FLUSHING MEADOWS, NY – Tennis is a numbers game, but Ana Ivanovic refuses to be defined by the digits next to her name. The former World No. 1 is not seeded in this US Open, but that hasn’t stopped her from surging into the third round for the first time in three years. Ivanovic stomped 21st-seeded Zheng Jie, 6-3, 6-0, in a commanding conquest and has a shot to go deeper in the draw with the departure of 13th-seeded Marion Bartoli.
In a match of French women, 157th-ranked wild card Virginie Razzano surprised former Wimbledon finalist Bartoli, 7-5, 6-4. It’s a break for Ivanovic, who will face Razzano rather than Bartoli. Two-handed terror Bartoli beat Ivanovic in straight sets in Stanford last month.
The 40th-ranked Ivanovic has surrendered just eight games in reaching the third round and is playing with much more confidence than she was two years ago when as World No. 1 she fell to 188th-ranked qualifier Julie Coin in Flushing Meadows.
“I think rankings obviously tell a lot about the player, but I think just the way you feel about your game at the time,” Ivanovic said. “I remember a couple years ago when I was here and I was saying, ‘Even though I’m No. 1, I don’t feel I’m playing as No. 1.’ Now I’m ranked, I really don’t know what. But I feel like I’m playing like a top 10 player, you know, and I have confidence that I can beat these players. That’s huge for me.”
She looked particularly pumped up for today’s rematch with Zheng and with good reason. Two years ago, the then 133rd-ranked Zheng became the third lowes-tranked player to defeat a World No. 1 when she pounded out a 6-1, 6-4 win over Ivanovic at Wimbledon.
This time around, Ivanovic played first-strike tennis in firing her forehand with ambition and accuracy.
The tennis treadmill seemed stuck in reverse for Ivanovic, who had won back-to-back matches at just three of the first 11 tournaments she played this season, reaching the semifinals at Brisbane in her first event of the season and advancing to the Rome semifinals in May.
With her confidence in tatters and game leaking errors, Ivanovic watched her ranking fall to No. 63 and was denied a Rogers Cup wild card as the tournament director publicly suggested she was not worthy of a wild card. That rebuke seemed to fire up Ivanovic and she surged to the Cincinnati semifinals last month.
Ivanovic played with a fearlessness on her ascent to the top of the tennis rankings and admits she played with the apprehension of a woman bearing the burden of trying to defend ranking points.
“I see myself also as two different persons,” Ivanovic said. “Once you’re actually coming up and you have no expectations, you are hungry for success, and you really don’t know what the stakes are. You just go for it. You have no fear. You play freely against anyone you come up against.”
The pressure constricted Ivanovic’s competitive instincts and she broke down in tears after losses earlier this season.
“Once you actually get in a position to defend some points and there is more outside pressure coming in, it is a lot different story,” Ivanovic said. “Because even though you perceive yourself the same or maybe even better, if you’re improving, still there is a lot of outside effect. That creates some doubts and obviously pressure. Everyone deals with it differently. That’s what I feel it was the biggest change with me, is that I managed to sort of let go of this.”
Winning six of her last seven matches has been emotionally liberating for Ivanovic, who looks like a player no longer afraid of losing.
“Now I feel, you know, as I am just coming up again, and I have really nothing to lose. I got that joy of competing again,” Ivanovic said.
Rich Pagliaro is the editor of TennisNow.com.