Remember when Ana used to have one of the best serves in the game?
WHEN IVANOVIC SERVES, YOU BETTER DUCK
By PETER BODO
Published: June 1, 2008
Last June, the ascendant Serbian tennis player Ana Ivanovic hit a serve 124.9 miles per hour, one of the most powerful blasts ever by a woman. And this was after injuries and maturity had convinced her that, when it comes to serving, it’s about more than how hard you hit the ball. The 20-year-old Ivanovic has shot up to No. 2 in the world rankings in part because she has transformed her serve into a multifaceted stroke that overwhelms opponents with its unpredictable speed and spin. Here, a closer look at one of the most dangerous shots on the women’s tour.
BIGGER IS BETTER
Like all powerful servers, Ivanovic is tall: 6-foot-1. “Taller means a greater margin for clearing the net, and longer levers [arms] mean that endpoint velocity is increased,” says Bruce Elliott, the head of the School of Sports Science, Exercise and Health at the University of Western Australia, who has studied the serve extensively. Her height also allows her to hit a flat serve with less spin and, therefore, get better service speed than her smaller rivals. Ivanovic has developed an unusually good balance of speed, spin and consistency, enabling her to control points and neutralize the major weakness of taller players: “Mobility is not as much of a weapon for Ana as for smaller girls,” says her coach, Sven Groeneveld, “so you look to compensate for that by making your serve a weapon.”
REPEAT, REPEAT, REPEAT
“The key to great serving is consistency,” says Brenda Schultz-McCarthy, who owns the women’s serve-speed record of 130 m.p.h. “The minute you have to adjust your motion, you lose speed as well as placement.” Ivanovic is a model of consistency. Schultz-McCarthy likes the way Ivanovic’s serve pulls her feet off the ground: “That tells you she’s had a good knee bend and great [arm] extension.” Ivanovic’s delivery has a simplicity common to all great servers, and Groeneveld also stresses the importance of allowing her stroke to flow naturally. When practicing, Ivanovic often hits her serve while walking — an exercise, Groeneveld says, that helps maintain a fluid arm motion.
BEND, DON’T BREAK
Great servers share three biomechanical features, according to Bruce Elliott: “Leg-drive, high levels of internal rotation at the shoulder and large wrist flexion.” And Ivanovic, among other genetic assets, has an unusually flexible rotator cuff. “She’s actually too flexible in that area,” says Scott Byrnes, a physiologist who travels at her side full time. “She tends to get unnatural movements in that area, resulting in irritating tears in the small muscles. We’ve had to do a lot of work on stability there.” Of course, that flexible rotator cuff also enables her to do more with her serve, like make last-moment directional changes or adjust her swing to create the various spins a server relies on.
THE POWER OF DECEPTION
Ivanovic also has a strong, flexible wrist, which helps her to disguise what type of serve is coming. Generally, the three main serves — the hard, flat one; the slice, which, for a right-hander, lands and moves left; and the kicker, which veers right — require slightly different tosses, all easily read by an experienced opponent. But Ivanovic has learned to hit these serves with minimal changes in her stance or toss. “Ana used to line up more parallel with the base line, which made it easier for opponents to read her,” Groeneveld says. “It’s harder now, because she also tosses more into the court, and that also means that when she lands after the serve she’s in a better position to deal with the return.”
THE LONG VIEW
Because Ivanovic is still young, her coaches haven’t tapped into the power workouts yet. “So far, we’ve just been thinking about longevity and maintenance,” Byrnes says. Her training includes working with cable weights and bands, frequent ice baths to rehabilitate muscles and keeping her core strong. Groeneveld also continues to fine-tune her mechanics in the quest for the effortless big serve. But Ivanovic is getting itchy. “I would prefer if I could hit some more flat serves, but I need to be patient,” she says. Schultz-McCarthy thinks the patience will pay off. “A big server gets seduced by the chance to hit aces,” she says. “A great server knows there’s more to it.”
So what happened? Is it mental or physical change (or both)? Notice in the article, it mentions Ana's career-fastest serve at 124.9 mph (201 kph). I don't see Ana hitting serves anywhere near that speed for a long time now. But it's not just speed. We all know how much she struggles with her toss and how "bad serving days" are now the norm. At this year's French Open, Chris Evert says her toss is lower and motion is quicker than it was before. I've heard others say she has a higher ball toss now. It's hard to say without a side-by-side comparison, but what do you think are the main reasons for the loss of effectiveness of Ana's serve?