Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Quest for Comfort: Ana Chooses Van Grichen

Ana Ivanovic will pair with Antonio Van Grichen on a trial basis to start the 2011 campaign.
It's been a wild few years for Ana Ivanovic. After we saw her climb to the pinnacle of the sport in 2008 (a NO. 1 ranking AND a Grand Slam -- what a rare and precious combo!), we watched her unravel before our very eyes, quite spectacularly at times, until finally she began a rediscovery period under the tutelage of the legendary Heinz Gunthardt in 2010.

After dropping well out of the top-50 for a spell, Ana engineered a stunning turnaround this season that saw her climb all the way back into the top-20 before the curtains closed on the season. It was a moving rebirth, and it brought joy to the hearts of Ana's legions of die-hard fans (though it isn't just her on-court results that make her so deserving of their affections).

Temporarily, the skies over Ana's camp were as blue as they'd been in a while. But ominous clouds would drift in shortly thereafter. When the news broke that Gunthardt and Ana would not continue their relationship in 2011, many wondered if Ana would be able to continue her resurgence. Sure, losing a coach is not the end of the world, but it isn't exactly a recipe for consistency for a woman who admittedly craves a long term relationship with clearly marked channels of communication.

"The team is very important," Ana said last summer, referring to her tutelage under Gunthardt at the beginning of a stretch of improved play that fueled hope that she might soon return to her former greatness. "Confidence comes from yourself but also it helps if you have a good team around you."

She went on to say that she longed for stability, and that she was finding that with Heinz and her new fitness guru, Marija Lojanica. "I was surrounded with so many people, and I changed a lot of people, but I feel that for me I don't need a lot of people. A fitness coach and a coach -- I think that's all you need. With three people it's much less people to communicate to."

Ana will still have two people to communicate to in 2011, but one of them will be a slightly unfamiliar voice. News broke Tuesday that Antonio Van Grichen will begin working with Ana (in fact, he already has) on a trial basis for 2011.

Van Grichen, known most for helping deliver Victoria Azarenka to the doorstep of greatness, has been through a lot in the last few years as well. After parting ways with Azarenka (he left her firmly planted in the top-ten, thank you) he ran through two short-lived pairings with Vera Zvonareva and Sorana Cirstea, until he was forced to take a hiatus for a back surgery. After a long rehab stint he had a quick spell with Alize Cornet that also lead to a dead end.

But when the news broke of Ana and Heinz' split, Van Grichen's name was considered by many in the know as a possible replacement. It's hard to know what kind of a working relationship a player and a coach will have until you put them together in the same cage for a while, but when you think about it, Ana and Antonio seem like a good match, both tactically, and more importantly, psychologically and emotionally.

And, after turbulent periods in their careers, each is searching for a comfortable union that might create a shed of security in an environment where there seems to ever hardly be any.

Van Grichen obviously knows the game, and he is revered by many for the wonderful job he did with Azarenka, in terms of quieting her fragile psyche while simultaneously creating the perfect tactical blueprint for success with the weapons she had at her disposal.

His new player has quite a few weapons at her disposal too. And she's looking for some stability as well. On the surface, it appears like this could be a great match for both Ivanovic and Van Grichen, but the results that follow in the first few months of the year might have a lot more to say about the long-term possibilities of the pairing than their comfort level as human beings.

Their union presents an interesting storyline to start the 2011 season. Two young superstars in their respective fields pairing up to reclaim their places at the top of the tennis pecking order.

Van Grichen's presence in Ana's life could be just the thing she's looking for. An overlooked role of the tennis coach is his or her influence on the emotional well being of a player. Alleviating stress and boosting a player's self confidence are major ingredients in the coach-player dynamic.

Ana has all the tools to make it to the top of the game, and if Van Grichen can help her see herself as the champion that she once was, perhaps this trial will turn into something far more satisfying.

That, no doubt, is something that Ana's legion of fans have been waiting patiently for since her rise to glory in 2008.

For now, at least, the glass is half-full.

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