Justin Gimelstob
Wednesday June 11th, 2008

PARIS -- Ana Ivanovic will be the new No. 1 player on the Sony Ericcson WTA Tour on Monday, and it'll only be a matter of time until she's a household name in the United States. Ivanovic has the rare combination of beauty and skill that translates on and off the court. She has the work ethic and credibility to ward off the inevitable comparisons that will be made with other over-marketed female stars and the legitimate appeal to attract everyone from fans to sponsors alike.

Ivanovic fought off her compatriot Jelena Jankovic in a hard-fought French Open semifinal encounter on Thursday that revealed both Ivanovic's steely resolve as well as her vulnerability. She has yet to win a Grand Slam, having lost two finals in the past year -- at the 2007 French Open to Justine Henin and this year's Australian Open to Maria Sharapova.

With Henin abruptly retiring and Sharapova's continued discomfort on clay, Ivanovic has tread on uncommon territory at this year's French: the role of the favorite. She hasn't even seemed overly fazed, except with the occasional hiccups on her serve.

One of Ivanovic's best qualities is her ability to push through her nerves and play aggressively when it matters most. True to that point, she sealed the match on Thursday with two trademark winners off her favorite shot, her forehand. In fact, her forehand is one of the biggest weapons on the women's tour. It's a spitting image of Steffi Graf's forehand, a strong compliment considering Graf had arguably the best forehand in the history of women's tennis.

Ivanovic has also made huge strides in the past year, due in no small part to her dedication to her fitness. She knew that she needed to get stronger and in better shape in order to reach her goals and, after training hard, she's noticeably quicker and her footwork is more precise. Everyone thinks tennis is mainly about hitting the ball, but the feet and legs are what get one in position to hit the ball most effectively. It's this improved movement that allows Ivanovic to most effectively combine her natural offensive skills with her newly enhanced defensive skills, thus putting considerably greater pressure on her opponents throughout a match.

Ultimately, Ivanovic will soon have America eating out of the palm of her hand. She is charming, sweet and totally endearing. I'm actually staying at the same hotel as her here in Paris, so I see her at breakfast every morning and occasionally out at dinner. Her demeanor is always both friendly and inviting. She has a quiet confidence about her and seems to genuinely enjoy the new challenges that are in front of her as opposed to being weighed down by the burden, as many are.

It might just be that it is all new to her, but I doubt it. I hope after she has won a host of Grand Slams, has Web sites dedicated to her every move and is endorsing everything from toothpaste to orange juice that she still smiles just as innocently. Whether it's this Saturday, next month at Wimbledon or three months from now at the U.S. Open, I have no doubt Ivanovic will hoist a Grand Slam trophy over her head soon.

Former ATP pro Justin Gimelstob will write periodically for SI.com from Roland Garros during the French Open.

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