Ivanovic Makes the Right Call With Günthardt

Back in February of this year, Ana Ivanovic needed some help. A year and a half of misery was enough. Ranked No. 1 back in 2008 and having won Roland Garros, Ana's bright future was the talk of WTA experts. Then everything took a wrong turn. She began to lose match after match; she became the first top seed in the history of U.S. Open to lose in the first round in 2008, and injuries, such as the one that forced her to retire at Wimbledon in 2009, became repetitive.

Whether or not undertaking a modeling career, engaging herself in a highly publicized relationship with another well-known sports figure, and her image as a mentally volatile player all played a role in her downfall is anyone's guess, but at the end of it all, when 2010 began, Ana's confidence was broken and her ranking was somewhere outside the top 20.

Hence, she contacted Heinz Günthardt, the ex-coach of Steffi Graf who retired with her and has not coached a player since. He worked very briefly with Jelena Dokic, but was never her official coach during that period. He has worked some with the Swiss Davis Cup, some behind the camera for Swiss television and Eurosport, acted as a consultant for the Swiss Tennis Federation, and, according to him, enjoyed his free time "surfing and skiing."

Günthardt is known by his peers as gracious and down-to-earth gentleman with an acute sense of observation. He predicted few years back that Stanislas Wawrinka would make it to top 20, and said confidently in 2008 that Roger Federer would be back on top when he lost his No. 1 ranking and was having his worst year since becoming No. 1. To the older generation, he is well-known due to his accomplishments as a player, having had an extremely long and respectable singles career, coupled with a fantastic doubles career, including a couple of Slam titles in the '80s.

Perhaps his practical approach was precisely what Ana needed. Günthardt was realistic, to the point of being dry, in his first interview by Swiss radio three days after beginning to work with Ana. He called it a "big challenge" and when asked about his first impression, he calmly stated that after three days, they were still getting "acquainted." He did not neglect to add that she was "very nice girl." In fact, the initial agreement was just a test phase until the Miami tournament in March.

Evidently, he liked what he saw because for a guy who claimed during an interview with Swiss radio in 2008 that he was no longer interested in coaching because he did "not want to travel every week and was happy with being a consultant and a salary that suffices," he changed his mind quickly and stayed as Ana's coach. Yet the "getting-to-know" stage lasted a while, because Ana's ranking continued to plummet to somewhere outside the top 50 by the time Rome tournament came around.

Then in Rome, Ana did something that she has not done since October 2008 — she defeated a top-10 player, Victoria Azarenka. She topped it with another win over Elena Dementieva, the No. 6 player in the world. With a renewed spirit, she beat a top-20 player, Nadia Petrova, all three matches without losing a set, to reach the semifinals. She finally lost to Jose Maria Martinez Sanchez, who eventually won the tournament. Good results were exactly what she needed, and now she tasted a few good ones in one week.

When talking about her renewed confidence, Ana gave all the credit to Günthardt. She talked about how he helped her with her serve, but the bulk of her praise was about how Günthardt, the realistic gentleman, convinced her to "swing freely" and "have fun" doing it. A "volatile" player with a "down-to-earth" coach partnership seems to work well. Amazingly, Günthardt's approach may have rubbed off on Ana: she said that she has been working hard and feeling good in practice since she started with Günthardt, and she felt confident that the results would follow. A realistic and practical reflection, indeed!

Regarding her new coach, Ivanovic stated that she really hopes "it's going to work out in the long run." That statement may not carry too much weight, considering that she has changed coaches very frequently since her downfall began (examples: Sven Groenefeld, Craig Kardon).

However, this time it seems to be different; largely because Günthardt is a different character. His influence on Ana seems to be in more areas than just her tennis skills. We are nearing the end of the third month in their partnership, and this time around, Ana's getting results. It also helps that they both live in Switzerland and have known each other for a long time. Plus, Ana has not (yet) required Günthardt to travel with her "45 weeks out of the year," something that Günthardt stated openly that he did not desire to do, and finally, she seems to do everything that Günthardt requires of her in the areas of preparation and practice.

Did I mention that she also climbed back into top 50 this week? Don't take that lightly: a 16-spot climb may feel new and refreshing to her since her ranking has gone in the other direction since 2008. Whether it's Ivanovic talking from her heart when she says "I am going out there and trying to have fun, just playing each point the best I can" after reaching the semifinals in Rome, or it's simply Günthardt’s personality finding a voice in Ana, there is no denying that things have taken an upward turn for the Serb, just in time for Roland Garros and Wimbledon, both taking place within the next two months.

Comments and Conversation

May 12, 2010

Umit Oraloglu:

Hi Mert,

Personally I think Ana is mentally all over the place and thats why she has no consistency in her game.

No doubt she has the ability to be a top 10 player for many years to come, however her heads just not right at the moment.

It will take more than just G├╝nthardt’s wise words to make Ana a force in world tennis again.

Regards,

Umit

May 12, 2010

Enis Oksan:

As a tennis enthusiast, I want her to succeed and get back to top 5 one day. I hope she grows with the help of her new coach’s approach and don’t waste her talent. It’s probably so hard focusing on solely tennis with all that fame and not get spoiled. I think that’s what separates the likes of Steffi, Roger, Pistol Pete, Fernando etc with the rest. Otherwise we’ll keep saying whatta waste. Same goes for Sharapova I guess though I’m not a tennis expert.

May 12, 2010

Toots:

Hey Mert!
Really enjoyed reading the article.
I’m a big fan of Ana so I hope Gunthardt can help get her back to the top! I think he’s the right guy for the job.
Take care.
Toots :)

May 12, 2010

Mert Ertunga:

Umit: Good point. At the end, it has to come from within.
Enis: Also a good point. I never thought of the “separation between champions and others” idea as you have stated.
Toots: Glad you enjoyed it :)

Mert

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