Tuesday, July 03, 2007
By MALCOLM FOLLEY
Daily Mail 6/30/07
Dodging the rainstorms in SW19 means nothing to Ana Ivanovic, the 19-year-old brunette beauty of this year's Wimbledon.
The Serbian tennis prodigy, currently ranked sixth in the world and a Grand Slam finalist at last month's French Open, grew up avoiding air raids in her native Belgrade.
As a child, Ana was forced to schedule her practice sessions during the regular early-morning lulls in Nato's 78-day bombardment of the city during the Kosovo crisis of 1999.
And such was the lack of facilities in her war-torn homeland that she spent the freezing winters learning her strokes in an abandoned Olympic-sized swimming pool, which had been drained of water and converted into two indoor courts.
A powerful six-footer, Ana is rapidly becoming a globally recognisable tennis pin-up to rival the world's number two, Maria Sharapova. Pictures of her playing stylish tennis with a smile have dominated international tennis coverage over recent months.
Her website last month received more than 40 million hits, the most of any female sports star. Last night she was found a prime table in one of Mayfair's most fashionable and over-subscribed restaurants as other diners were turned away.
And on Court 13 yesterday, she attracted a new, young and predominately male crowd for third-round match against Aravane Rezai, of France.
But behind her easy smile, Ana inevitably still bears the scars of a childhood spent trapped in the bloodshed and misery of the conflict that ravaged the Balkans from Croatia to Kosovo.
For four months in the spring of 1999, she sheltered with her parents Dragana, a lawyer, and Miroslav, a businessman, from the Nato air raids over Belgrade.
Food and water became scarce and few were untouched by the brutal ethnic cleansing and settling of ancient tribal rivalries. Sometimes the bombs fell so close that Ana recalled: "I could feel the building and windows shaking. I was so scared."
Yet the Ivanovic family refused to yield to fear or the austerity of their lifestyle.
"We never hid in the cellar," she said. "That was important because we always had a house full of people trying to see the positive side."
Ana, who fell in love with tennis at the age of five after seeing a TV advertisement featuring fellow Serb Monica Seles, was encouraged by her parents to schedule her daily practice sessions for 6am, when the bombers had gone.
And, with tennis courts destroyed, derelict or too expensive to hire, she resorted to practising her skills in that empty swimming pool in the city.
"It still exists and kids are still practising there," said Ana at Wimbledon last week. "I go back there sometimes because it's very close to my house. Maybe, one day I'll hit there again."
She recalled: "The pool was old, leaking and too expensive to heat, so they emptied it, put carpet inside and made two tennis courts." But it was far from perfect.
"It was impossible to play crosscourt, because it was this far from the wall," Ana said with a laugh, holding her hands 18in apart. "So we had to keep playing down the lines."
The continuing international isolation of Serbia under Slobodan Milosevic only added to the problems Ana faced in pursuing her dream of becoming a professional tennis player.
Flights in and out of Belgrade were suspended. Ana and her parents had to make a seven-hour journey to Hungary in order to fly to international tournaments.
She said: "Everyone seemed to think Serbs were bad people and I never felt I was welcome. It was hard for us. At every airport, immigration control always seemed to take longer for us than the other players.
"We had to explain what we were doing going into whatever country. There was so much trouble over visas."
But Ana's future was transformed by a fateful meeting with a tall, 36-year-old Swiss businessman with a passion for tennis.
Had it not been for Dan Holzman, co-owner of a vitamins company valued at £250 million, Ana would not be melting hearts at Wimbledon.
"I was taking lessons from a Serbian coach at a private tennis club in Basle," recalled Holzman, who is married with two young children.
"He told me about a girl at home in Belgrade who had an exceptional talent but had no resources to improve. She was Ana Ivanovic, who was then the 22nd ranked junior player in the world, at the age of just 14.
"I agreed to meet Ana and her family, but that proved to be difficult – in 2002, it was still hard for Serbs to get visas to travel abroad. But after several weeks, Ana and her mother came to Switzerland."
Remembering the day they met, Holzman said yesterday: "I asked Ana what she wanted from life. She looked me in the eye and replied, 'I want to be Number One in the world.'
"I was smitten at that moment. I took a quick decision that I would help her with financial assistance.
"I understood that Ana was a modest, humble, well-educated girl with a caring family but that her parents were living on just a few hundred euros a month."
Holzman agreed to make monthly payments to the Ivanovic family, allowing Ana to employ a respected coach for the first time and creating the opportunity to venture out into mainstream junior tournaments that had been previously out of her range.
But the money was not a donation – it was an interest-free loan which eventually reached £250,000. Holzman said:
"I'd always invested in shares but with Ana I wasn't following a share price, I was following a person. I just knew from meeting Ana and her family that I wanted to be a part of their dream."
Holzman provided Ana with a laptop, mobile phone and pocket money. "I wanted her to feel like a professional from that moment on," he said.
To Ana, the money – on whatever terms it had arrived in the family's bank account – was a lifeline from another, prosperous world beyond her belief.
"I flew to be with her at her next junior tournament in Rome," said Holzman. "She lost in the first round – and started to cry as she left the court. She locked herself in the locker room for four hours.
"She was frightened I was going to quit. I waited four hours to tell her I wasn't going to!"
Holzman insisted: "I never placed Ana under any pressure to perform – she did that herself.
"When on the court, she does have a killer instinct. But I do believe that you can be Number One and still be nice. Ana has never involved herself in petty jealousies, never moaned that her poster somewhere was smaller than someone else's."
Indeed, all week, Ana has been called to comment at Press conferences on her own beauty. "I'm very flattered," she smiled. "But once on court it doesn't matter how you look. It doesn't help you win points."
Holzman's gamble was inspired. Ana has so far won £1.2million in prize money – and earned at least the same again from endorsement contracts. He remains her business manager but Ana has repaid his investment in full.
"Ana always knew that the first £250,000 she earned had to come to me," he explained.
"Of course, I never took all her prize money as she needed to live. But she has now repaid me every penny. Ana is not my only business, and I don't pay my rent through her, but I cannot think I've ever made a better business deal."
Ana received a hero's welcome when she returned from the French Open in Paris to Belgrade last month with her fellow Serbian stars Jelena Jankovic, the world number three and fellow graduate of the swimming pool courts, and Novak Djokovic.
All three had made the semi-finals of the Grand Slam event, an achievement that mocks the perennial under-achievement of British stars who – as Tim Henman pointedly said last week – are pampered by comparison.
The three girls were cheered to the rafters by a 15,000-strong crowd outside the Parliament buildings.
For a young woman who has suffered the terror of war, the privation of practising in an abandoned swimming pool in sub-zero temperatures and borne the stigma of being shunned at every border because of the atrocities of Slobodan Milosevic, tennis represents much more than just a game – it provides the chance to improve the international image of Serbia.
"When I go home I see a change for the better in our country," Ana said. "Novak, Jelena and I hope our results will continue that change. We try to present the country and its people in a positive way."
Posted by Mel at 3:21 AM