You're looking at a Grand Slam Champion. A former #1 player on the WTA tour. The poster child for the future of the WTA after Justine and Kim voluntarily left the game and Serena's commitment was unclear. She was supposed to be the cheery brunette face to contrast with the stone cold icy blond that was the Sharapova marketing machine. She was a humble kid, with a dramatic backstory, who was best buds with another ATP rising star.
All was on the up and up. She gained fans for a variety of reasons. Some for how she looked, some for her game, some for her personality. She also alienated many. Because when you win and you beat other people's faves, you become a target. That's just part of being relevant. Oh, and she has some annoying quirks. That's just part of being a professional tennis player.
She busted her ass to reach the pinnacle of the game. And she got it. She was the toast of a small, much maligned country. Journalists loved her. Sponsors came running to her begging. And she managed it all, this complete world change, as best she could. As best as any normal person could.
Which is to say she didn't manage it well at all.
Beset with what seemed like a minor injury, everything changed. She suffered unexpected losses after that Slam win. She flew to Beijing to wear her national pride on her back and was forced to withdraw. She suffered the biggest upset by a #1 player in a Slam. She would continue to just flat out lose for 18 months. And she handled it all as best as she could. As best as any normal person could.
Which is to say she didn't handle it well at all.
Perhaps it would have been better if she could just be ignored. But she couldn't. No matter what, the spotlight was always there. All those who once cheered her now laughed. They wrote her off. Instead of softball questions at pressers breaking down what was going on with her game, journalists felt compelled to treat every presser as if it were a therapy session. Her love life became the home of invasive paparazzi who documented her every move. While some begged her to take a break, others vilified her for having a life outside of tennis and criticized her perceived lack of focus on tennis. She was under a microscope where she could do no right. The only way to fix it was to win matches. She couldn't. And so it went week after week as outsiders quickly attached to her the narrative that no one wants: A pretty face. An underachiever. A flash in the pan. A...wait for it...incurable headcase.
So you will have to forgive us Ana fans for feeling a primal surge of elation today as we watched our much maligned 22 year-old woman banish her demons, even if only for two hours, to overcome her limping opponent and, more importantly, herself, to notch her biggest win in over a year. You will have to forgive us if we give some, but not much, weight to the fact that Vika was not at 100%. You will have to forgive us if we consciously ignore the fact that Ana did not play her best match to win today.
Because it has never been about the opponent across the net. It has never been about the technical purity or flaws of her game. It has never been about any of these externalities or even about her tennis.
It has been about Ana. It has been about her head. And it has been about waiting for the day when she would put aside that ruminating, self-aware, Freud involved brain of hers and simply play. Simply fight. Fight herself. And believe, truly, that she could and should win.
That happened today. And for those of us who root for Ana not just for her forehand, or her smile, or her nationality, but because we genuinely believe her to be a nice and quality human being who is just doing her best to deal with the craziness around her, today gave us hope. Not that she's going to beat Elena Dementieva tomorrow, win Roland Garros, and reclaim her Top 10 ranking.
Just...hope. And sometimes, as both a player and a fan after almost 2 years of absolute shit, that's all you can ask for.