Ana Ivanovic hands Maria Sharapova first clay loss of season
ROME -- Ana Ivanovic took down Maria Sharapova 6-1, 6-4 on Thursday to advance to the quarterfinals of the Italian Open. The loss snapped Sharapova's 12-match winning streak on clay, and it was the first time he Russian lost on the surface to anyone other than Serena Williams since 2011.
Sharapova, who won the Porsche Grand Prix and Madrid Open in her last two tournaments, admitted her success may have caught up with her. She won six matches in eight days last week, and she showed signs of exhaustion during a hard-fought, straight-set victory over Monica Puig in her opening match Wednesday.
"Of course my energy level was not at its peak today, but I thought Ana played a really great match," Sharapova said. "She came up with winners from all over the court, and she was the better player. That's the bottom line."
Ivanovic finished with 22 winners to 13 unforced errors and served at 70 percent. Sharapova finished with 16 winners to 14 unforced errors.
Sharapova lost the first set in just 31 minutes, but upped her game in the second set with some powerful hitting. Serving for the match at 5-4, 30-all in the second set, Ivanovic's nervous double fault gave Sharapova a break point with the opportunity to level the set. But the Russian couldn't convert, and Ivanovic steeled herself to finally serve out her 29th WTA win of the season.
"She wasn't making any errors and was consistent with her game plan," Sharapova said. "I felt like when I hit a good shot, instead of moving forward or getting ready for the next one, I didn't do much on the next one."
Ivanovic had lost seven straight matches against Sharapova, dating to 2007. The two faced off less than three weeks ago at the Porsche Grand Prix, where Ivanovic built a set and a break lead before losing 3-6, 6-4, 6-1.
"I felt in Stuttgart I was really close to beating her," Ivanovic said. "So it feels amazing that I actually backed myself up from that good performance and played even better today."
The upset may be a blessing in disguise for Sharapova, who will now have time to rest both physically and mentally before the French Open, where was a finalist last year. Her plan now is to shrug off the loss and head to Paris.
"It doesn't take anything away from the last two weeks and the way that I've played," she said. "So I'm quite excited about the weeks coming up at the Grand Slams."
Sharapova's loss felt monumental given her clay-court streak, but Ivanovic's resurgence continues to be one of the most impressive stories of the season. Ivanovic is having the best start of her career, winning two titles and notching some big wins, including an upset of Serena Williams at the Australian Open. She's now made the quarterfinals or better at her last four tournaments, three of which were on clay.
"Throughout the clay-court [tournaments] I really improved from tournament to tournament," Ivanovic told SI.com earlier in the week. "Last week in Madrid, I really felt like I had a lot of chance [to win the tournament] and I felt a little overwhelmed because I was winning a lot and I felt like a favorite. It's a new position again, but it's something now I have to accept and deal with it because it's a new feeling."
She was more than familiar with that feeling back in 2008, when she won the French Open and took over the No. 1 ranking at just 20 years old. Ivanovic couldn't maintain her place among the top players, though. Her ranking dropped to as low as No. 65 in 2010 and she struggled in every area of her game. Famous coaches like Sven Groeneveld (who now coaches Sharapova), Heinz Gunthardt and Nigel Sears signed on to help, but Ivanovic still seemed so far from returning to elite status.
Now Ivanovic looks poised to get back into the top 10 for the first time since her illustrious 2008 season. If you ask her why it took her so long to look comfortable on the court again, she points to her own maturity. She just just needed time to find herself and get comfortable in her own skin.
"[The early success] was very overwhelming, not because of the success itself but because of the attention, because I'm a very shy person. I struggled with that," she said. "So when I was successful and everyone wanted to see me play, I actually wanted to go back in my shell. So first of all I had to get comfortable with that.
"Then it's been a process of finding what works for me. I had lots of coaches, and no one could help me bring out what's my best and no one could bring that fire back. I know a lot of it comes from within, but it's also the team that helps you. All of the coaches, I didn't feel like they cared that much. They were there, but they weren't really there. Every time I tried to talk they were like, 'Yeah, you deal with it. It's your problem.' With this team now, it's been a team."
At the end of last summer, Ivanovic ditched the idea of a brand-name coach. She's now coached by Nemanja Kontic and works with fitness coach Zlatko Novkovic and physio Branko Penic. She credits them for understanding her ambitious, emotionally volatile and philosophical personality.
"I know that every fear that you have is nonsense, it's in your mind," she said. "But for the person it's very real. So for me I felt like they were really embracing this and that made me a better player and a better person and made me understand better who I am." Ivanovic will play Carla Suarez Navarro in the quarterfinals on Friday. Suarez Navarro advanced after Simona Halep withdrew with an abdominal injury.