Michael Burgess

Michael Burgess is the football and rugby league writer for the Herald on Sunday.

Tennis: Ivanovic digs deep to win final

Serbian holds her nerve against Venus Williams to lift the ASB Classic trophy and finally get one over her rival

Ana Ivanovic saved two break points to win an epic ASB Classic final in three sets against Venus Williams. Photo / Richard Robinson
Ana Ivanovic saved two break points to win an epic ASB Classic final in three sets against Venus Williams. Photo / Richard Robinson

Ana Ivanovic, after losing eight of her previous nine matches against Venus Williams, changed tactics for this match. It worked - and it helped the final of the ASB Classic become an epic.

Often in sport, big matches - and grand finals - fail to live up to expectations but this much-hyped match turned out to be one of the best ASB Classic deciders in the event's history.

The contest stretched for two hours and 19 minutes and the quality of play in the second half of the match was worthy of the latter stages of a grand slam.

Ivanovic gave her best performance of the week and, despite some wobbles in the latter stages of the final two sets, was consistently strong; she found resolve when it mattered most, saving eight break points (of 10) and being flawless on serve in the first and third sets to win 6-2 5-7 6-4.

"It's amazing... playing Venus is always very tough and she showed that again today," said Ivanovic.

"It's an amazing victory and thrilling in a final like this against such a good player. I didn't have any expectations coming into this week, I just took it match by match."

Williams, as she has been all tournament, was erratic for long periods but never stopped fighting, showing courage to come back on several occasions.

"She played well the whole match," reflected Williams. "I played well for some points. [At the moment] I am controlling a lot of points but I don't make the final shot. [Yesterday] for me was all about fighting. I don't feel like I was playing my best per se but I fought as hard as I could no matter what the score was. I just ran into a better player [yesterday]."

It was the Serbian's first tournament win since 2011, in only her fourth final in the past five years. Maybe in the end, it came down to desperation - the American has nothing to prove in the twilight of her fine career while Ivanovic is trying to relaunch hers, trying to recapture the dizzy heights of 2007 and 2008 when she reached three grand slam finals (winning one), achieved the No1 ranking and took out five other tournaments.

The first set wasn't the clash of the titans the capacity crowd had hoped for. Williams held serve in the opening game, then lost the next five in succession.

The five-time Wimbledon champion adopted her typically aggressive approach but, for every winner, she made two unforced errors. To compound her woes, Williams served at less than 50 per cent for most of the first set. Ivanovic made her pay.

Ivanovic, contesting her 17th career WTA final, knew she needed a different recipe to topple Williams after losing eight of their nine encounters in the past.

From the start, she kept the ball away from the Williams hitting zone, moving her to both sides of the court. The strategy worked.

The American looked uncomfortable throughout the first set and was broken twice - the first via a double fault, the second a murderous Ivanovic winner off a Williams second serve - and spurned all three of her own break-back opportunities.

After just 35 minutes, the set ended in a predictable manner with Williams dragging an ugly forehand metres wide of the sideline.

When asked earlier in the week why she kept playing after 19 years on tour, she told the Herald on Sunday "I still enjoy it ... and I'm still pretty good" but neither of those statements rang true in the first set.

Williams admitted it felt like the match was "slipping away" and tried to find a way back in the second. It was a closer contest as Williams found her range on her serve but she still failed to put any real pressure on the Serbian's serve for much of the set.

At 3-5, 30-40 Williams saved match point, nailing a thunderous serve (on the third attempt) that Ivanovic was unable to return. Was this a way back into the match?

The Williams sisters' fighting spirit is legendary - especially Serena, who has won a record three grand slam titles after being match point down - and sister Venus had an appetite for the battle. She finally broke Ivanovic in the 10th game, when the second seed sent a tame forehand wide to level the set at 5-5.

From there, the final began to resemble a final. The rallies were longer, the shot-making better and cheap points became scarce.

One of the best points of the match came on the biggest; 30-30, 5-6 on the Ivanovic serve. Williams eventually out-muscled Ivanovic from the baseline, after both traded a series of heavy ground strokes, to force a set point, which she duly converted.

Williams' yo-yo performance continued in the third set. She was broken in the first game and was millimetres away from going down 3-0. She recovered, then saved three break points when serving at 1-3 down. Ivanovic was feeling the heat - head down with frustration after failing to capitalise - but showed composure to hold serve continually.

"A few nerves kicked in - and I started to think too much - but I managed to get through it," said Ivanovic.

The biggest turning point - and there were more than in a string of Hamilton roundabouts - came in the final game. Serving for the match at 5-4, Ivanovic found herself at 15-40, after an unkind netcord.

The Serb could easily have folded.

Williams was prowling, but Ivanovic saved two break points - the second showing stunning composure with a series of inch-perfect shots.

- Herald on Sunday

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