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Briefs from Birmingham 2014: Ana finds beauty in imperfection

Ana Ivanovic scurries for a forehand.

Ana Ivanovic d. Barbora Zahlavova Strycova 6-3 6-2 in the final of the 2014 Aegon Classic. Wimbledon.com reports...

Ana Ivanovic is no longer chasing the perfect game. Older, wiser and on course for her most successful season since winning Roland Garros in 2008, the Serbian knows the voice in her head will always expect more. With new coach Nemanja Kontic in her corner, however, silencing that voice is not the only battle she has been winning in 2014.

Since claiming her first Grand Slam and reaching the top of the WTA rankings at the age of 20, Ivanovic’s career has long been a tale of measuring up to past glories. It has taken its toll both physically and mentally over the following years, going some way to explain the string of coaches brought in to help her climb the rankings and, more recently, end a two-year trophy drought.

After wins in Auckland and Monterrey, Ivanovic claimed her third title of the season at the Aegon Classic, and in some style. She was broken just four times all week and backed up her top seeding by winning her five matches in straight sets. Barbora Zahlavova Strycova hustled and harried in the final but had no answer for the Serbian, who ran out a 6-3 6-2 winner 

At times this week she has played a brand of tennis that betrays her past struggles on the surface – Edgbaston marked not only her first title on grass, but her first appearance in a final. Watching her drive flat returns for winners, time her approaches to the net with confidence and fire herself up after another clean winner, she has stood head and shoulders above the field at the Priory Club.

The rankings would support that claim – Ivanovic, who began the week as world No. 13, faced no one inside the top 30 en route to the title – but she won’t mind. A 14th trophy, her biggest win since Roland Garros six years ago, has marked her out as a serious contender for Wimbledon. 

Not that she is thinking about SW19 just yet. Her top priority next week is to buy a dress for the pre-Wimbledon player party, evidence of a professional athlete determined to enjoy life as a young woman, having learnt the hard way how hard life can be without a sense of perspective.

“It was all about tennis – not having any friends, not having any down time,” she admittedIt does get to you at certain points. I didn't interact with other girls, I didn't have my friends over, I was hardly ever going back home. You get to a point like, Okay, this is great, but there is so much more to life.  I have no friends.  So this is something that I would say, to find a little bit more of a balance.

“I was young. I wanted it so much. That was the only way for me to do it.  So I think now looking back I don't want to make the same mistake.”

Whether by fate or fortune, Ivanovic’s new outlook has coincided with a stunning return to form. No player has more WTA tour wins this season, and only Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova can match her three titles ahead of Wimbledon. On Monday she will rise to No. 11 in the rankings, but of greater satisfaction for the 26-year-old is the growing variety in her game. Early in the week she showed fine touch around the net, while her backhand has been every bit as potent as the forehand with which she built her reputation.

Saturday’s semi-final rain delay looked to have taken its toll on Ann Jones Court, with both players bugged by turf lodging in their shoes. Having broken in the opening game, Strycova allowed the problem to become a distraction by the middle of the first set.

“It was very slippery,” Strycova explained. “I didn't expect that and I was not prepared for it. We couldn't really push from the legs. Actually, I was complaining more than Ana.”

As Strycova smacked at her soles between points, Ivanovic stayed focused. Kontic joined her as early as the second change of ends to keep her mind on the task and Ivanovic responded, racing out to a 4-1 lead that put the first set beyond the Czech.

The second set might have been a different affair had Strycova, trailing 2-1, taken advantage of two wild smashes by Ivanovic. The first barely reached the net while the second almost flew into to the backstop. Ivanovic buried a third later in the game, a testament to her confidence; raising her arms to the heavens in self-depricating celebration spoke volumes about her mood. Ivanovic is in a good place, and still believes she has the game to win a second Grand Slam.

“I have it in me, I know,” she said. “It's still very hard work. I have to prove to myself that I belong back there. Winning titles definitely helps; beating top players does help.

“That is why I'm still here, because I believe I can win a Grand Slam. You know, it's again a process, it's taking steps. Now I have been more consistent – it's being consistent on higher level 

“I really have to get rid of past to be able to embrace the future. I'm doing that a lot better. Obviously it's been great movement forward, and like I said, there are so many things to look forward in my career. I love competition. I love challenges. I need to embrace it.”

A second break followed before Ivanovic closed out victory with two love service games; the perfect way to seal the title, some might say.

Not Ana. Not any more.

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