Martina Navratilova was waiting for an elevator at Arthur Ashe Stadium one evening last week when the question came again, this time from John Lloyd, an ex-husband of her onetime archrival, Chris Evert, and witness to many of their give-no-quarter battles. "What is going on with these women's serves?" he asked. "I've never seen anything like it," Navratilova began, and as the elevator dropped to ground level, she found herself trying to explain how the 2009 U.S. Open had devolved into the biggest head-case convention in recent memory. After all, the serve has always been the window on the tennis psyche, the most telling measure of shaky nerves and a muddled mind, and while the yips showcased by Maria Sharapova (who had an Open-record 21 double faults in her third-round loss to unseeded Melanie Oudin), the free-falling former No. 1 Ana Ivanovic (who lost to Kateryna Bondarenko in the first round) and even the usually impervious Venus Williams (who bowed to wild card Kim Clijsters in the fourth round) can be attributed to technical flaw or injury, the fact is that everyone in the game takes them as the clearest sign of a woman on the verge.
Exhibit A, of course, was the wholly flummoxed Dinara Safina, the women's No. 1. Safina arrived in New York desperate to justify her ranking with her first win in a major final, and it showed: After 26 double faults in her first two matches, she mentally hit the rocks in an oddly unsurprising third-round loss to 72nd-ranked Petra Kvitova. "I go on the court, and I really want to do one thing," Safina says. "[Then] I step on the court, and I do completely the opposite thing." As for that tentative serve? She pointed to her head. "The serve is here."
Safina's honesty, while refreshing, will hardly help the image of Eastern bloc players, lumped as they often are into the cliché of moody mercurials, and will certainly serve as ammo for any yahoo eager to depict women as fragile under fire. "This is the biggest difference between men's and women's tennis—the mental part," says Zeljko Krajan, Safina's coach. "[Women] transform everything into a kind of panicking. The guys are much better at dealing with these things."
Perhaps. But it still seemed appropriate that this Meltdown Open began with a tribute to Andre Agassi, who spent the first half of his career as an overemoting underachiever, and a first-round bow out by retiring loon Marat Safin.
Navratilova, the Czech émigré who was as steely a competitor as any on the men's tour, dismissed all such generalizations. The women aren't less resolute or more distracted, she says. It's that their serving technique is sketchy, beginning a bad cycle: The serve breaks down, confidence shreds, the player tightens, the serve breaks down even more.
"It's technical, and then it becomes mental," she says. "When the weather's good, you're O.K.; but when the hurricane comes, the house crumbles—and the Grand Slams are the hurricane."
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ERICK W. RASCO (SHARAPOVA)
HEAD TRIPPED Sharapova (above) had 21 double faults against Oudin, while Safina (left) came unglued against Kvitova.
JIM MCISAAC/GETTY IMAGES (SAFINA)
[See caption above]