Commentary

Why can't the women serve?

Originally Published: September 8, 2009
By Kamakshi Tandon | Special to ESPN.com

Editor's note: This is an updated version of a story originally published by ESPN.com on Aug. 26, 2009.

In the madness pervading the women's draw during the first week of the U.S. Open, there has been a common link: the serve. Or rather, the lack thereof.

Top seed Dinara Safina hit nine double faults during her third-round loss on Saturday night, bringing her total to a tournament-leading 35. That's the equivalent of almost nine games, continuing a recent pattern of trouble in an area she once regarded as a strength.

"You need to write a book, what's going on with my serve," Safina said despairingly two weeks ago in Toronto. "It's a 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 is far from alone. Maria Sharapova, whose exit preceded Safina's on Saturday, hit 21 double faults in her loss to Melanie Oudin. Ana Ivanovic lost in the first round, still struggling mightily with her serve toss.

Even Venus Williams, owner of the fastest serve in women's tennis, has been struggling with her more technically vulnerable second delivery. Hitting partner/coach David Witt told ESPN in a television interview that the heavy strapping visible on Williams' left knee was due to tendinitis, and the problem was affecting her knee bend on the serve. Williams produced 26 double faults during her U.S. Open campaign, losing in the fourth round to Kim Clijsters.

The phenomenon, known jokingly as double-faultitis, is hardly new. Its most famous victim may have been Anna Kournikova, who served a spectacular 31 double faults in her second-round Australian Open match in 1999 and racked up 91 in her first four matches that season. But now, instead of being confined to isolated cases, there seems to be an epidemic among the top stars.

Big serves are not common in the women's game to begin with. The return has become the more potent shot in recent years, with service breaks so common that in some matches it's more apt to refer to players being "up a hold" rather than "up a break." Jelena Jankovic and Elena Dementieva, who were also upset early, are two examples of players who have reached the top despite rather than because of their serves.

Yet those who are currently struggling the most once had effective deliveries. It is mystifying: How can such accomplished players, who have hit endless balls since childhood, wake up one day having forgotten how to serve?

Earlier, 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," she 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."

Injury, in fact, is often a catalyst. The serve is the most complex stroke players hit, 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. And because it is the one stroke players have sole control over, the level of performance is largely mental.

"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."

The outbreak of serving problems has contributed to the flux at the top. Stricken stars can shrug them off during routine matches, but the task becomes much more difficult during close contests.

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

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.

The odd double fault is perfectly acceptable if the server has a 40-0 lead in the game or is consistently going for big second serves as part of a match strategy. But hitting a large number or hitting them during critical stages like break point or set point down is a sign of problems. And it seems to be happening more and more frequently among more and more players.

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

Ironically, Azarenka later went on to double fault at match point down in her third-round match at the U.S. Open.

"It's a lot of girls and a lot of double faults," continued Van Grichen. "I think there's so much talk about that -- people make a big issue out of it, it will be contagious, you know. The girls think too much about it, they hear too much about it."

To combat the problem, Van Grichen suggests trying to avoid having to hit too many second serves in the first place. Rather than go all out on the first serve, he recommends the equivalent of an aggressive second serve. This still gets the server off to a good start during the point but helps keep her first-serve percentage from getting too low.

[+] EnlargeElena Demetieva
Geoff Robins/Getty ImagesAlthough her serve has improved, Elena Dementieva has long been afflicted with serving woes.

"They should go for a fast second serve [on the first delivery] so they can start the point in a good way -- not give the opponent too many chances," he said, but added that simply pushing the ball in is only advisable if things get desperate.

"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."

Interestingly, however, Sharapova said after her loss to Oudin that she had had trouble taking pace off her serve. "Just couldn't decelerate today," she said. "I was hitting second serves no less than 95 miles per hour. I even tried to hit it less and I just couldn't.

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

Ana Ivanovic, yet another top player "out of service," observes that serving struggles can often have a spillover effect. "It was really frustrating, and it was affecting my whole game," she said. "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."

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.

The men are physically stronger and generally taller, but that cannot be a full 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."

But sufferers take heart -- recovery is possible. No player has had her serving troubles more documented than 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.

"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."

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