Birmingham Open: Ivanovic title defence stifled at source
Birmingham, United Kingdom: Ana Ivanovic, who won the first grass court title of her career here last year, relinquished it at the first hurdle this year when she lost to qualifier Michelle Larcher de Brito in Birmingham on Wednesday.
Ana Ivanovic during her match against Michelle Larcher de Brito. Pic/Getty Images
The world number seven from Serbia gained her highest ranking for more than six years after a great French Open earlier this month, but was beaten 6-4, 3-6, 7-6 (8-6) by a US-based Portuguese player ranked outside the top 100. Ivanovic even had a chance to serve for the match at 5-4 in the final set, but saw her opponent play a superb game to break back.
After that de Brito played increasingly like a player with little to lose, striking some crucially potent blows in the deciding tie-break. Her timing was excellent and her feeling for the need to take calculated risks on a well manicured but lush surface was more ingrained than the champion's. Ivanovic felt coming through qualifying had helped her opponent.
"It's tough playing someone who already had a few matches on the grass," said Ivanovic, who was making the most difficult transition of all on the tour, from clay to grass. "Today I started really bad until I found my rhythm and so on. Her ball was staying very, very low, so I struggled with it a little bit at times. "I was really disappointed I couldn't hold my serve in the third set. I think getting a win and moving on to the next one, it would be a different game next match.
But it's always tough, that change (of surface)." It was all the more a surprising result because Ivanovic appeared to have worked her way out of trouble, after the flat-hitting and ambitious 22-year-old had broken serve early and clung on to the advantage well. After taking five games in a row from 3-3 in the second set with some forceful baseline blows, the champion appeared to be motoring to victory, but was surprised by the strength of resistance when she attempted to close it out at 5-4.
After that de Brito was dangerously aggressive most of the time, earning two match points at 6-4 in the tie-break, both of which Ivanovic saved bravely. However she relinquished the third at 6-7 with a double fault. "I stayed calm, definitely," said de Brito. "I held my nerve. That's one of the things I've been doing really well, trying to keep it together and not get too upset.
"I think that really helped me. Just, you know, it's one of those things where you just wait for the mistake. Fortunately I got them." Earlier, the other former world number one from Serbia, Jelena Jankovic, survived two tie-break set points against Casey Dellacqua, the world number 67 from Australia, before coming through 7-6 (13-11), 6-3. Jankovic navigated the demands of the surface well but was not at all surprised to learn of her compatriot's demise.
"On grass it's a tricky," she said. "You know, the opponent could have a really good day and you can be out. "It's just a completely different play out here. We don't really get to practise on it a lot. We just play a couple of tournaments per year (on grass), you know.
"However I love coming back to the tournaments where I have done well," added Jankovic, who beat Maria Sharpova in the 2007 final. "I'm glad I was able to win against my opponent who is a lefty and playing really well. It's not easy. "It's very tricky. But I'm very glad that I'm here."