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When Ana Ivanovic and Nicole Vaidisova took to Centre Court in July 2007 for their Wimbledon quarterfinal, many tuned in to compare and contrast the games of two of the most talented teenagers on the WTA Tour. Spectators were treated to one of the best matches of the season, and the two teenagers walked away on entirely different career trajectories. Given her lack of success since, it's easy to forget that Ivanovic was once a Wimbledon semifinalist. She booked her spot that year by coming back from 3-5 down in the final set and saving three match points to beat Vaidisova 4-6, 6-2, 7-5.
When it comes to recent WTA lore, this match still has myth-making status. Ivanovic and Vaidisova, with prodigious power and billboard looks, were already on their way to becoming the future of the WTA tour. Ivanovic, 19 from Serbia, was already ranked No. 5 after a stunning run to the French Open final a month earlier, where she beat both Svetlana Kuznetsova and Maria Sharapova before losing to No. 1 Justine Henin. Vaidisova, 18 from the Czech Republic, was ranked No. 10, having made the Australian Open semifinal in January of that year and the fourth round of Wimbledon a year earlier. She booked her spot in the quarterfinals by defeating defending champion and fourth-seed Amelie Mauresmo 7-6 (6), 4-6, 6-1 a round earlier.
By way of context: Today, we celebrate a 17-year-old Belinda Bencic making the quarterfinals of the U.S. Open. When Vaidisova was 17, she was already ranked in the top ten. 19-year-old Madison Keys, hailed as one of the bright young hopes in tennis, won her first WTA title over the summer in Eastbourne. When they walked on the court at Wimbledon, Ivanovic and Vaidisova had already combined for nine WTA titles.
The match itself was first-strike tennis at its finest. If you like big forehands, this was your jam. Struck by nerves in her first visit to Centre Court, Ivanovic gave up an early break in her first service game. That was all Vaidisova needed, and behind that powerful serve she never let the break go, serving out the 6-4 set. When Ivanovic was broken in the first game of the second set, it looked like the same script might play out for a straightforward Vaidisova win, but this time Ivanovic got the break back. Her forehand -- the biggest shot in her arsenal -- finally came alive and she won six of the next seven games to take the second set. Vaidisova showed her frustration after getting bullied around in that second set, but appeared to regroup in the final frame. After taking a bathroom break, Vaidisova returned to court and broke Ivanovic in the third game. She followed up that break with three clean holds of serve -- at 30, 15, and 15 -- to come within a game of yet another Slam semifinal.
With Ivanovic serving to stay in the match at 3-5, Vaidisova earned match points at 15-40. Ivanovic stepped up to hit two big forehands to save them both, but gave up a third match point after getting back to deuce. But the point that will haunt Vaidisova came next: With a second serve in the middle of the box, Vaidisova hit a tight forehand return into the middle of the net. Ivanovic eventually held, and she won all of the remaining games in the match. Vaidisova lost the last four games and, in a stunning swing of momentum, lost 16 of the last 21 points of the match, including a double-fault on match point to give the victory to Ivanovic.
Highlights of the match below:
"I'm a very emotional player and person," Vaidisova said after the match. "I think it can go both ways -- I think it can be my strength but it also can be my weakness. But of course there's a limit to it. Something you have to work on."
Vaidisova wasted more energy in the final four games yelling at her box and wallowing in teenage petulance over her missed match points. Ivanovic went on to lose in straight sets to Venus in the semifinals. But by the time she returned to Wimbledon the following year, Ivanovic was a Grand Slam champion and No. 1 after winning her maiden title at the French Open. Her five-year slump following that time has been well-documented, but she's back in the top ten this year with wins over Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.
In contrast, Vaidisova would never reach such heights again. It was hard to shake the feeling that the loss to Ivanovic a year earlier had broken her confidence. She had become the opposite of clutch, her groundstrokes and decision-making breaking down easily in tight moments. She also got engaged to Radek Stepanek in late 2007 and her interest in the sport began to wane.
In early 2008, Ivanovic and Vaidisova would play their final match against each other. Ivanovic won 6-4, 6-0 in Dubai, and that loss kicked off a six-match losing streak for Vaidisova. Perhaps there's just something about losing to Ivanovic that gets under her skin. When she returned to Wimbledon in 2008, Vaidisova was down to No. 22. Wimbledon can be a mythical place that summons the best out of players in even the worst of slumps, and Vaidisova was able to get her way back to the quarterfinals. But she lost to Chinese wildcard Zheng Jie 6-2, 5-7, 6-1 and missed another opportunity to get back into the Wimbledon semifinals.
After retiring from the sport at just 20-years-old, Vaidisova is now trying to work her way back. In her first professional tournament in over four years, she defeated Sesil Karatantcheva in the first round of a $75,000 ITF in Albuquerque, New Mexico this week. Ivanovic, who reached the pinnacle of her career at 20, is in the midst of her best season since she won the French Open. She's in the quarterfinals of the Pan Pacific Open this week in Tokyo, Japan, and fighting for one of the last spots at the WTA Finals.
If one of those Ivanovic forehands missed on match point or Vaidisova solved her motivation issues, the tale of the two talented teens could have been different. But one thing is certain: on that day on Centre Court, two young careers collided and both players emerged on diverging paths.