July 11, 2024

Open Court


Anna Kournikova and a notorious case of the yips

In tennis, there have been a few notable cases of the yips.

You could compare a pitcher about to throw a pitch, or a player about to putt, with a player about to serve.

For whatever reason – and you see this even at the recreational level – it seems to affect women more than men.

Some think it comes from the fact that when you hold the ball in your hand to serve, these are truly the only moments in a tennis match when your fate is entirely in your own hands.

And that rare level of control – especially under stress – can get to the point where it’s too tough to handle for some.

Guillermo Coria, Dinara Safina and Elena Dementieva all have suffered from the yips, as noted in this great piece in New York Tennis Magazine last year.

And we all watched Ana Ivanovic struggle with it for most of the latter part of her career – never really getting a handle on it. She had been a player with a smooth-looking, effortless and powerful serve.

Kournikova the Kween of the yips

But by far the most famous victim of it was the much-maligned Anna Kournikova.

The Russian was a far better tennis player than the judgment that will be made of her in the tennis history books.

But she’s remembered for other things – including this.

Two decades ago, when she was just 17 and ranked in the top 15, Kournikova had a brutal case of the yips on serve.

Between October, 1998 and her fourth-round exit at the 1999 Australian Open, she hit 182 double faults in just 10 matches.

In a second-round match against Miho Saeki of Japan at that Australian Open, she hit 31 – a record that holds today.

And she won it, 1-6, 6-4, 10-8 after leading the third set 5-0. There were 149 unforced errors and 21 breaks of serve in that one, per the Independent’s writeup at the time.

Kournikova had hit 23 in her first-round win over American Jill Craybas. And she hit 14 more in the third round, in a win over Germany’s Andrea Glass.

She ultimately fell 6-0, 6-4 to Mary Pierce in the round of 16.

 At the time, the Independent had a good go at her, which was fairly unkind. It also doesn’t say much about the Aussie fans.

“It was one of most feeble and unintentionally comical matches of all time, and the packed crowd groaned and hooted, laughed and whistled through every excruciating moment,” it wrote.

Kournikova acknowledged that the pressure of the crowd didn’t help.

The Kournikova yips began at tournaments in Filderstadt, Germany and Berlin the previous fall.

“It has been happening for a while, so I am kind of used to it,” Kournikova said in her press conference in Melbourne. “I’m really frustrated with it, just like everybody who is watching. In practice I feel fine, I serve normal, and there’s no sign of double faults. It’s just when I come to the line, when I play, there’s something happening, so I’m just going to have to get over it and try to fight through.”

There were few players with more pressure on them than Kournikova at the time. Because of her extraordinarily high profile and marketability, she had the focus on her like few others.

And, despite her solid performances, she was getting constant pressure about not yet having won a Tour event – as if she somehow wasn’t a legitimate top player without one.

Kournikova hung in there and had a good season, qualifying for the WTA Tour finals (then held at Madison Square Garden in New York).

But she was out of the game a few years later, barely into her 20s.

Kucera mocked by Agassi

On the men’s side, the most notable example was the case of Karol Kucera at the 1998 US Open.

Kucera was an amenable chap. But Agassi was losing. And the Agassi of 1998 wasn’t nearly the polished, political product he is today.

And he was losing badly – down two sets and a break in the third.

So his reaction was to … make fun of the Slovak.

Kucera won the fourth-round match in five sets. After that, he won three of the last four matches he played against the Hall of Famer.

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