24 June 2008

It should be the applause that registers, not just the interview. Back in front of the press Ana Ivanovic was the very model of the meltingly charming and confident world No 1. But out on the court the reaction to her 6-1, 6-2 win over Paraguay’s Rossana De Los Rios had been on the downward slope from polite applause to sympathetic applause to embarrassed silence to the exasperated sigh. Yes, some of this contest was as bad as that.

Part of that was due to the struggles 32-year-old Rossana was having in reaching back to a past whose finest hour was winning the Roland Garros junior event in 1992 when Ana was four years old. Part was having to come on after two unbelievably warm and brilliant hours under the Roger Federer sun. But part too was Ivanovic’s own inability to develop any fluency in her game. Of course it is hard to come on after a star has brought the house down. But we needed the magic of her own leggy song. Yesterday we didn’t get it.

Sure she was soon 3-0 up but this was as much to do with the ineptitude of the opposition than the play of a future Wimbledon champion. Indeed, the only game that De Los Rios took in the first set included a netted forehand from Ivanovic so feeble that the reaction plummeted right down into the bottom zone of exasperated sigh. It was only fitting that the set should end with Los Rios skewing a forehand into the front seats on her own side of the net, swishing her racquet in weary despair and hustling off for a toilet break.

Afterwards, maybe unsurprisingly things were a bit easier. Rossana is quite a lady in her own right. She halted her career to marry former Boca Juniors footballer Gustavo Neffa and have their daughter Ana Paula who now accompanies her mother on the tour and was looking on from the players’ box yesterday. Asked by Serena Williams, no less, whether she wanted to be a player like Rossana, the precocious Ana Paula apparently responded, “No, I want to be like you and win all the tournaments.”

Los Rios has actually won eight ITF titles and has worked hard to get back to a ranking of 103, albeit 102 places behind the six-inch taller and 30lb heavier figure across the net. With a big white plaster on her right knee and a clinging white dress which looked as if it had shrunk in the wash, she appeared something of a battered campaigner and the style police should certainly advise against tucking the spare ball up her skirt so it bulged like some ugly white growth on her right hip. She looked, in boxing terms, the perfect punchbag albeit one with a pony tail so perfectly braided that it would have won the best-turned-out award last week at Royal Ascot.

But while Federer had been glorious, it is in no way misogynous to say that Ivanovic was so pale by comparison so pale that it seemed preposterous that her match was somehow worth the same money. True there were wonderful glimpses of what she could do as she manoeuvred the increasingly static Rossana into no woman’s land and stroked home easy winners. But there was also too much hesitancy in her serve and in her movement around the court. When she jig-jogged on the baseline, you felt she was trying to put the wings back on her heels. She had better get off and find them.

Afterwards in the interview room, such thoughts seemed ungallant to the point of traitorous. Fresh out of the shower, Serbia’s most beautiful gift to the sporting world was all smiling bright-eyed intelligence as she said how pleased she was with her game, how being “No 1” was a privilege as well as a pressure.

She spoke of how well Rossana had played, of how her own movement was much better, of how (surprisingly, if admirably, in a such a willowy six-footer) her own centre of gravity was much lower.

No one could fault her for confidence but she seemed to have been in a different match to the one we were watching. Had she forgotten that the loudest cheer came when Rossana successfully challenged an ace on match point! No doubt she will free up and improve dramatically as the fortnight progresses. She will have to.

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