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.