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Mortal Tennis
March 2004 Article

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Mortal Tennis/Circle Game Archive

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Mortal Tennis By Greg Moran


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To Serve Or Not To Serve

Greg Moran Photo
Greg Moran

That is the question but what is the answer? It is not as obvious as you may think.

Over the years, I've noticed that 9 times out of 10 the player or team winning the racket spin at the beginning of a match elects to serve. It's almost a natural reaction: "we win the toss, we'll serve."

The pros almost always elect to serve first. As I've said in the past, the serve is the most important shot in the game and most professionals have a good one, so for them the decision is a no-brainer. However, if you're like me, you're not receiving a check for your match results on the tennis court so the subject requires a bit more thought.

Serving first is theoretically the right choice because serving is an advantage-----theoretically. But realistically is it the correct decision? I say, most of the time, "no!"

The pros tend to hold serve (win their service games) about 85% of the time. At the recreational levels I estimate the percentages are approximately as follows:

1.0-2.0: 20%
2.0-3.0: 30%
3.0-4.0: 40%
4.0-4.5: 50%
4.5-5.5: 60%

As you can see, until you reach the 4.5-5.0 level serving tends to be a risky affair at best. That is why I suggest you choose to receive serve if you win the opening spin of the racket. Here are a few reasons why:

1. By receiving serve first you'll be catching your opponent cold. Like most recreational players, they've probably hit three or four serves and then boldly proclaim that they're ready to go. Believe me, they're not! They'll undoubtedly still be a bit stiff as well as suffering from opening game jitters.

Plus, at the recreational levels, there's often the old "first ball in" (FBI) rule in effect meaning that on the first point the server gets to keep hitting serves until they get one in. This concept was invented for one reason: so that the players don't have to waste valuable court time on something as insignificant as warming up their serves.

So what happens? The player serving first takes no warm-up serves, says "FBI" and away he or she goes. Many times in "FBI" games the first ball actually does go in and then the server's forced to play the rest of the game with what amounts to only one warm-up serve.

(A quick point here: if you do get caught in one of those "first ball in games" be certain to intentionally miss your first 10-15 serves so that you can loosen your arm up. By doing so, you'll not only warm your arm up, you'll most probably annoy your opponents to the point where they'll agree to a proper service warm-up before beginning the match.)

2. You'll have more time to warm-up, relax and get into the match. In addition, you'll be looser when it's your turn to serve.

3. Most players below the 4.0 level simply don't have very good serves. Sorry, but it's true. Many players at the club level find practicing their serve boring so they let it slide. As a result, they develop the old "boom" and "plop" strategy that is so prevalent today.

I'm sure you know what I mean: "boom" the first one and after it fails to go in (which is almost a given) "plop" in the second. These are the same players who say that they "have a great serve when it goes in." Guess what? The "when it goes in" statement tells you right off the bat that the player does not have good serve.

It's too bad because the serve is the easiest shot to practice and, once you reach the higher levels of the game, it becomes the most important shot in the game. I know many players with 4.5 level games and 3.5 level serves. They get into a 4.5 game and their opponents eat up their weak serves.

A few years ago I wrote about a student of mine who is a 3.5 level player but has a 4.5 level serve. As a result, he's able to hang in there with players who are stronger than him because of his serve.

Anyway, the statement remains: most club players have not developed an effective serve so they should let their opponent serve first. Even if your opponent truly has a great serve, keep in mind that they'll still be a bit stiff and jittery serving for the first time. It may be your best chance to go for an early service break.

By electing to receive first, you're giving yourself a good chance of winning the opening game and establishing a psychological advantage. If you've managed to break your opponent's serve, they'll undoubtedly suffer a letdown having lost their serve to start the match.

Plus, they are now down 0-1 and if you win your service game they'll be down 2-0 with more pressure to win their next service game.

Even if you lose the first game, you've really lost nothing. You're now serving to tie the set and you'll be going into your service game more warmed up, relaxed and into the match.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule. If you have confidence in your serve, and again, I don't mean the "I have a great serve when it goes in" type of confidence, then perhaps you should serve first. Then you'll always be serving to take the lead and that's important when you get to 4-4 and 5-5 in a set.

However, be honest with yourself about the quality of your serve. A good serve has little to do with how many aces you hit. Frankly, I'm not interested in how hard my students can hit the ball. A good serve has to do with hitting a high percentage of first serves in, the ability to control both the direction and spin of the ball as well as a second serve that does not resemble a slow moving balloon. Power should not be an issue.

The only true advantage in serving first is psychological--you're always serving to take the lead while the player serving second plays catch-up. With the big boys and girls on television, this is accurate. For "real" players like you and I, we're better off letting our opponents serve first. Give it a try the next time you play and let me know how it works out.

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Mortal Tennis/Circle Game Archive

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This column is copyrighted by Greg Moran, all rights reserved.

Greg Moran is the Head Professional at the Four Seasons Racquet Club in Wilton, Connecticut. He is a former ranked junior and college player and certified by both the USPTA and USPTR. Greg has written on a wide variety of tennis-related subjects for numerous newspapers and tennis publications including Tennis, Tennis Match and Court Time magazines. He is also a member of the FILA and WILSON Advisory Staffs.

Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Greg by using this form.


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