Why can't the women serve?

8/26/2009 - Tennis
Dinara Safina is among those who have fallen victim to the double-fault epidemic. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

It's a faint but funny memory: A 15-year-old Dinara Safina, playing the Wimbledon juniors in 2001, walking around the grounds wearing a Nike T-shirt emblazoned with a slogan along the lines of "Anyone seen my serve?"

The T-shirt might no longer fit, but the words have become rather apt. Safina, now all grown up and No. 1 in the world, is the latest player on the women's tour to find her serve suddenly and inexplicably deserting her during matches.

Last week at the Rogers Cup in Toronto, Safina served 17 double faults to lose her opening match in three sets, continuing a recent pattern of trouble with a stroke that used to be a strength.

"You need to write a book, what's going on with my serve," Safina said with almost comical frustration.

"It's disaster. I don't bend my legs. I'm [not] jumping forward. I'm kicking it too much instead of hitting it more. … I kick it so much that the ball doesn't fly anywhere and it goes in the middle of the net. I drop my head. I don't hold the left arm.

"I know this, and I'm still so stupid that I continue doing it."

Safina was never immune to serving yips -- she also served 17 double faults in last year's Olympic final -- but it hadn't been chronic until lately.

The ailment is so well-known in tennis, there's even a medical name for it: double-faultitis. The phenomenon attracted widespread attention 10 years ago when Anna Kournikova fell spectacularly victim to the bug, serving 31 double faults in her second-round Australian Open match in 1999 and racking up a total of 91 in her first four matches that season.

But no matter how well established, it remains mystifying. How can such accomplished players, who have hit endless balls since preschool, just wake up one day and forget how to serve?

Injury is often the catalyst, shaking a player's confidence and erasing her groove. As many point out, the mental component is key to the serve since it is the one stroke they have complete control over how they hit. It is also the most complex stroke, involving coordination between the racket arm, the ball-tossing arm and the legs, as well as explosive movement from a standing position. That leaves it more vulnerable to disruption.

Earlier in the week, in a calmer frame of mind, Safina traced her problems back to the knee tendinitis she suffered during the clay-court season, which specifically affected her service motion. She is now pain-free but still readjusting. "I would bend my knees and I would see stars," Safina said. "When you serve for basically two months with pain, normally I was always compensating. I was not bending this knee enough, I was trying to change a little bit."

Later that day in Toronto, Maria Sharapova followed Safina on court and matched her compatriot by uncannily serving 17 double faults of her own during a straight-sets win.

"I'm actually having a competition with myself to see how many errors and double faults I can make and still win the match in two sets," Sharapova drolly remarked. "It's pretty interesting."

Mounting a comeback following shoulder surgery last year, the three-time Grand Slam champ is breaking in an abbreviated service motion that is still erratic -- a delivery into the net may be followed by one that lands just inside the baseline instead of the service line. Her coach, Michael Joyce, feels that Sharapova's right arm is still well below full strength and will improve during the offseason.

For now, double-digit double faults have become common, echoing a period in early 2007 when her shoulder first started to become an issue. Their timing also has been significant. Although the odd double fault is perfectly acceptable when going for strong second serves, regular doubles on break point or set point are a signal that the player has lost standard control of her delivery.

Recovery is possible. No player has had her serving troubles more documented than Elena Dementieva, but the 28-year-old veteran has persevered and seen the results. There are still double faults, but they tend to come at less inopportune moments. And the overall quality of Dementieva's delivery has improved significantly from the old days of predictable serves sliced out wide.

She has reached a point that she can even joke about it. "For some reason it looks like me, Sharapova and also Kournikova when she was playing -- all the Russians sometimes have a problem with the serve," said Dementieva, who won the Toronto event by beating Sharapova in the final.

"It's all about the rhythm," she explained. "One day I feel better, another day I feel worse. … I think it's all about confidence, because that's the only shot that you can take all the time you want and just get your focus and just make it.

"I was watching Sharapova playing in Los Angeles. She had a very solid game, just a few double faults really made a difference in [her loss in a semifinal] match against Flavia Pennetta."

Mark down Serbian Ana Ivanovic as yet another top player "out of service." A wild ball toss has knocked her swing out of whack, and she, too, is experimenting with a tighter motion to establish some consistency.

The impact of struggling on serve is not confined to the shot itself, observed Ivanovic: "It was really frustrating, and it was affecting my whole game. I think it's not only case with me, it's with every player who has a big serve. And then all of a sudden if the serve is not coming, it affects your whole movement or your whole game."

The recent epidemic of serving problems has contributed to the flux at the top. Stricken stars may be able to overcome lesser opponents, but the task becomes much more difficult against other high-quality opponents. It may be no coincidence that Serena Williams, on balance the best server on the Sony Ericsson WTA Tour, has won three of the last four Grand Slams.

"Playing with the top 50 players, it doesn't change the match because they can rely on all their other weapons," said Antonio Van Grichen, coach of the eighth-ranked Victoria Azarenka. "Talking about Sharapova, nothing changes much, [she's] winning matches with like 30 double faults.

"But then, of course, if she plays with a top player, then it might be a big change. Then she might lose those matches."

Are double faults contagious? "I hope not," he laughs. "Vika has been doing a lot it these past three weeks, actually.

"It's a lot of girls and a lot of double faults.

"I think there's so much talk about that -- people make a big ssue out of it, it will be contagious, you know. The girls think too much about it, they hear too much about it."

With the return so potent in the women's game, Van Grichen doesn't advocate just rolling the second serve in unless the situation becomes desperate. "They should go for a fast second serve so they can start the point in a good way -- not give the opponent too many chances," he said. "If she is only doing double faults and double faults, then I'd say, look, just get in a second serve however you want, please. Just have a chance to play the point."

Perhaps the most perplexing question is why the men are not prone to the same double-fault flurries. The now-retired Guillermo Coria, a former French Open finalist, has been the only memorable case on the ATP tour recently.

That the men are physically stronger and generally taller is not in itself an explanation. "It will affect the efficiency of the serve, that's for sure, [but] I don't think it will affect doing double faults," Van Grichen said. "It's mainly a mental issue."

The players themselves are at a loss to explain further. "When I practice, there is nothing wrong, you know. It's just when I go into the match that my mind works on other things," Safina said. "What I think about? Five hundred things instead of just hitting the ball."

Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.