Memory Lane: A Look Back at the 2008 French Open

 

It’s hard to believe it has already been four years since Ana capture her first, and to this date, only grand slam title of her career at the French Open. In one way, it feels like it was just yesterday; yet in another, it feels like it was an eternity ago. June 7th, 2008 is a date that no Ana Ivanovic fan will ever forget. I still remember that day in great detail; the feelings, emotions, etc. While time has passed, the memory still lives on.

Ana entered the 2008 French Open as the #2 ranked player in the world, thus giving her the #2 seed in Paris. Justine Henin had just shocked the tennis world two weeks earlier, announcing her retirement from the sport. This made the French Open as wide open as ever. With Henin (the defending champ) out of the picture, it enhanced not noly Ana’s chances of winning Roland Garros, but also attaining the coveted #1 ranking. Despite all of this, and the fact Ivanovic reached the final the year prior, not many were expecting her to capture the title. Ana came to Paris after a disappointing first round defeat to Tsvetana Pironkova in Rome. A week prior to that, Ana needed a couple of close three sets wins over Sybille Bammer and Agnes Szavay, before losing to Elena Dementieva in the Berlin semi’s. Her form was a bit shaky, and not exactly that of a slam champion. Ana had a inconsistent 2008, reaching the finals of the Australian Open and winning the Pacific Life Open at Indian Wells, but had poor results mixed in between. It was unclear which Ana would show up in Paris.

In the back of my mind, I certainly knew Ana had the capability of winning the French that year, but I would be lying to you if I said I was overly optimistic. ESPN gave their expert predictions prior to the start of the years second major, and none of them picked Ana to come away with the Suzanne Lenglen trophy. In fact, two of the five experts had Ana down as an “early exit”. Their reasoning was based mostly on Ana’s form coming in. But while some tried to tamper their expectations, hope was still high. Ana’s star was on the rise, and she was knocking on the door of that elusive first major championship.

First Round: Ivanovic defeats Arvidsson 6-2, 7-5.

Ana opened her French Open campaign against her BFF Sofia Arvidsson of Sweden. This was the second consecutive year in which Ivanovic and Arvidsson met in the opening round at Roland Garros. In 2007, Ana defeated the Swede 6-2, 6-0. The two once again put their friendship aside for one match, facing off against each other in the first round. It was a routine first set for the Serb, who took it 6-2.

The 2nd set was more of a challenge however. Every game was tight, with lots of deuces and break points featured. Ivanovic found herself down a break at 1-3, but immediately recovered it. On serve at 6-5, Arvidsson had three game points to extend the match to a 2nd set tiebreak, but couldn’t convert on any of them. Ivanovic ended the match with an blazing, down the line forehand winner on break point, to seal the victory. It wasn’t the smoothest win to open a slam, but she got the job done, advancing to the second round. She finished the match with 36 winners and 30 unforced errors. You can watch the whole match below.

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Second Round: Ivanovic defeats Safarova 6-1, 6-2.

On a breezy Wednesday afternoon in Paris, Ana entered the Bullring to take on Lucie Safarova of the Czech Republic. After holding serve in a tight opening game, Ana broke Safarova to love, seizing an early 2-0 lead. Ivanovic only lost two points combined in the next three games, as she was in an absolute zone, blasting huge serves and forehand winners all over the court. Lucie finally held serve, avoiding the bagel, but Ana responded with a love hold to take the 1st set 6-1.

Ana continued her brilliant play in the 2nd set, jumping out to a 4-0 lead. Her shot making was excellent, not missing much. While Safarova was able to hold serve in her last two service games, Ana never relented a break. She won the match 6-1, 6-2, to advance into the 3rd round.

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Third Round: Ivanovic defeats Wozniacki 6-4, 6-1.

A Ivanovic/Wozniacki match during a slam would have been top billing in the past couple of years. Wozniacki has spent a better half of the past couple of years as the #1 player in the world and one of the most recognizable stars in tennis. This wasn’t the case when the two met back in 2008. It was the second time that year that both Ana and Caro squared off against each other at a major. They first met at that years Australian Open in the 4th round. Ivanovic defeated the then 64th ranked Dane 6-1, 7-6 (2).

Wozniacki came into the French Open ranked 34th, and seeded 30th. The up and coming 17 year old was looking to pull off the upset. Things started brightly for Ana, who broke for a 2-0 lead. Wozniacki however, was able to break back, taking the next three games for a 3-2 lead. At 3-3, both players exchanged breaks to level the match at 4-4. Ana broke Caro again for a 5-4 lead, and this time held on to take the opening set 6-4.

Wozniacki held to open the 2nd set, but that would be the last game she would win for the remainder of the match. Ana reeled of six straight games to take the match 6-4, 6-1. Ivanovic now found herself at the midway point of the French Open, just four wins away from glory.

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Fourth Round: Ivanovic defeats Cetkovska 6-0, 6-0.

Petra Cetkovska has become a thorn in the side of Ana throughout the past year. She knocked the Serb out of Wimbledon a year ago 6-2, 7-6 (0). Cetkovska then repeated her performance by defeating Ana again in Doha 6-4, 6-4, earlier this year. This wasn’t the case back in 2008 however. Ivanovic didn’t just route Cetkovska, she doubled bageled her.  This was only the second time in Ana’s career in which she had double bageled an opponent. The previous time came in Warsaw 2005, where she double bageled Martina Sucha. She has yet to double bagel someone since the 2008 French. This is about impressive a performance comes, especially on this stage. A pretty easy victory from the looks of it, but don’t tell Ana that. “It was much tougher than it probably looked, or the results indicates. I had to work really hard, and I played almost without mistake today,” Ana said in her post match presser.

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Quarterfinals: Ivanovic defeats Schnyder 6-3, 6-2.

For the third time in her career, Ana found herself in the quarterfinals of the French Open. She was slated to meet Serena Williams in this round when the draw came out. Ana had never defeated Serena in her career, and got a big break when Katarina Srebotnik upset the #5 seed Williams in the 3rd round. With Serena out, the 10th seeded Patty Schnyder made her way into the final eight. Schnyder came into the match holding a 4-3 head to head advantage over Ana, but Ivanovic won the previous three meetings; two of them coming on clay. With Ana showing good form through the first week, and the draw beginning to break her way; Ana suddenly found herself as the favorite to win it all.

Ana jumped out to an 2-0 lead, only to surrender the break right back in the third game of the match. Later, leading 3-2; Ana broke Schnyder and stayed ahead for good this time. At 5-2, Ana had a break point to take the opening set, but couldn’t convert. She went on to calmly serve out the first set to love in the next game.

After holding serve to begin the 2nd set, Ana fell behind 0-40 on her serve. Facing three break points, Ana recovered to win the next five points; consolidating her opening break. Leading 3-1, Ivanovic broke Schnyder again to take a commanding double break, 4-1 lead. Ana later served the match out, saving a break point in the process. Game, set, match Ivnaovic 6-3, 6-2. Now the battle everybody had been waiting for was on; Ana Ivanovic vs Jelena Jankovic.

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Semifinals: Ivanovic defeats Jankovic 6-4, 3-6, 6-4.

The semifinal match between Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic was viewed in some eyes as the de facto final. The stakes were enormous. Not only was a spot in the final on the line, but so was the world #1 ranking. With Ivanovic sitting at #2 in the world and Jankovic at #3, the winner would be guaranteed the top spot in the WTA world rankings, regardless of the outcome of the actual final itself. If that wasn’t enough pressure, the two Serbian rivals were also looking to make history of their own, by becoming the first Serbian female player to capture a grand slam title. Whoever came away as the victor of this match, would be in primed position to do so. How Ana nerves would hold up, was a huge question mark going in.

It was an intense match, with several momentum changes. Jankovic jumped out to an early 3-0, single break lead in the 1st set. However, Ivanovic turned it around, taking six of the next seven games to win the opening set 6-4.

The roles were reversed in the 2nd set. This time, Ana was the one who attained the early break, going up 3-1. Ivanovic looked to be in complete control of the match, having just won 9 out of 11 games. But things quickly unraveled for Ana, and the entire match quickly flipped on a dime. Jelena won the next five games to take the 2nd set 6-2, then broke Ana off the bat to begin the 3rd set, seizing a early 2-0 lead. Jankovic reeled off seven consecutive games and Ana’s dream of reaching another final looked to be slipping away from her. But as was the case in the previous two sets, getting the the early break was a kiss of death. Down 1-3, Ana leveled the match at 4-4. After holding serve to take a 5-4 lead, Ana was a game away from becoming the new world number one and a French Open finalist. Down 15-30 of Jankovic’s serve, Ana hit a beautiful drop shot to get it to 30-30. In the next point, Ana hit a cross court forehand winner after a 12 shot rally, giving her a match point. The point left commentator Mary Carillo saying, “she’s playing like number one right now”. On match point, Ana smacked a forehand return winner off a Jankovic 2nd serve to seal the victory. As broadcaster Dick Enberg put it, “Ana Ivanovic, the world’s new number one, is in the finals of the French Open.”

This match, still to this day, remains my favorite Ana Ivanovic match of all time. Below is video of the match in its entirity, from the original ESPN braodcast. I still get goosebumps watching it, especially that final game.

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After the match, Ana was shocked to learn she had become the new world #1. Her reaction upon learning her new ranking was priceless. According to this piece written by Matt Cronin for Inside Tennis, right after Ivanovic won the French; her team did everything to prevent Ana from knowing the #1 ranking was on the line.

“Luckily I didn’t know [about No.1] because playing her is always very emotional. Lots of people back home are paying attention, so if I knew we were fighting for No. 1, it might have been too much.”

Ana later described the moment as “It was like a wall coming at me.”

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Ivanovic expanded a little more about the #1 ranking when she talked with Peter Bodo for tennis.com, the day after her thrilling semifinal victory. Among other things they discussed was her win over JJ, her admiration for Rafa (who was playing Djokovic in the semifinals while the interview was taking place), and how much tennis has helped change Serbia. My favorite part of the article though, was Bodo’s description of Ana and the impression he came away with from the interview with her:

In person, Ana doesn’t really suggest the anodyne, formidably pretty and proper girl that she may appear to be on court. For one thing, she’s much taller, and more slender, than she appears on the box. And when she’s not focused on her tennis, she’s giggly – not vacuous or airhead giggly, but shy, tall girl giggly. She’s a master of the self-conscious laugh that really means: Oh God, somebody is talking to me, I’d better not let on that I’m feeling a little self-conscious and insecure here! I say this because I sense that some people think Ivanovic is cultivating an image, or artfully concealing her inner (rhymes with) vitch. I don’t think that’s fair or accurate. Face-to-face, she’s nowhere near as self-controlled and poised as she appears on the court

This is the girl that I had come to love, and she was now just one win away from her ultimate dream.

Final: Ivanovic defeats Safina 6-4, 6-3.

Awaiting Ana in the final was the #13 seed Dinara Safina. The surprise finalist reach the French Open finals with a string of upset wins. In the 4th round, Safina knocked off world #1 Maria Sharapova in a tight three set match. She repeated that performance in the quarterfinals, taking out the 7th seed Elena Dementieva, before defeating the 4th seed Svetlena Kuznetsova in straights sets in the semifinals.

Ana entered this match as the heavy favorite. She had more experience on this stage, having already played in two slam finals. The first one came a year prior in which Ana went down in defeat to Justine Henin 6-1, 6-2. Ana’s second slam final was a much more promising performance, falling to Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open final earlier that season, 7-5, 6-3. Sometimes as an athlete, you have to fall a few times before reaching the top. Michael Jordan’s Bulls lost to the Piston’s two straight years in the Eastern Conference Finals before finally winning the 3rd time, leading to his first of six NBA Championships. Peyton Manning’s Colts had to lose to the New England Patriots a couple times in the playoffs, before finally defeating them on his third attempt in the 2006 AFC Championship game, carrying Manning to his first ever Super Bowl. For Ana, the third time was also the charm. Ana herself even admitted that she learned a lot from her last two slam finals defeats:

“The other day someone asked me, ‘Are you going to forget the final and play a different one?’ But I don’t want to forget it, because it was a great learning experience. Obviously, I feel like a different player coming into this French Open. A lot of experience I gained from that final and the final in Australia, so I really hope I can make one more step.”

Armed now not only with a lethal game, but the experience of having already been in this situation, Ana was ready to finish the job this time. Things started nicely for Ana, as she broke the Russian in the opening game of the match.  Later up 3-1, Ana got her second break to take a commanding 4-1 lead. With a game point to go up 5-1, Safina came up with a couple of huge forehand return winners, and won the next three points to get one of the two breaks back. Safina held to love in the next game, and suddenly things begin to get tight. Ana was still up a break though, and had a 40-0 lead on her own serve. Then suddenly, Dinara reeled of five straight points to break Ana again, leveling the first set at 4-4. It seemed as if the pressure was getting to Ana, and one had to wonder if she was going to let this match get away from her. Safina was so brilliant at coming from behind in her previous matches to pull off upsets, and it started to look as if she was about to do it again. But Ana refocused, breaking Safina right back to take a 5-4 lead. Serving for the first set, Ana found herself facing break points yet again. This time, however; she saved both of them and took the first set 6-4. It was a nerve-wracking set in which Ana didn’t play her best tennis, but none of that mattered. She was now just a set away from grand slam glory, and she and her fans could taste it.

Both players begin the second set with a hold of serve. With a break opportunity on Dinara’s 2nd serve, Ana struck a vicous forehand return to get the early break in the second set at 2-1. Ivanovic consolidated her break for a 3-1 lead, moving ever closer to victory. Ana later saved break point, up 3-2, to extend her lead to 4-2. A few games later, up 5-3, Ana broke Safina to love, converting on her first ever championship point at a slam. Ana Ivanovic was now a French Open champion.

It was the biggest moment of Ana’s life, and a thrill (or trill, as Ana would say) for all her fans watching around the world.  After converting championship point, Ana ran into the stands to hug her team and family, it what had to be possibly the most enjoyable moment of her entire career.

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Justine Henin had the honors to handing the Suzanne Lenglen trophy to Ana during the trophy ceremony. A emotional Ana, then looked up as the Serbian national anthem begin to play.

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The Celebration

Ana arrived home to Belgrade, shortly after winning the French Open, to thousands of fans awaiting her in the city square. A year earlier, after finishing as runner up; Ana along with Novak Djokovic and Jelena Jankovic, were greeted by thousands of Serbian fans in the same spot, celebrating what the trio had done for Serbian tennis. This time, the celebration was all for her. Ana Ivanovic had made history becoming the first woman from the country of Serbia to win a grand slam and attain the world number one ranking. Speaking to the large enthusiastic, young crowd; Ana had this to say:

“I celebrated the biggest success in my career in Paris, but no celebration can match what you prepared for me. I have dreamt about this for years and I am happy that I can celebrate the realization of this dream in my hometown with all of you.”

The Aftermath

At 20 years of age, Ana Ivanovic was on top of the world. She had accomplished her two biggest goals; winning a grand slam and becoming world #1. The girl who had grown up in war torn Serbia, who practiced on a makeshift tennis court in a indoor swimming pool, had conquered her dreams. It was the classic rags to riches story that endears to so many people.

Ivanovic was supposed to be the game’s next big star, win multiple slams and stay near the top for a long time. She was a marketer’s dream. Time Magazine dubbed Ana as Tennis’s Next Megastar. However, this never came to fruition. Four years later, Ana has yet to reach a quarterfinal at a slam since her triumph in Paris. Two years ago, her ranking fell all the way down to #65 in the world and was she losing regularly in the first round of tournaments. Ana has made first round exits at each of the four slams since the 2009 US Open, and has had disappointing losses to the likes of Julie Coin, Kateryna Bondarenko, Johanna Larsson. But this post isn’t about the negatives, it’s about the good times that we remember from 2008. These past four years have really put things in perspective, and makes you appreciate her French Open title even more.

There will be some who say Ana got lucky, and that her French Open win was a fluke. That is complete and utter nonsense. Did Ana get some breaks with her draw? Sure. She wasn’t the first and won’t be the last. You play the draw that you are given and beat the players who are right in front of you. Ana did her job, and did it exceptionally well. Ivanovic pretty much rolled through her first five matches before going to battle with her Serbian rival in the semifinals. I’m sorry, but when you reach three slam finals and a semi during a five slam stretch, winning one of them is not a fluke. Her ranking at the time reflected the quality of her game. Was defeating Venus Williams in straight sets at the Australian Open a fluke? Was defeating then world #3 Kuznetova in the quarterfinals of the 2007 French Open, following that up with a 6-2, 6-1 win over Maria Sharapova in the semifinals that year a fluke? Just because Ana has struggled in recent years, doesn’t change the fact that she was a great tennis player back in 2007-2008. She earned every victory and every title. People who say otherwise are just speaking out of jealousy or irrational hatred. Not many people can say they have won a grand slam and carry the honor of being a former world #1, but Ana can say that. It’s something she will carry with her for the rest of her life, and nobody can ever take it away from her.

Whether or not Ana wins another major in her career remains to be seen. She is still only 24 years old, and has time to capture that elusive second slam title. I believe that second opportunity will come at some point. The game is still there. Ana has progressed nicely under the guidance of Nigel Sears and is looking to make a comeback to the top. Who knows, maybe she’ll make a run into the 2nd week this year.

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