Sunday, May 27, 2018

What do Elena Dementieva, Maria Sharapova and Alona Ostapenko have in common?

photo by Daniel Ward
Alona Ostapenko's first-round loss at the French Open was, quite obviously, connected to her poor serving performance. Also, in her press conference, she revealed that she'd experienced very negative feelings from the moment she woke up on Sunday.

Recently, in a New York Times article, Christopher Clarey reported that Ostapenko's mother said that, at one time, serving was one of her daughter's strengths. At age 15, Ostapenko had to have shoulder surgery, which caused her to change her service motion. Her serve then deteriorated.

But that's just part of the story. Jelena Jakovleva went on to say that “It’s something mental probably now. The pain is gone, but she cannot find the right motion.”

And it's not a new story. Elena Dementieva, who--sadly--became known for her terrible serve, once had a good serve, too, but after shoulder surgery, it never returned. It was painful to watch the very talented Russian struggle so much when serving.

And then there's Maria Sharapova. Sharapova played for months with a torn rotator cuff because her doctors were somehow incapable of reading an X-ray or MRI. When she finally had surgery, the tear was really bad. Rehab failed, and had to be repeated. 

That's a lot of trauma, even for someone as tough as Sharapova. Once the holder of one of the best second serves on the tour, post-surgery, the Russian couldn't find a second serve. She double-faulted a great deal, and when her first serve went in, it frequently wasn't the first serve of the pre-surgery Sharapova. And while the situation has improved, Sharapova is still struggling with her serve.

What are the factors behind this phenomenom? There are two. One has to do with belief. It's possible that Ostapenko and Sharapova no longer believe that they can serve well. It's also possible that they consciously believe that they can serve well, but their unconscious belief is that they will fail.

The second factor is the fact that serving is an action, not a reaction. When we react to something, our instincts take over, and they take over quickly. But serving has nothing to do with reacting; it's a conscious, deliberate action totally within the control of the server. When the reaction "switch" isn't turned on by a stimulus, the player is left with too much time on her hands, and too much temptation to think (or, in the case of an unconscious belief, to fulfill that belief).

What is the solution? I would suggest hypnosis, so that the conscious mind can be bypassed. But there are other interventions that would work, too--structured visualization, relaxation exercises, training in basic meditation techniques, and of course--any possible simplifying of the service motion, in order to hasten the striking of the ball.

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