Toss the Ball. Hit the Ball. Oops! Oops!
By KAREN CROUSE
Published: September 1, 2009
The serve in tennis is the only shot completely in the player’s control, the one part of the script in every match in which the same person is director, writer and star. That has been little comfort to some of the top players in women’s tennis, whose serving has bombed on the biggest stages this summer.
On Tuesday, it was Dinara Safina’s turn. Although she won her first-round match at the United States Open, she scattered 11 double faults throughout her three-set victory against Olivia Rogowska, including set point in the first-set tie breaker. Safina, a 23-year-old Russian seeking her fourth title of the year and the first Grand Slam championship of her career, recovered with help from Rogowska, an 18-year-old Australian with deep ground strokes and a thin résumé.
Cliff Drysdale, who was calling the match for ESPN, at one point said of Safina: “Her mind is in the way. She’s just terrified.”
Safina avoided becoming an ignominious footnote in history as the first top-ranked woman to lose in the first round at the Open in the modern era. Afterward, she told the fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium to serve as she says, not as she does. “Please try to see your ball when you serve,” she said, looking as if she wanted to exit stage left and keep on going all the way back to Moscow.
Between them, Safina and Rogowska collected 24 double faults in what is becoming a familiar script. In the final of a Women’s Tennis Association event last month in Toronto, Elena Dementieva and Maria Sharapova, a former No. 1, combined for 17 double faults.
That dark comedy masquerading as a match caught the eye of Bob Thate, a former shooting coach for the Nets. For him, it was like watching the N.B.A. stars Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard play a game of H-O-R-S-E from the foul line.
It was so awful, it piqued his professional interest. “It’s like I cringe when people are serving second serves on key points,” he said. “You can see it in their faces — it’s almost like their mind is freezing up and they just look like they’re not going to win this point.”
Tuesday offered the potential for a triple bill of double faults at the United States Tennis Association Billie Jean King National Tennis Center. Dementieva, who has re-engineered her serve since struggling with it in 2004, and Sharapova, the 2006 Open champion who is on the mend from shoulder surgery that cost her half a year on the competitive circuit, both won their matches.
Sharapova, once the world’s No. 1, now has the dubious distinction of leading the tour in double faults with an average of 8.14 per match. Dementieva averages 5.4.
Assessing today’s top women against their predecessors is difficult because the WTA, the governing body for women’s professional tennis, has complete double-fault statistics for only the past two years, according to Kevin Fischer, a spokesman for the organization.
Why does bad serving happen to great players?
Thate, a recreational tennis player, suspects he has the answer. He views free-throw shooters and servers as practitioners of essentially the same art — one more positivist than impressionist, its strokes predicated on rhythm and routine.
“There’s a great correlation,” he said Monday night from Dallas, where he was summoned by the point guard Jason Kidd to deliver a weeklong free-throw tutorial. “You’re not going up and down the court or side to side, you’re standing at the line and 10,000 people are watching you hit the ball.”
The serve and the free throw share key components: foot placement; body balance; weight shift; toss and follow through. Misses happen when players’ minds are willing but their mechanics are weak, or vice versa. Then there’s Safina, who committed 17 double faults in an ugly loss in Toronto in her final Open tune-up and then said: “It’s not the serve. It’s just my brain.”
After enumerating the numerous flaws in her technique, Safina laughed ruefully and said, “I know this, and I’m still so stupid that I continue doing it.”
Even the strongest athletes have minds fragile enough to form cracks through which doubts can seep. Roger Federer was bounced in Montreal, in his first tournament after winning his 15th Grand Slam singles title, when he double-faulted on match point in the quarterfinals.
“Sometimes when things go bad on the serve during a match, it’s hard to change them,” Federer, the five-time defending champion, said Monday after starting his Open defense with a victory against a young American, Devin Britton. “You try to find what it is, if it’s the toss, is it the wind? Is it the swing? Are you going too fast in the beginning? But then you’re asking yourself many questions, and the next thing you know you’re not focusing about playing the baseline points anymore.”
When she is struggling with her serve, Dementieva said, her mother tells her not to think about it. She finds the advice counterproductive, like telling a hungry dieter not to focus on food. “It’s easy to say,” she said, “but hard to do.”
Holding serve tends to be much more of an adventure for the women than the men. As the ESPN analyst Mary Carillo explained during Monday night’s telecast, the women’s game is predicated on power. “You get tired, you get tight, you have nowhere to go,” she said.
Kim Clijsters, a former No. 1 who recently returned from a two-year retirement, hurried the follow through on her serve in her first-round victory against Viktoriya Kutuzova and racked up four double faults. “I want to recover really quickly to get the return back because a lot of girls really like to step in now,” she said. “I’m kind of already preparing myself for the next shot while I didn’t even finish my serve yet.”
Clijsters prepares to serve by bouncing the ball three times. Her husband, Brian Lynch, who played professional basketball in Belgium, did the same thing before every free-throw attempt. Comparing the free throw and the serve in an e-mail message, he wrote: “It’s the only shot where all eyes are on you, and nothing else around is happening. This is where the pressure comes in.”
Professional tennis is not like the N.B.A., where a few teams have shooting coaches on the payroll. It is not like major league baseball, with its hitting coaches. On the WTA and ATP tours, there are no serving gurus.
Brad Gilbert, the ESPN analyst, said, “It’s probably the next wave.”
Leave it to Serena Williams, the fashion-conscious favorite on the women’s side and arguably the best server on the tour, to identify her sport’s next trend. After her win Monday, she attended the news conference in a T-shirt with “Aces” emblazoned across her chest.