In 2008, Ana Ivanovic won the French Open and Indian Wells, was a finalist at the Australian Open and ascended to No. 1 in the WTA Tour rankings. She's spent the last half decade trying to regain that lofty status in the game, having plummeted to No. 65 two years after her Grand Slam breakthrough.
But the 26-year-old Serb has gradually worked her way back into the mix, and after two early-season titles, a quarterfinal appearance at the Australian Open (where she upset Serena Williams in the fourth round) and last week's run to the Porsche Tennis Grand Prix final, Ivanovic is ranked 12th and within striking distance of rejoining the top 10 for the first time since 2009. That achievement would no doubt please Curtis Biernat of Michigan, one of Ivanovic's (and the Detroit Tigers') most dedicated fans. Biernat, a 25-year-old graduate student, shared his thoughts on the roller-coaster ride of passionately pulling for Ivanovic for the last eight years. Follow him on Twitter @Curtos07.
SI.com: When did you become an Ana fan?
Biernat: I began following Ana during the summer of 2006, the year she won the U.S. Open Series. I was still more of a casual fan of the game without a particular favorite, so I wasn't as invested. After catching a couple of her matches that summer, I was hooked. Her title at the Rogers Cup in Montreal really got my attention, and I have followed her career ever since. However, it wasn't until the 2007 French Open when I became a true diehard and began following her every move. That decision has probably taken a few years off my life, but I certainly don't regret it.
SI.com: Why are you an Ana fan?
Biernat: I'm an Ana fan first and foremost because I find her to be a very likable person who is really easy to root for. Her down-to-earth, bubbly persona is really endearing. She comes across as a very well-rounded human being and she has that girl-next-door thing going for her. I have never once heard a single bad thing spoken about Ana from people who know her or from those who work in and around the game. After all these years, she has basically remained the same person. Ana didn't allow success and fame or the difficulties of her post-French Open title slump to change her. The way she has handled herself in the spotlight through these times is admirable.
An individual sport like tennis is different from team sports like baseball, football and basketball. In a team sport, you root for the name on the front of the uniform. The players are always changing and you may not even like all of them. You like the team, because usually that is the team you grew up with. Tennis is different. You're rooting for the individual. There may be other tennis players I enjoy watching for their game and skill set, but I just don't feel a connection with them because, for whatever reason, I can't relate to them personally. It says a lot that Ana still has a legion of passionate fans all these years after her 2008 Roland Garros title. Despite her struggles, she's still one of the more popular players on the WTA Tour because she is a great ambassador for the game off the court. You may not be a fan of her as a tennis player, but it is hard to not like her as a person.
SI.com: I know you read pretty much anything and everything about Ana. She's been criticized for myriad reasons since the French Open title. Some people don't like how much she fist-pumps. Others find her game flawed. What are the most frustrating criticisms that you constantly read?
Biernat: Criticisms about her game don't bother me much because it is part of sports and just about every high-profile athlete has to deal with it on some level. There are some valid criticism to be made. Ana does have flaws in her game, and there is nothing wrong with pointing them out and critiquing them. I have even been critical myself at times.
When it comes to fist-pumping, I can see why some people would find it annoying. After all, there are quirks other players have that grate on me. To each their own. The one issue I do have with the fist-pumping criticism is the double standards some fans seem to have. Ivanovic is probably the most criticized player in tennis for her fist pumps, but she is hardly the only one who does it. Yet, it seems other players get a free pass from fans. I just wish people would be more consistent in their complaints. It seems hypocritical to me to slam one player for doing something while letting your own favorite skate free. Then again, I guess we're all guilty of doing this to an extent.
However, the complaint that really gets under my skin more than anything else is when I hear detractors argue that Ana doesn't take her tennis seriously enough because she is too distracted by off-court opportunities, such as photo shoots. You don't hear this as much now as you did three to four years ago, but it was very irritating when I did hear it. This criticism came not just from fans but also from some in the media.
As with the fist-pumping issue, Ivanovic is far from the only athlete who takes part in extracurricular activities, but she seemed to get an unequal amount of criticism for it. Critics began blaming her post-RG slump on a "lack of focus" on her tennis, despite the fact she was doing just as much off-court stuff in the preceding years when she was playing the best tennis of her career. I've always found connecting her tennis results to what she does off the court to be pretty lazy and irresponsible. It's easier to connect those two dots rather than solve the bigger puzzle of what went wrong with her game and the psychological aspect of it. The truth is, unless you are part of Ivanovic's inner circle, you can't really pass judgment on her work ethic and priorities. As much as we all like to pretend to know everything about players, none of us can truly understand the amount of hard work athletes put in on a daily basis.
SI.com: You were a fan of Ana before she won the French, when she was more of a promising contender, and you've been staunchly behind her since she won the French, when she's struggled to get back to the top. How do you contrast what the fan experience has been like pre-RG and post-RG?
Biernat: They're two completely different experiences. In the one-year stretch between the 2007 and 2008 French Opens, Ana spent most of that time as a top-five player, reaching three Slam finals and a Slam semifinal and winning three WTA titles (Los Angeles, Luxembourg and Indian Wells), all culminating with her first major championship, at Roland Garros, while becoming No. 1 at the same time. She turned 20 during this period and it felt like this was just the beginning of great things to come. If she could do all this before the age of 21, what would she do when she had fully matured? The thinking of many at the time was that winning the French Open would give Ana a wealth of confidence and that the sky was the limit.
Of course, what occurred in the coming months and years was anything but what we expected. Flash forward two years, and in roughly the same time period, post-Wimbledon 2009 to Wimbledon 2010, Ana won back-to-back matches only twice. She slipped from No. 1 to No. 65, and her career seemed to have fallen into an abyss.
Pre-RG 2008 was so fun because you felt like you were watching a star develop. Her career was full of promise, and as a fan, I always looked forward to seeing her take the next step. When she was down in a match, you didn't feel like she was out of it. You always believed a comeback was possible and you were confident in it happening. Pre-RG 2008, Ana was 41-16 in three-setters. She is 42-48 since. She was 25-12 in tiebreakers before RG 2008. She is 34-37 since. In those days, you had full faith in Ana coming through in the crucial moments. That faith has now been replaced by fear.
Being an Ana fan post-2008 is a lot like being a Boston Red Sox fan pre-2004. You're always waiting for the other shoe to drop. She may be up a set and a break, and while you're hoping she can reach the finish line, there is always a part of your mind wondering what will go wrong this time. With that being said, things aren't quite as bad as they were in 2009-2011. She has found some stability over the past couple of years and I don't fear the early-round upset at a major tournament to an unseeded player as much as I did a few years ago.
SI.com: She's had her fair share of highs and lows. What have been the highs?
Biernat: The obvious high for me was Roland Garros 2008. It was the pinnacle of Ivanovic's career (at least to this point), and the satisfaction of seeing her finally win in her third Slam final cannot be matched by anything else she has done before or since. However, it was her semifinal win over Jelena Jankovic that I remember most fondly six years later. It was a battle between, at times, bitter rivals from the same country; it was the No. 2 seed vs the No. 3 seed with the No. 1 ranking on the line; and, in retrospect, it was probably a career-defining match for both of them.
It was also a roller coaster of a match. Ana was leading 6-4, 3-1 before suddenly dropping seven games in a row. Down an early break in the decisive third set and with Jankovic having all the momentum, it was starting to look like Ivanovic's maiden Slam would have to wait another day. But she turned things around, began firing forehands left and right and pulled away with a thrilling 6-4, 3-6, 6-4 victory. I still get goosebumps watching the final game, when she was playing her best and blasting forehand winners off Jankovic's serve to clinch victory. Mary Carillo said it best, "She's playing like No. 1 right now."
The 2008 Australian Open was another high. She scored one of her best victories of her career, in the quarterfinals over Venus Williams, and came back from a 6-0, 2-0 deficit to defeat Daniela Hantuchova in the semis, before losing to Maria Sharapova in what was dubbed the "Glam Slam" final.
SI.com: Not to get all emo, but what were the worst moments?
Biernat: Where do I begin? Unfortunately, there have been so many since her triumph at the French Open. The two that stand out the most, however, are her second-round loss to Julie Coin at the 2008 U.S. Open, where Ana was the No. 1 seed, and her fourth-round loss to Kim Clijsters at the 2011 Sony Open, where she led 5-1, 40-0 in the third set before losing the decisive tiebreaker.
The 2008 U.S. Open defeat was painful both figuratively and literally, as she was dealing with a bad thumb that clearly affected her. Still, no one could have foreseen Ana losing to a qualifier, ranked 188th, who at 25 was making her first WTA main-draw appearance. Coin became the lowest-ranked player to upset the reigning No. 1 in WTA history. In a span of three months, Ana went from celebrating the biggest triumph of her career to suffering her worst defeat. That was a pretty bizarre summer.
While the U.S. Open loss hurt, the loss to Clijsters in Miami was the very definition of heartbreak. At 5-1, 40-0, I thought it was over. Ana was going to pull the upset. In my mind, I was already celebrating what I thought was going to be a momentous victory. Then point by point, game by game, what seemed like a sure victory begin slipping away. It felt like air slipping out of a balloon. This was by far the most deflating loss I have ever dealt with as a tennis fan. In the end, I just found myself staring at my computer screen dumbfounded by what had just happened. I was in disbelief for days and the loss still hurts three years later. Sports.
SI.com: I know from following you on Twitter that get pretty torn up over her losses. Can you articulate why they affect you like they do? Do you get the same way watching NFL or baseball?
Biernat: I don't get quite as torn up over Ana's losses as I did a couple of years ago because I have learned to control my expectations with her. When you get your hopes too high, that is when defeat hurts the most. It is the hope that kills you. Each situation is different, though. For example, given her draw, I didn't go into the Australian Open expecting Ana to reach the quarterfinals this year. Serena Williams was a roadblock in her section and the prohibitive favorite in their fourth-round match. Given their history (Ana had never won a set off Serena in four meetings), it was difficult to imagine her winning that match. But Ana plays one of the best matches of her life and pulls off the stunning upset. She was 9-0 on the year, having just beaten the best player in the world, and enters the quarters as the favorite against Genie Bouchard. She then loses that match and sustains an injury in the process. That was a tough pill to swallow. It is these kind of situations that pains you as a fan because your expectations change, thus your emotions change.
Her losses also affect me because she is the only player on either tour in whom I'm truly invested emotionally. So while other fans have multiple players they can turn to when one of their favorites goes out, I basically have nobody. When Ana is out, I'm watching the remainder of a tournament as a fan of tennis rather than a fan of any particular player.
I can relate this to my baseball fandom. I am a diehard Detroit Tigers fan. During my childhood, they were a laughingstock. While I enjoyed going to games, I enjoyed them for the baseball, which is my favorite sport. The results barely had any impact on my enjoyment of the game because nobody expected anything from the Tigers. They were awful. That all changed in 2006, when they had a magical run to the World Series, and they have been perennial contenders ever since.
Now I live and die with them on every pitch, even in April, because I have such high hopes for them. During the 2013 ALCS against the Red Sox, having already taken the first game of the series at Fenway Park, Detroit led 5-0 in the sixth inning with a no-hitter intact. I could taste a 2-0 series lead coming back to Detroit for Games 3-5. My mind was already prematurely thinking ahead to a possible World Series berth. Then in the eighth inning, the bullpen imploded. David Ortiz hit a two-out grand slam to tie the game. The ball barely made it over Torii Hunter's glove and landed in the Boston bullpen, inches away from being caught and preserving a 5-1 lead to end the inning. The Red Sox would win it in the ninth to even the series and they would eventually win the whole thing.
I was gutted after that game. It felt eerily similar to Ana's match against Clijsters in Miami three years ago. You think you have victory in hand and then poof! It's gone. You're just left sitting there in disbelief, asking, How did this happen?
SI.com: What do you make of Ana's start to 2014?
Biernat: It's been a pleasant surprise. I came into the season with no real expectations. Her victory over Serena in Melbroune was a real stunner, and winning two titles before the clay season is a career first. She has had some frustrating performances, too, but overall I am quite satisfied with how the year has gone.
SI.com: Why do you think it's coming together for her now?
Biernat: I can't say for sure, but I do believe having a Serbian team around her has made her more relaxed. She seems to be having more fun these days. In the past, I sometimes got the feeling that she put more pressure on herself while working with some of the bigger-name coaches. Now that Ana is around people she is more familiar with and can better relate to, I get the sense that she doesn't feel the burden to live up to the expectations of an outsider.
SI.com: What are you expectations for the rest of her career? Can she win another Slam?
Biernat: Realistically, I just don't see another Slam in the cards. I would love to be proved wrong, but she is just too inconsistent to win a major at this point. A lot would have to go right. What we've seen from Ana in recent months is kind of what I expect to see from her in the next couple of years. She is always going to be an up-and-down player, but if she can get just a tad bit more consistent, she can be top 10 again and put herself in the conversation for the WTA Championships for the next couple of seasons. That is her ceiling.
SI.com: What do you make of her social media presence? She seems to be dominating Twitter, much to my surprise.
Biernat: For years, I have always selfishly wanted to see Ana join Twitter, but I understood her reluctance. Twitter has its obvious drawbacks for high-profile athletes who have to deal with a lot of negative stuff from Internet trolls. But as much as I wanted her to be part of the Twitterverse, I had my doubts as to whether she would be good at it. I couldn't have been more wrong. She's been killing it. Whether she is tweeting pics from Instagram, making jokes or interacting with other players, she has been awesome on social media. Her personality really shows. I obviously already knew she had a great personality (a huge reason why I am a fan of hers), but even I had no idea that she was this witty. She's one of the three best WTA tweeters, right up there with Andrea Petkovic and Laura Robson.
SI.com: Favorite off-court Ana moment?
Biernat: There are many to choose from, but I have always loved this behind-the-scenes video Ana did during the 2008 clay season. It gives an up-close and personal look at her typical day during a tournament. (Click here for Part I, Part II and Part III.)
Another moment that comes to mind is the karaoke video she did at Roland Garros in 2007. She is such a dork here. Man, I miss those days.