High Strung

The inexplicable collapse of a tennis phenom

It’s the second round of the Australian Open, late in the first set, when the yips take hold. Ana Ivanovic, the graceful, powerful Serbian brunette once dubbed the future of tennis, can’t toss the ball. Her left arm jerks upward and the ball veers off to her right. Rather than swing, she extends her racket and catches the ball on the strings. Restart. Bounce it. Take a quick breath. Go.

This time, the ball flies forward and out of reach. She lets it drop, then gathers it up. She turns her back to her opponent, Gisela Dulko, a steady, fleet-footed pest of a player from Argentina. Ivanovic bounces in place, fiddles with her racket strings. She turns around and apologizes to Dulko with a quick wave. This time she swings, but the ball clips the net and lands out. Second serve. She swings again, but too slowly. Rather than spinning down into the court, the ball carries long. Double fault.

Over the past two years, Ivanovic, age 22, has slowly come undone on the tennis court. Her problems began after she won the 2008 French Open and became the world’s No. 1 female player. That summer, in Majorca, Spain, she injured her thumb while practicing with male players whose severe topspin strokes threw off her timing. She has since sustained several other minor injuries—but mostly she has lost her confidence. A professional tennis player might flub a toss once or twice a match. Against Dulko, Ivanovic flubbed at least 20 tosses. She hit 11 double faults and lost in three sets. (It was the fifth time she had committed nine or more double faults in a match since winning her French Open title.) Not long after, her ranking dipped to No. 58; this summer at Wimbledon, she was unseeded, and lost in the first round.

“It’s obviously a problem from tension, and it shows itself in the ball toss,” said Heinz Günthardt, Steffi Graf’s former coach, who began working with Ivanovic earlier this year. Her forehand, far and away her strongest shot, has also deteriorated—to the point that she no longer seems to take pleasure in hitting it. Günthardt described a downward spiral that began with doubt and proceeded to muscle tightness, then to compensation (swing harder, or in a different way), and finally to new, flawed habits. A stroke that used to begin with the fluid rotation of her upper body turned into a slap at the ball, without Ivanovic’s knowing she had changed anything at all.

I asked Sian Beilock, a psychologist at the University of Chicago and the author of the forthcoming book Choke, how world-class athletes like Ivanovic, who have spent thousands of hours perfecting a skill, could flail so helplessly. Her answer was deceptively simple: they’re thinking too much. To hit a 120-mph serve, a player must allow the body to do what it has been trained to do. Thinking mid-serve causes “paralysis by analysis,” an attack on performance by the prefrontal cortex, which, in an attempt to control closely synchronized neural activities and muscle twitches, instead sabotages them. “We all know how to shuffle down the stairs,” Beilock told me. “But if I ask you to think about how your knee is bending while you do it, there’s a good chance you’ll fall on your face.”

The hard question—the one at the center of Beilock’s research—is how to quiet an overactive mind lit up by anxiety. In her lab, Beilock asks golfers to count backward by threes as they putt (her research shows that this works). Or sing a song. Or say, internally or aloud, simple words that describe the ideal swing, like smooth. She also advocates practicing under stress so that practice and competition become similar (if you’re a tennis player who crumbles when crowds make noise, hire hecklers).

“I’m not a mental coach,” Günthardt told me. But getting Ivanovic to relax, in practice and in play, is clearly a priority. In May, at a tournament at the Foro Italico in Rome, Günthardt took Ivanovic to the broadcast booth near the top of the stadium for the men’s final between Rafael Nadal and David Ferrer. Mentor and pupil watched how those two men ran, how freely they swung, how they relished the chance to hit their favored forehands. Günthardt said he preferred this to a lecture on footwork.

I asked Günthardt to compare Ivanovic to Graf, whom many consider the best player in the history of women’s tennis. He was reluctant at first, but then said Ivanovic had surprised him with her speed and, most of all, her talent for striking the ball cleanly, even from awkward positions. “I don’t know what Ana’s limits are,” Günthardt told me. “I have no idea if Ana knows them herself. But that’s why I took this job.” The talent is there, and so is the desire. Maybe soon her mind will be somewhere else.