Tennis: Kournikova `needs a redesign'

Despite a double-fault debacle in Melbourne, a top-spin doctor thinks the Russian's bio-mechanicals are at fault not her psyche.
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The Independent Online
AMONG THOSE who wince every time Anna Kournikova misses a serve - and 182 double-faults in 10 straight matches could turn wincing into a permanent condition - Dr Jim Loehr believes the cure lies in the Russian teenager's technique rather than her mind.

"It's more of a bio-mechanical problem than it is a head problem," Loehr says, urging Kournikova to redesign her serve. "The more people attribute a head case to this, the more it will become a head case."

While some people view sports psychologists with scepticism, at best, the late Arthur Ashe once called Loehr "the single most important person in tennis today".

Loehr, 53, runs a tennis centre in Orlando, Florida. Over two decades he has worked with Pete Sampras, Martina Navratilova, Jim Courier, Brian Gottfried, Harold Solomon, and Tom and Tim Gullikson.

"I have over the years seen so much of this in one form or another," Loehr says of Kournikova's faulty serve, "and one of the things I have learnt is that the business of `choking' in a particular stroke, if it occurs with considerable consistency in a high-pressure situation, is not simply a matter of some mental adjustment. Invariably there is an emotional, a mental and also a physical component involved."

Little has gone right for Kournikova since June last year, when she injured her right thumb while defeating Steffi Graf at Eastbourne and had to withdraw from Wimbledon.

The "yips" began to inflict the 17-year-old Russian in Filderstadt in October, when she served 14 double-faults in losing to Hingis in three sets. The free points continued to accumulate at an alarming rate - 73 double-faults in four matches at the Australian Open in Melbourne provoking both sympathy and hilarity. Ranked No 12 in the world, Kournikova has given away the equivalent of 45.5 games in her last 10 matches. So how would Loehr go about rescuing the damsel in distress?

"The first thing that I do," he says, "is take a look at the bio-mechanics of the stroke, because what we've found is that if, for instance, the second serve continues to break down under conditions of high stress, in many cases it's not the head that needs fixing. The bio- mechanics of that stroke do not have sufficient margin of error and sufficient efficiency to hold up when the person gets tight.

"The way you know that a bio-mechanic, or a stroke, is very well designed is that the person can continue to play - they may not play as well, they may not serve as well - but the condition with their stroke still allows them to play even though they're nervous.

"From time to time some nerves are going to come in people's lives, and usually their weakest strokes are the ones that fail first under pressure. And that's because the mechanics are so poor they don't give you the margin of being a little tight and still being able to play anywhere near aggressively. That's why a lot of people who are very effective put a lot of spin on the ball on forehands and backhands. Their margin of error over the net can be very high, so when they get nervous they just lift it up more and they can still play. And then, as they get more relaxed, they can play closer to the net and they can make more extreme passing shots, and so forth.

"But those individuals who have flat strokes, who don't have much margin of error, as soon as they get nervous they start making a lot of mistakes. One of the ways to get people to stop `choking' is to increase the spin on the ball.

"In Anna's case, there's an emotional thing. She's lost complete confidence. When she's in practice she's fine. She rarely has problems with double- faults. And then she goes into a match and she starts double-faulting anywhere from 15 to 25 times.

"My recommendation would be to get videotape and to show her how the mechanics of the stroke actually change when she is in a tight situation, and compare those to when she's relaxed. There are two critical shots under pressure that separate players: the strength of the second serve under pressure, and the strength of the return under pressure. If either one of those is bio-mechanically flawed, the person's going to end up `choking' a lot, and they can't get into the match.

"My first option would be to make sure everything was done to redesign Anna's serve to give her more margin of error, so that even when she's so tight she can hardly move she can still get spin on the ball and get into the point. And then we'd begin to develop better rituals and precise routines to follow prior to serving and between first and second serves, making sure that she doesn't rush and lose her rhythm before she starts.

"Anna is not a `choker'. My feeling is she gets nervous - as do all the other players on the Tour. The only difference is that the margin of error in her serve does not allow her to play when she's a little nervous. And that's all that needs to be corrected."


Kournikova's 182 double-faults in her last 10 matches:

8 Oct 1998: Filderstadt; lost to Martina Hingis, of Switzerland, 1-6, 6-2, 6-2, in the second round - 14 double-faults.

13 Oct: Zurich; lost to Dominique van Roost, of Belgium, 6-3, 6-1, in the first round - 17 double-faults.

21 Oct: Moscow; lost to Silvia Farina, of Italy, 7-6, 4-6, 6-1, in the first round - 22 double-faults.

18 Nov: WTA Tour Championships, New York; lost to Monica Seles, of the United States, 6-4, 6-3, in the first round - 17 double-faults.

12 Jan 1999: Sydney, beat Silvia Farina, 4-6, 6-3, 7-5, in the first round - 23 double-faults.

13 Jan: Lost to Dominique van Roost, 6-1, 6-2, in the second round - 16 double-faults.

19 Jan: Australian Open, Melbourne; beat Jill Craybas, of the United States, 7-6, 7-5, in the first round - 23 double-faults.

21 Jan: Beat Miho Saeki, of Japan, 1-6, 6-4, 10-8, in the second round - 31 double-faults (the first time ever a player served more than 30 double- faults in a WTA Tour match).

23 Jan: Beat Andrea Glass, of Germany, 4-6, 6-2, 6-3, in the third round - 14 double-faults.

25 Jan: Lost to Mary Pierce, of France, 6-0, 6-4, in the fourth round - 5 double-faults.

Kournikova: `No choker'