From prodigious talent to scrappy veteran, Ana Ivanovic's 14-year career spanned every iteration of a professional tennis career. Throughout it all, it was Ivanovic's thoughtfulness, poise, and grace - on and off the court - that will be remembered most, not just by her fans but also her colleagues and competitors. Tennis lost one of the nice ones on Wednesday, after the 29-year-old took to Facebook and called an end to her milestone career.
Along with Novak Djokovic and Jelena Jankovic, Ivanovic helped put Serbia firmly on the tennis map, so much so that it's hard to remember that a time when it wasn't one of the premier tennis nations. She shot out of the gate after turning pro in August of 2003, soaring through the rankings before winning her first WTA title in Canberra when she was just 16-years-old.
In one fell swoop she became the first woman representing Serbia to win a Grand Slam title and be ranked atop the game, after winning the 2008 French Open to ascend to No.1. Her natural, kinetic forehand, which often earned comparisons to Stefanie Graf's, brought home that championship, and put a cap on what was a career-defining season in 2008.
Ivanovic had been a consistent threat at the big tournaments, having made the Roland Garros final the year before and the Australian Open final a few months earlier. Her win at the BNP Paribas Open in March of that year further solidified her position in the upper echelons of the game. So when she smacked inside-out forehand after inside-out forehand to knock off Jankovic in the semifinals - in what was a battle for No.1 - and then Dinara Safina in the final, the 20-year old's ascension felt natural, almost effortless.
Little did anyone know the next nine years of her career would be defined by effort, guts, and grit. Not long after winning her maiden Slam, Ivanovic suffered a right thumb injury that not only ruled her out of the 2008 Olympic tennis event, but also led to changes in her forehand technique that left her vaunted weapon forever changed. While she won eight of her 15 career titles in the three years from 2005 to 2008, she would win seven titles over the next nine years.
Her results may have grown frustrating and her game may have altered, but Ana remained the same personable, thoughtful, intelligent woman throughout her career. Despite her fame and "glamour girl" magazine covers, Ivanovic was notoriously shy. At times it seemed she was more comfortable sitting in the aisles of a bookstore thumbing through her next read than playing in front of a roaring crowd on Center Court.
Her favorite tournaments were always quieter or smaller, whether it was the Australian Open, where she could enjoy backyard barbecues with her Melbourne family, or the BNP Paribas Open, where bookstores and resort life suited her, or even the French Open or Wimbledon, where the quaintness of the venue and its surroundings kept her at peace. It's no surprise that those tournaments would also be her most successful.
Through the ups and downs of the latter stages of her career, Ivanovic never stopped believing she could regain her former glory. She was a workaholic, never turning away from hitting the gym or the courts to try and gain that edge. Her optimism was tested time and time again, but Ivanovic faced the press every time, answered honestly, and still looked you in the eye and said, rather confusingly, "Thank you," even as she left the room after another inquisition.
Finally, in 2014 and 2015, Ivanovic got the last laugh. After years of battling to stay in the Top 20, Ivanovic surged into the Top 10, posting consistent and quality results and wins. After reuniting with her coach Nigel Sears to take care of some "unfinished business," Ivanovic scored one of the biggest wins of her career at the 2014 Australian Open, when she beat Serena Williams in the Round of 16, led the tour in match wins, and qualified for her first BNP Paribas WTA Finals Singapore presented by SC Global since 2008.
Then, in what felt like a full-circle moment, Ivanovic returned to Paris to make her first major semifinal since winning Roland Garros in 2008.
It was a sweet moment for Ivanovic, a reward for her persistence, self-belief, and work ethic. This time she could savor the moment. Ivanovic will be the first to admit that she was not ready for how her life would change after becoming No.1 at 20 years old. It took her time to get comfortable in her own skin, to shut out the squaks and the stares - and later the whispers - that would follow her wherever she went.
But as she hangs up her racquets and transitions to a new life, Ivanovic's legacy in the game is a simple one. The game may change but you don't have to. The sport is cruel but you don't have to be. And champions will be remembered not just by the number of trophies they've won but also their character.
Much like Kim Clijsters, Ivanovic was one of the nice ones. And the game was better for it.
All photos courtesy of Getty Images.