Service With a Smile

Thursday, May 29, 2008 /by

Those you you who read my recent Check it Out! post know that I recently did a treatment on Ana Ivnaovic's serve for a feature of the New York Time's quarterly sports magazine, Play, in an interesting department called, The Gift. That's where the magazine breaks down the outstanding talent or gift in various athletes. The rumor that the next tennis player to get this treatment will be Richard Gasquet (his "gift": skydiving, aka "bailing out") is untrue.

Ana Anyway, while the print verision of the piece won't be out until June 1, you can read it via the link in Check it Out! So I can tell you a little more about how this piece played out. I've known Ana's coach Sven Groeneveld (he's actually the Adidas team coach, not her personal mentor) for a long time, and he was very helpful. There was some discussion about whether or not Scott Byrnes, Ana's Aussie strength and conditioning coach, would go on the record for the story, because Scott is a quiet, intensely focused young man who appears to have zippo interest in publicity. In fact, his policy is to not speak with the press.

Ana was somewhat reluctant to schedule an interview, but I think that when she understood that this was a tightly targeted, game-based piece (no questions about the Serbian invasion; nothing about fashion shoots!) she warmed up to it, and was charming and enthusiastic during the interview. At the end, I was crafty enough to ask if she minded if Scott spoke to me for the story; she said not at all. So I went for the kill - "Okay, Ana, so you promise to talk to Scott when you go downstairs (to the Indian Wells locker room), right?"

She laughed: "Okay, I promise."

Of course, Scott then agreed to discuss his work with Ana. He's a patient,co-operative guy. What struck me most about him -  and Ana's team in general - is how focused they are on long-term rather than immediate success. This was a group decision, although even Ivanovic and her parents did not really know what they were getting into. When Scott was auditioning for his job (shortly before Wimbledon of 2006), her team asked how long it might take for her to reach her potential. He replied, "Oh, in three years we'll notice that she's turning into an athlete."

Recalling that moment a few weeks ago, Byrnes said, "They rolled back their eyes, thinking - this must be hopeless! But yeah, I still hold to that timetable. In another year she ought to be at her physical peak. Its that last ten per cent we've been working on."

And trust me, these folks work.

It's funny, but when Play first approached me to do this piece, I had to wonder , why Ivanovic? It could just as easily have been done with any number of players, including Venus and Serena Williams, who have actually hit slightly faster serves. For a variety of reasons, though, Ivanovic seemed like a good choice - her rise in the past 12 months has been meteoric, and it turns out that sheer speed and power was just the starting points for developing her serve into a weapon. Also, she'd suffered shoulder injuries that added an extra layer of complexity to her saga.

Ana told me that two things contributed to the shoulder injuries she suffered late in the year in 2005 and 2006: lack of overall fitness (note that the injuries occurred during the end of the long calendar year), and flawed body positioning that ultimately put too much stress and emphasis on her arm in the serve. Byrnes also discovered that Ana's shoulder area, including the joint, is - if anything - too flexible and loose. So the rotator cuff and the muscles surrounding it were put under inordinate stress because Ivanovic back in those days relied too much on her arm to generate service power. And power was the quality she seemed to hold in highest regard.

Almost two years down the road, Ana is no longer intoxicated by power. She's content to hit penetrating serves that keep returners off balance with spin and placement angles. "I've learned that the second serve is so important," she said. "I  have the potential to get more free points with the first serve, and I will when I go for it a little more often, and hit a little flatter. But also, I feel really secure about my second serve now because my technique is better, and that automatically makes your first serve better and more dangerous."

Ivanovic now knows that the most important thing about the first serve is. . . getting it into the box (it's a pity that the radar gun lights up the numbers even on a fault). Getting the first serve in keeps opponents off balance and thinking less of attacking than of simply getting the ball into play. Ana's second serve, usually a kicker, has enough action to take opponents out of their hitting zone on the return. Although Ana has studied the serve, she doesn't hit a studied serve: she decides which serve to use at the last moment, after seeing where her opponent lines up to receive. She's worked hard on disguising her toss, so it's harder to tell what kind of serve she's about to hit. She's been able to accomplish that by changing the position of her arms as she tosses the ball; her tossing arm is further inside the court, instead of parallel with the baseline.

It isn't easy for a top pro to make even small changes. As Groeneveld said, "It was a step-by-step process. You look at technique, mechanics, preparation. . . We've tried to make better use of her torso to develop more spin, and we also were looking to get better acceleration of the arm. She picked it up pretty good."

Getting all these elements into place wasn't easy, even though the techniques Sven employs rely on the old KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) mandate. Ana has practiced her serve while walking, in order to develop a better feel for moving into the ball. Sven had her hop on her left leg as she did that exercise, to impress on her how much she has to feel the power coming from her that leg ("The right leg is just a stabilizer, the extension on serve really comes from the left leg [of a right-handed server like Ana]" he said). After that, they worked on applying the right leg to the cause because, Sven says, women players need to get more power from their legs (as opposed to their arms)  than their male counterparts. The sum total of these exercises and adjustments was to impress on Ivanovic that the serve is an easy, flowing motion. The power, he told her, would come later, and it would come more naturally and at a lower cost to her body.

He said, "I've worked with lot of powerful players and we never never worried about winners. We're not looking for 100 per cent power and speed all the time, you have to save that for the right moments – break point, something like that, or for a surprise. We also like to use the serve to the body a lot, so you don't allow the returner a free, big swing."

Unlike Groeneveld, Byrnes doesn't dabble much in technique or strategy. His job is to make sure the physical plant is in ideal working order. Byrnes is the one at Ivanovic's side all the time; Groeneveld, as an Adidas coach, has other women to help (they include Sania Mirza, Alicia Moulton, Sabine Lisicki).

One of the high priority areas for Byrnes these days is "core stability." He believes that when a player isn't strong enough in the core, or trunk, she's prone to "collapsing" during the serve. It's up to the muscles around the torso and trunk to hold up a player. So he designs various exercises for the abs, lower back, obliques and other trunk-area muscles. "If Ana can keep her posture up, that keeps the muscles switched on.But that's a very hard thing to do when you're playing a sport. You naturally tend to let yourself slump. Your core muscles have to be switched on, and that should unconsciously, through posture. Those are the muscles that generate power, although there's also leg strength and, after that, the importance of a strong, stable shoulder."

Byrnes is basically a strength and conditioning coach. He works on strength, injury prevention, and recovery. Given that Sven can't go on the court when Ana is playing another Adidas athlete , the job falls to Scott (the unexpected retirement of Justine Henin has, to some degree, alleviated that awkward problem). But, as Byrnes says, "At that point it's really more about the camaraderie and support than it is about words of wisdom."

Byrnes has come to recognize the times when Ivanovic is relying too much on her arm, and after every match they do cool-down and maintenance exercises depending partly on his observations. This intense monitoring has paid off; Ivanovic hasn't suffered a shoulder injury since she's been working with Scott. And while she knows how much her serve has improved, she's still tempted to go for the big flat one - and believes that she'll do it more often in the future.

When I mentioned that she had hit a serve harder than any produced by another well-known server, Maria Sharapova, her eyes lit up and she said, "Yeah. That's good. . . right?"

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