It’s inside baseball for the tennis diehard, but for the casual American sports fan, the reference needs explaining:
There are two “Vic-es” (or “vitches,” take your pick) in women’s tennis. Who (or what) are they? They’re the two best WTA players from Serbia: Ana Ivanovic and Jelena Jankovic. One of them is still alive at the year’s clay-court major, but the one that had really begun to make a charge in 2014 was knocked out of Roland Garros on Saturday afternoon, before the second week began in Paris.
Jankovic cruised into the fourth round, but Ivanovic — who had reached the final in Stuttgart and the semis in Rome, cracking the 30-win mark on the WTA Tour this season — was sent packing by Lucie Safarova. Ivanovic was seeded 11th, but her straightforward 6-3, 6-3 loss represents a significant development in the bottom half of the draw.
Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova landed in the top half of the draw, and when Li Na — the highest seed in the bottom half — left the picture in the first round, Ivanovic joined Jankovic, Simona Halep, and Sara Errani as a leading contender for a spot in the final. Ivanovic’s exit makes Halep an even clearer favorite to make the final, with the Jankovic-Errani winner in Monday’s fourth round being the likely opponent for Halep in the semifinals.
TRANSCENDING: WHAT THE GREAT ONES DO… AND IVANOVIC DIDN’T
There’s a story attached to Ivanovic’s loss which is simultaneously simple (on a conceptual level) and immensely complicated (in the realm of detailed analysis).
The simple part of the equation is that great players, even if they find themselves in tricky X-and-O matchups, will prevail by dint of their skill, will, and overall competitive prowess. Serena Williams and Victoria Azarenka do this more often than anyone on the WTA Tour, with Maria Sharapova being the third example. Top-tier careers are built on the foundation of winning lots of matches when an opponent finds a way to make a matchup manageable for an extended period of time, to the extent that the outcome remains uncertain in a second-set tiebreak or a final set after hours of combat.
Your opponent has a winning pattern or formula? Fine — either work your way into different patterns, or serve and defend well enough to transcend in spite of the Xs and Os. Roger Federer doesn’t usually figure out Rafael Nadal, especially now that he’s in his early 30s, but in his prime, Federer was able to get enough wins against his rival (2006 and 2007 Wimbledon finals, multiple World Tour Finals matches) to claim some of tennis’s more lucrative prizes.
Let’s put it this way: You might not win most of the time in a bad matchup, but you need to win some of the time, especially when the meaning of the moment is unmistakably large for yourself and your career.
This, in many ways, was the situation facing Ivanovic against Safarova on Saturday.
The head-to-head favored Safarova, but as the details show, the two players had met only twice since 2009 entering Saturday, and they didn’t meet in 2013. Yes, Safarova had enjoyed a run of success, but Ivanovic was supposed to have been a different player this year. One could even say that, irrespective of this loss, Ivanovic is still a different player this year — fair enough.
However, great players in both tennis and golf make their names at the majors. These are the four stages each year in which professionals announce their presence as elite competitors, forging legacies that stand above most of their peers. The Xs and Os lined up in favor of Safarova, but this was the time for Ivanovic — who figured out Sharapova, another long-term nemesis, in Rome — to climb higher, to transcend.
She couldn’t, and she really didn’t come close, either.
What is really at issue here is the larger notion of when one match, one tournament, should be accorded more (or less) weight for a given career. Single tournaments are unique beasts, but there’s no question that individual tournaments have lingered — and do linger, and will linger — in the minds of various players who failed in a moment of truth and never really recovered.
Dinara Safina couldn’t win one of the two Roland Garros finals she entered.
Nicole Vaidisova lost in the 2006 Roland Garros semifinals after serving for the match. She never came as close to a major title ever again.
Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova lost an excruciatingly close quarterfinal at Roland Garros in 2011 against Francesca Schiavone. Her career remained on a positive trajectory through Septmeber of 2011, but it hasn’t been the same since.
It’s true that Ivanovic has won a major title, but after so many years of failing to make semifinals and finals at the majors, this was reasonably seen as her time to make a move. This was an individual tournament that mattered more than most. This was a time to transcend, especially against an opponent who entered Saturday’s match without an appearance in the second week of a major since 2007.
Safarova has earned the label of an “almost” player, one who nearly picks off the heavyweights but rarely if ever finishes the job. Safarova had Li Na on the ropes this year at the Australian Open, but could not close the sale. Li went on to capture the Australian Open title. The players Safarova almost defeats are often the players that go on to win championships and make finals of higher-end tournaments. It was Ivanovic’s turn to put her name on that list. Instead, Safarova felt comfortable enough to knock Ivanovic out of the draw.
That’s a telling little revelation, isn’t it?
Matchups matter. Look at Samantha Stosur versus Dominika Cibulkova, or Serena against Maria Sharapova. These are collisions in which player A has the right tools to counter player B, and there’s no real safe place for player B to turn to. The presence of Serena in Sharapova’s quarter of the draw at Roland Garros was the precise reason Sharapova could not be considered the favorite in Paris, but with Serena’s second-round loss to Garbine Muguruza, Sharapova is now the clear choice to claim the title on June 7. Stosur’s kick serve on clay has always been a nightmare for the diminutive Cibulkova, and it continued to be so in the third round of Roland Garros, even though Cibulkova reached the finals of this year’s Australian Open. Matchups do affect outcomes, and it’s foolish to think that raw skill is going to win out every time or even most times if the talent gap isn’t too substantial.
Yet… there are some occasions when a player must lift everything about oneself — talent, concentration, effort, tactics, the works — over a foe who is particularly suited to cause trouble. For players who have never been able to maintain a home in the top 10 for any appreciable length of time, this expectation really doesn’t apply.
Many will surely disagree, but for a former world No. 1 such as Ivanovic — finally felt to be ready to return to the latter stages of a major in many circles when this tournament began — that kind of expectation seems reasonable and, moreover, appropriate. The application of that standard might indeed be harsh. Scratch that — it is harsh.
It’s also deserved.
Matchups, as much as they matter, should not give a player with world-class capabilities the ability to shrug her shoulders and lament yet another negative twist of fate and fortune.
Greatness overcomes matchups and all other challenges between the painted white lines… not all the time, not even an overwhelming majority of the time, but at least some of the time.
Ana Ivanovic has enjoyed a very good year.
She is still in search of a great one, her first since 2008.
This is how the major tournaments separate the legends from the not-quite legends in tennis.