PARIS — At last, Ana Ivanovic overcame her stage fright.
In two previous major finals, Ivanovic was overwhelmed by the setting and shaken by the stakes. Her focus fell apart and her shots went awry.
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Not on this day.
Already assured of rising to No. 1 in the rankings for the first time, Ivanovic collected her first Grand Slam title by beating Dinara Safina 6-4, 6-3 in the French Open final Saturday.
Ivanovic said she used the memories of lopsided losses in championship matches against Justine Henin at Roland Garros a year ago and against Maria Sharapova at the Australian Open in January to help her.
”Many, many people ask me, "Oh, you want to forget last year's final?' But I don't, because it was a great learning experience,“ said Ivanovic, a 20-year-old from Serbia.
In the months since those matches, Ivanovic realized this: Part of her difficulty in those matches rested with either looking ahead — ”Hey, maybe I can actually win this thing,“ she was thinking against Henin — or looking behind — failing to put a few key points out of her mind against Sharapova.
Ivanovic credits her strength and conditioning coach, Scott Byrnes, with helping find what she called a ”tool“ to make sure she stays focused on the court.
And it couldn't be simpler: Take the time to pause and breathe.
That's what carried her through the tightest of times against the 13th-seeded Safina.
Ivanovic was a point from taking a 5-1 lead in the first set when Safina showed some spark, using a running forehand winner and a swinging volley winner to get to break point. Ivanovic then dumped a forehand into the net, and 10 minutes later, when Safina smacked a backhand winner down the line, suddenly the score was 4-all.
”It was tough, because a lot of emotions build up inside,“ Ivanovic said. ”All of a sudden, you're equal again. So to keep my composure at that point — it was huge for me.“
In the very next game, Ivanovic broke back with a backhand winner of her own, then pumped her fist and let out one of her many yelps of ”Hajde!“ (sounds like ”HIGH-deh!“) — Serbian for ”Come on!“
There were more tests to come.
Trying to serve out the first set, Ivanovic faced two break points, and squandered a set point, before closing it out with her signature shot, a forehand. That was part of a run in which Ivanovic took five of six games to go ahead 3-1 in the second set.
The final instance in which nerves might have come into play was in the seventh game of the second set, a 20-point tussle in which Ivanovic wasted two break points and Safina blew five game points. Adding to the tension, Safina kept backing out of her serving motion because the sobs of a child crying in the upper deck could be heard throughout the stadium. Eventually, Safina held to cut Ivanovic's lead to 4-3.
Ivanovic remembered to stop and breathe and played with aplomb down the stretch, winning eight of the next nine points to end the match.
”Once you are on the court — it's much easier said than done — but you have to be a killer,“ Ivanovic said through a wide smile. ”You have to put them under pressure and show your presence and stuff.“
Safina was trying to become the first woman to win a major title after having saved a match point against two opponents. Against both Sharapova in the fourth round, and No. 7 Elena Dementieva in the quarterfinals, Safina trailed by a set and 5-2 in the second set, then was a point from losing at 5-3, before coming all the way back to complete the upsets.
”This time? I tried,“ Safina said, ”but I didn't have any more of that fire.“