for companies including Rolex Group, Dubai Duty Free and racket manufacturer Yonex -- estimated at $7 million.
She signed a lifetime contract with German sportswear manufacturer Adidas AG in 2010 and has made more than $11 million in prize money in her career. Ivanovic, who is based in Basel, Switzerland, said her lawyer mother, Dragana, looks after her finances and investments, which include a house on the Spanish island of Mallorca.
It took a few years to get used to being a Grand Slam champion, Ivanovic said. After the 2008 French Open, she lost in the third round of Wimbledon, struggled with injuries and was beaten as the top seed by a qualifier in the second round at the U.S. Open in New York in August.
Being thrust into the limelight “was very hard for me because I am kind of an introvert,” she said. “I created a lot of pressure. Then I was injured, couldn’t practice so much. It was very hard to break that cycle, to be OK with actually who I am and to be OK with being in the spotlight and everything that comes with it.”
After working with high-profile coaches including Craig Kardon, who trained 18-time major singles champion Martina Navratilova, and Nigel Sears, Ivanovic turned to little-known former Serbian tennis pro Nemanja Kontic a year ago.
Ivanovic is a much better player than the one who won the French Open in 2008, 18-time women’s Grand Slam champion Chris Evert said on an ESPN conference call before the start of the tournament.
“She has a Steffi Graf forehand,” Evert said, referencing the German who won 22 Grand Slam titles. “Steffi would just jump beside that ball and wallop it. I see almost the same type of stroke where she can just go inside-out, down the line, cross-court, and make them all the time.”
Ivanovic credits her cooperation with Kontic and fitness trainer Zlatko Novkovic with her rise back up the rankings.
“They’re both very young, very enthusiastic,” Ivanovic said. “I feel more like my old self, but in a better edition probably.”
This season, Ivanovic has won two tournaments and is the only player to have got the better of both top-ranked Serena Williams and Sharapova. Ivanovic beat Williams to reach the quarterfinals of the Australian Open and ousted Sharapova in Rome, becoming only the second player to defeat the Russian on clay in four years.
“I found new inspiration,” Ivanovic said. “I felt like a kid again.”
Kontic also improved her shot selection and consistency, which Ivanovic said had been an issue in the past.
Ivanovic, who is on the opposite side of the draw from Sharapova, faces Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic in the next round.
Having rebuilt her confidence, memories of winning Roland Garros are now positive.
“I remember everything, I remember the last point, I remember when I went down on my knees, then running to my box and then climbing the fence,” Ivanovic said. “But now it’s just a nice memory that I want to build on. I feel like a different person now. I am mature, and my goal is to do it again.”