It is without a doubt the easiest aspect of your game to work on, yet for many players it is the weakest part of their games. It shouldn't be and, as you begin to move up the level ladder, the absence of a solid, effective serve will put a fast halt to your rise.
At the beginning and lower levels, players tend to think of the serve as really nothing more than an annoying way to begin the point. They're happy just to plop the ball in and begin their games.
However, as they begin to get a bit better, they start to see that if they can get a real hard one in, they just might get an easy point. So what do they do? They tee off on the first serve, knowing that if it doesn't go in, they can always "plop" their second one in and still be in the point. This is not necessarily a bad strategy at the lower levels of the game, and if you watch most recreational players this is what you see. A big, booming first serve and then a second serve which more resembles a slow moving balloon.
To a large extent, players at this level are able to get away with this serving strategy because their opponents are not yet skilled enough to take advantage of their weak second serve. I've seen many players go a fairly long way with the "boom & plop" serve, but eventually it catches up to them.
If you hope to reach the higher levels of the game, it is very important that, as your ground strokes, net play and other aspects of your game improve, your serve does as well. I know an awful lot of players who I would say are "A" level players in every aspect of their games, except their serves. The weakness in their serve really limits them when they attempt to play in "A" level leagues or tournaments.
Conversely, I have a particular student who is a solid "B" player but has an "A" level serve. We play every Saturday morning at 6:30 and each week he gets to the club 20 minutes early and practices his serve. As a result, his serve is actually a level above the rest of his game and this allows him to hold his own in matches with people who for the most part are stronger players.
As you advance through the levels of play, your attitude towards your serve needs to change from it merely being a way to start the point, to it being a valuable weapon where you can gain an advantage.
Your goal for your serve is two-fold. First, you want to be confident that you can put the ball in play on a consistent basis and second, you want to be able to get your opponent off-balance in some way.
Now, most people try to get their opponent off-balance by hitting the serve hard. While this is certainly one way to accomplish that goal, it is not the best. Hard serves tend to be very flat with little room for error. That is what you see with the old boom and plop serving strategy I mentioned earlier. A very hard, flat first serve, which seldom goes in, followed by a much softer version of the same flat serve. This is okay at the lower levels, but with a strong player a "plop" serve is a recipe for disaster. We've all heard the old adage that says that we're only as good as our second serve. In good tennis, this is a fact.
Better players usually swing just as hard, if not harder, on their second serve as they do on their first. They are able to do this and still control the ball through the use of spin, and that would be my first suggestion for developing a complete serve; master the slice and topspin serves. These serves are best hit with a continental grip, so that should be your first goal. Get used to the grip and become proficient with the various spin serves. Spin gives you control and the ability to move the ball around. This keeps your opponent off-balance and will, in turn, force a weaker return which you can then attack.
Once you have the feel of the various serves, work on placement. Practice hitting to targets set up in the service box. What I used to do when I was developing my serves was to take four tennis balls, put one on top of the other three and place the pile in the service box. I would then take a basket of balls and aim for the pile until I hit it. Actually, you can place three piles of balls in the service box, one in each corner and one in the middle. Any type of target will do; towels, tennis ball cans, etc. Practice aiming for the different targets. Be sure to practice from both service boxes.
Once you are able to hit all three serves (flat, slice, topspin) and control them, you'll have quite an arsenal to work with. This is important at the upper levels of the game where it is not enough to just get the serve in play. You need to have a serving strategy.
As I said in a previous column, "when you're serving, think of yourself as a pitcher on the mound in the World Series. You can't just throw the ball over the plate and hope that the batter will swing and miss. You must mix up your pitches and set up certain pitches in order to maintain your advantage."
"Serving at the higher levels is exactly the same thing. If you consistently hit the same serve, to the same spot, your opponent will begin to get grooved and will eventually have their rackets back before you even toss the ball."
By moving your serve around, and varying the pace and spins, you'll consistently keep your
opponent off-balance which will allow you to attack their return, serve and volley and, if you're a doubles player, enable your partner to be much more active poaching.
There's no excuse for not having a strong serve. It's the one stroke that you can work on by yourself. Take the time to develop your serve. Be sure to:
- Groove a consistent toss. The most overlooked aspect of the serve is the toss. Without a consistent toss, you cannot have an effective serve.
- Learn and get used to the continental grip.
- Develop the various spin serves and be able to control them.
- Practice all of your serves on a consistent basis. Make it fun, set up targets, play games with yourself.
Developing your serve can be a lonely proposition. That's why so many players have weak serves and their games have reached a plateau. You may find practicing your serve boring, but I can assure you that the type of game that an effective serve allows you to play is anything but boring. Get to it.