They’re called the “yips”.
They can happen to anyone.
And Sara Errani, the former top-10 player who is trying to come back after serving a long doping suspension, is in the throes of a massive case of them.
The 31-year-old Italian veteran just can’t toss the ball.
Most of the time, it has gone so far behind her that even if she wanted to hit the serve, she couldn’t do it.
Yet, somehow – with pure determination and no little helping of mental toughness – she has played four matches in qualifying and the main draw at the WTA event in Bogotá. And she’s into the quarterfinals as a lucky loser.
There, she has another great opportunity, as she takes on Astra Sharma of Australia Friday.
Qualifying disaster at altitude
Errani’s issues are not helped by the fact that the Bogotá tournament is played at more than 8,600 feet of altitude. The ball flies.
Errani was symmetrical in the qualifying. She hit 18 double faults in each of her two matches. She won the first one, 6-3 in the third set against No. 2 qualifying seed Danielle Lao of the U.S. (her opponent had 11 herself).
Errani won 12 of the 21 points on her second serve that didn’t involve double faults.
She lost the second match, 6-2, 3-6, 6-3 to countrywoman Jasmine Paolini.
In that one, Errani again won more than half of the points in which she hit a second serve and didn’t double fault.
One of four lucky losers into the main draw, Errani faced off with Romania’s Irina Bara in the first round.
Yips in the warmup vs. Bara
The match, overall, began fairly normally.
She caught a toss when she tried to get a few extra serves in, in the warmup. But she was serving the regular way.
In her first service game, Errani double-faulted three times. The last one almost went into the stands on the fly. There were two more in her next service game, another in her third, and two each the fourth and fifth time she served – including two more double faults that went way over the baseline.
In the second set, having rallied and serving for the set at 5-2, she tried the underhand for the first time on the second serve. But she hit it long.
On set point, she hit underhand serves on both the first and second serves.
Bara tried to hit a drop shot on the second one. It went into the bottom of the net. And the set was Errani’s. She rarely tried that tactic – a good one – again.
In the third set, Errani continued to use it occasionally. Up 3-0, she hit three of them on first serves. But it didn’t work.
Serving for it at 5-2, she hit four of them (three on the first serve). But again, it didn’t work. Bara broke her at love.
In the end, the underhand serves didn’t win Errani the match. What won it for her was her ability to hang in there – and Bara’s inability to hold her own serve, or handle the slow, sliced Errani deliveries.
Errani was broken eight times. Again, as in the qualifying, she toted up 18 double faults. But she broke Bara’s serve 11 times.
In addition to the 18 double-faults, there were another 47 bad tosses Errani caught before trying again. And there were at least a dozen more she should have caught.
The Romanian never really conjured up a plan to deal with it. After that initial bad error on the drop-shot attempt, she rarely tried it again. She remained, for the most part, near the baseline to return.
Errani looked completely and utterly wiped out mentally with it was over.
Hanging in tough against Schoofs
With two days to think about it – imagine what was going through her head – Errani had a plan going into her second-round match against Dutch qualifier Bibiane Schoofs.
Rather than put all that pressure on her serve in a situation she knew wasn’t going to solve itself during the match – and would probably get worse the tighter the score was – she went with the sure thing.
Luckily for Errani, her serve – even at its best – was always pretty terrible. So she has a career’s worth of compensating for it to draw on.
And her doubles success is evidence of her hand skills.
And underhand serve is not something you practice. It’s not the same as a forehand drop shot. So it’s a lot tougher than it looks.
In her opening service game against Schoofs, after a double fault landed three feet long, Errani tried the underhand serve for the first time. The first one worked, as Schoofs tried the drop shot. She double-faulted on the second attempt, and eventually was broken.
At 3-1, Errani tried it twice – and held at love. At 5-1, serving for the set, she hit all underhand serves, and was broken. Still, she won the first set 6-2.
By then, the Italian just decided to go with it. It didn’t always work. But it worked often enough.
At 5-1 in the second set, she served for the match – with eight understand serves in the game. And closed it out.
— Bibiane Schoofs (@BibianeSchoofs) April 12, 2019
Thus, Errani limited the damage to four double faults. Her opponent had more: seven. For Schoofs, as with Bara, the problem was two-fold. Schoofs was only able to break Errani’s serve three times. And she had her own serve broken seven times.
To her credit, she didn’t take out her frustrations on Errani. She knew the Italian wasn’t doing it deliberately to throw her off.
She even offered up a big hug – happily accepted – at the net.
Time violation assessed
A potential problem.
At 30-15 in that final game, after three caught tosses, Errani was assessed a time violation by the young chair umpire.
This hadn’t happened (unless we missed it), in the entire Bara match – including on at least one occasion we noted when Errani also caught her toss three times before the serve.
Was that fair? Feels like it wasn’t.
We’ll see what happened in Friday’s match. But all it would do is exacerbate the stress – even if the constant toss-catching isn’t all that fair for the opponent.
What we do know, is that it’s not gamesmanship on Errani’s part. And there’s nothing in the rules that says you can’t catch a dozen tosses if you want to. Just as there’s nothing in the rules that says you can’t serve underhand.
To sum up: Errani hit – by our count – 15 underhand serves against Bara. Nine came on first serves (three in Errani’s final, unsuccessful service game). And none until she was serving for the second set at 5-2.
Against Schoofs: about 33 in all, beginning at 30-all in her first service game. She went 2-3 when she did it on first serve – won the last three. On second serves, she was about 14-12).
Surviving with a bad WTA second serve
We’ll allow that Errani would never get away with this against better players.
Lao is ranked No. 155, just off her career high. Paolini is ranked No. 187.
Qualifiers Bara (No. 170), and Schoofs (No. 162 and turning 31 next month), are in that range.
The rankings don’t lie.
But the big issue with handling the serve came down to how they reacted to it.
The modern generation of female tennis players simply doesn’t face much but hard-hit hots from the baseline, in all the hours they practice.
They do take a few slower, short rally balls and try to hit winners. But this isn’t the same thing.
Schoofs’ reactions were not atypical. She eventually figured out that she had to stand way in to take on the underhand serves. But then, she scrambled back to the baseline and tried to continue the point from there.
If the return wasn’t good enough, and Errani hit a good second shot, it was Schoofs who was then on the defensive.
It happened time and time again.
On a macro scale, a general inability to attack inadequate, short second serves is a marking characteristic of the women’s game the last few years.
Angelique Kerber has won three majors with an awful second serve. Jelena Ostapenko (who had double-faulting woes of her own in exiting Bogotá in the first round), won a French Open with it.
The women – there are exceptions, obviously – would rather hit a safe return on that slow ball than move into the part of the court they need to be in, to punish it the way it deserves. Because that’s no (wo)man’s land for them.
It takes them out of their limited comfort zone at the baseline. And for the most part, their transition games to the net aren’t up to the task.
Is it a career-ender?
Currently ranked No. 243, Errani has come back twice from a doping suspension served in two parts.
The first time, with a shorter absence, she managed to get back to No. 72 last summer.
This second go-round is proving much more challenging.
So far, in 11 matches back, Errani has 139 double faults – 94 in her last six.
You could ask, ‘If she had all that time off, why didn’t she come back to the Tour with a much-improved serve?”
It’s a valid question. Because it was never good. But perhaps she did give it a valiant try. And the fact that her serve was embedded so deep into her muscle memory, for so many years, made it impossible. You could even theorize that it might have led to her current woes.
Hopefully someone in the media in Bogotá has or will ask her.
(Tennis.Life spoke to her at the Indian Wells Challenger. And we wanted to ask her if she had worked on her serve during the suspension. But she graciously agreed to talk after a loss. So it was most definitely NOT the right time).
Errani practiced the (regular) serve quite a bit at Indian Wells, through the Challenger and then into the main event.
The Italian had her challenges here and there, but it didn’t look anything as bad as it has this week in Bogotá.
The technique on her delivery in practice was a lot smoother than it has been this week, when a noticeable hitch occurs after her abbreviated takeback.
One thing’s for sure. If she doesn’t figure out a way to resolve it, she won’t last long.
But if there’s anything she’s proven this week, it’s that she’s one tough cookie.
(Update: Errani fell to Sharma 6-1, 7-5 in a laudable effort in the quarters Friday. Eight double faults. But the difference was that her opponent, even though she did have break points against her serve, did a super job taking care of those.
Errani will still move up some 35 spots to just outside the top 200, all but assuring herself a spot in the French Open qualifying. And it will give her a boost of confidence heading into Fed Cup next weekend).