WIMBLEDON, England -- Down and down she goes, where she stops, nobody knows. After a lot of hard work climbing upward, it's easy to slip down the greasy pole of success on the WTA Tour. And once a player begins to drop, there's no telling how many rungs she'll fall before hitting bottom.
It begins slowly -- a few bad matches here and there, but then every match becomes a battle. At first, she wins some and loses some, and then starts losing them all. She's still capable of playing one good set, but not two in a row. Soon she becomes even more inconsistent -- one good game, then a bad one. Eventually, it gets to the stage when she can play one good point, but not two in a row. Only the talent remains, prompting people to scratch their heads and ask, "What happened?"
Want to recognize the signs? Here are the eight stages in the collapse of a WTA player:
1. False hope
Symptoms: Post-triumph letdown, positive yet passive attitude about future
Diagnosis: Pressure to defend new status, a few early losses. Condition may potentially worsen.
Current victim: Francesca Schiavone
The colorful Italian exited Wimbledon in the first round, surprising and predictable all at the same time. Still in the process of floating dreamily down from her French Open victory two weeks ago, she couldn't quite muster enough intensity to get past Russian Vera Dushevina.
"I would have preferred Wimbledon being in three weeks," she told Italian reporters about having to regroup so quickly after the euphoria of winning a Slam. "This is all new to me, I have to get used to it. Maybe ask advice from [Roger] Federer or [Rafael] Nadal, who regularly go through this situation."
It's a reflection that Schiavone's accomplishment represents the peak of her career rather than the start of something even bigger. At this stage, things are still somewhat open -- she could continue to post decent results the rest of the year and float in and out of the top 10, or struggle to do anything else of note for the rest of the season. But it's practically inevitable there'll be some sort of dip. In fact, it's already begun. Setting in next will be …
Symptoms: Results not keeping pace with talent, lack of intensity
Diagnosis: Mediocrity, punctuated by occasional success.
Victim: Svetlana Kuznetsova
Kuznetsova is Schiavone a year later.
The easygoing Russian has a better track record and a better chance of future success, but she stepped off the gas after getting a Slam last year and has drifted since. As defending champion at the French Open, she barely got past her second-round match and lost in the third. At Wimbledon on Tuesday, she struggled to a three-set win over Akgul Amanmuradova, who is the tour's tallest player but ranked only No. 93.
"It was not up and down, it was down," Kuznetsova said of her past few months. "It's just frustrating because I'm pretty [well] prepared for everything. It's just not working … in the matches. In practice I'm good."
Chances are Kuznetsova will snap out of it at some point and have another good run, but this could take a while to run its course. And there's always the possibility of …
Symptoms: Injury or personal crisis soon after period of career success
Diagnosis: Crisis of confidence; deep breath required.
Victim: Dinara Safina
Safina is the player Kuznetsova defeated to win the French Open last year, a loss that added up to three Grand Slam final defeats for Safina. That sat uncomfortably with Safina's No. 1 ranking, and the media pressure as well as Safina's brutal self-criticism began to take its toll.
She continued to play after developing knee and back problems last year, not wanting to interrupt her momentum after a good clay-court run, and was a wreck by the time the U.S. Open came around. She has lost five of her six matches since returning in April from a three-month injury break and pulled out of Wimbledon with more back problems. Her ranking has fallen to No. 20 as a result, and she is likely to be in the 30s after Wimbledon ends.
Physical recovery is a prerequisite for Safina to try to climb back, but at this point, her problems are mental as well as physical. Last month, Safina parted ways with coach Zeljko Krajan, who she had repeatedly credited for her mid-career rise to the top. At last check, she was working with Gaston Etlis. Another few months like this, and she'll be in …
Symptoms: Huge drop in the rankings; emotional, inconsistent and suffering breakdown of key stroke, usually the serve
Diagnosis: A tipping point, resulting either in recovery or a permanent slide.
Current victim: Ana Ivanovic
After winning the 2008 French Open and reaching No. 1, Ivanovic struggled to adjust to her new status, falling early at Wimbledon. A thumb injury in the summer knocked her further off course and soon she was in free fall. (Sound familiar yet?)
She has shown occasional signs of a turnaround, reaching semifinals in Sydney and Rome but has not been able to build on that momentum. After a one-sided loss in the second round of the French Open, Ivanovic was surprisingly upbeat. During a tight three-set loss in the first round of Wimbledon, she was red-faced with emotion and declined all interview requests afterward. The vital thing at this point is to avoid …
Symptoms: Stabilization after a big rankings drop
Diagnosis: Further descent not likely, but neither is much upward movement.
Current victim: Anna Chakvetadze
Once a top 5 player, the eyeliner-loving Russian was never the same again after burglars entered her home and tied her and her parents up during the robbery. She has settled down toward the bottom end of the top 100, never moving too far up or down. Not a great outcome, but she's still a legitimate WTA player, which is better than …
Symptoms: Collapse, brief recovery, followed by another collapse, and so on
Diagnosis: Requires effective use of wild cards; recovery through challenger circuit also possible, but harsh treatment that weakened victim has trouble surviving.
Current victim: Jelena Dokic
The Dokic saga is a long and depressing one, a bright young prospect derailed by personal conflict. Her fairy tale run to the Australian Open quarterfinals last year suggested she might be on her way back to Chakvetadze or Ivanovic status, but illness struck. She is now toiling away in challengers, coach-less, and reportedly sat crying on the grass after losing in the second round of qualifying for Wimbledon. If this continues, she could soon be …
Symptoms: Permanent residence in minor leagues and qualifying
Diagnosis: Persist if winning frequently; if not, retirement advised.
Current victim: Mariana Lucic
Another long, depressing story of potential, personal conflict and burnout. A 15-year-old Lucic won the first WTA tournament she ever played and reached the semifinals of Wimbledon in 1999 while still a teenager. This year, she was a qualifier, and that's a significant victory.
At one point, the hard-hitting Croat effectively retired because of family conflict and injuries but came back in 2007 and has been toiling at the bottom of the pro ranks since. But at least she's still playing, which means she hasn't hit …
8. Rock bottom
Symptoms: Inability to keep ball in court for two points in a row
Diagnosis: Leads to retirement; continues to puzzle experts.
Current victim: Nicole Vaidisova
Vaidisova went from being a top-10 teen to former pro in less than three years. Some things are beyond explanation.
Kamakshi Tandon is a freelance tennis writer for ESPN.com.