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Ivo Karlovic's Powerful Serve!!!

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

For the past decade, I have traveled up to the Tennis Hall of Fame Championships to photograph. I am a credentialed photographer, and sell my images primarily to European outlets. I have had the pleasure of photographing many ATP pros at this "Mini-Wimbledon" event that is played on grass. Not surprisingly, there are many pros who have big serves that elect to play this great tournament. After his success at Wimbledon, I was very eager to see Ivo Karlovic play at Newport.
 
What I learned from my experience can help any player develop a better, first serve!!!
 
Indeed, in the matches in which I photographed Ivo, he used the same service motion and about the same amount of pace for both first and second serves. This is not surprising given the fact that his serve is so devastating and that the surface in Newport is grass. On one second serve, I looked at the radar, speed gun posting. It registered 129 mph!!!
 
Most of us would love to have a more powerful first serve. This is not to say that any of us will be able to reach the 100 plus mph pace that Karlovic is able to generate. Still, each of us can add an extra 5, 10 or 15 mph to our first serve if we employ the Ivo's technique.
 
I have incorporated some images in this month's column, to make sure that the principles associated with Ivo Karlovic's serve are clear to the reader.
 
No two people serve exactly the same... well, this may be a bit overstated. So, these principles may need to be modified to accommodate your own unique service motion. However, adopting these principles will pay dividends with respect to power output! Some time spent on the practice court, some video analysis to assure your form is as it should be, and I am sure that you will be "popping" serves far better than you imagined possible.
 
Before I go any further, it is important to realize that Ivo Karlovic is 6 feet 10 inches tall!!! I suspect that most of my readers are not. But as we go through the individual components in Ivo's serve, I will attempt to help you recognize things in a way that will help you to receive the maximum benefit. I assure the reader that a big, flat, first serve is capable... even if you are 5 feet 8 inches tall.
 
Ivo Karlovic has minimal spin off of his serves. His is a true "flat" serve. Flat serves travel through the air at a faster rate and when they bounce they will often "skip" a bit. In truth, every serve has some spin on the ball. The flat serve simply has far less spin than the spins on a slice or kick serve. On fast surfaces like grass (or carpets and "non gritty" hard courts), the flat serve is probably the most effective first serve.
 
Still, a powerful flat serve is only useful if the ball lands within the service box. Ivo is capable of "painting" the lines with his serves. My guess is that most of us mere mortals need to allow for a little more margin for error. Placement is always more important than power in every stroke in this great game of ours.
 
The best grip for hitting a powerful, flat serve is undoubtedly the continental grip. In that this is the perfect grip for volleying and given the fact that Ivo follows his serve to the net, it is not surprising that Ivo uses the continental grip. One can use an eastern backhand grip (or something in between a continental and eastern backhand grip) and have an effective flat serve. The key factor is that one must be able to break the wrist at and after the moment of impact. Eastern forehand grips are often used for serves (Boris Becker was an exception) for just this reason.
 
Here is a close-up of Ivo's serve grip.
 

 
Really, this is a continental grip that has a very slight turn in the direction of a backhand grip. However, most of Ivo's palm is above the top of the racquet handle. His wrist is a little bit bent as he sets up to serve. I suspect this bend in his wrist is just an idiosyncrasy and is simply a part of his service ritual. I do not see it having a purpose. Whenever a person serves, the first step (after bouncing a few balls) is to take what I call the paused posture or pose. The player wants to look at where he/she wishes to place the serve, and wants to use these moments to mentally and physically prepare to execute a perfect serve. It is often best to have most of your weight on the back foot in these "poses." Lifting up the front foot will assure that the weight is on the back foot... or at least... that your weight is evenly balanced.
 
Here is an image of Ivo's paused posture/pose.
 

 
Ivo pauses for a second or so before he executes his service motion. Some players may place more weight on their back foot than Ivo when doing this "setup." Still, Ivo does lift his front foot to be sure that his weight is not leaning forward. Good serving requires a back to front weight transfer. This paused posture/pose helps assure that the motion will include this needed weight transfer.
 
In addition, you should note that Ivo is positioning his body sideways to the net and opponent. I have not seen many players who do not naturally assume this stance. If you are using an eastern forehand grip, you will necessarily need a more open stance where you are facing the net. (I do not recommend this.) You can always tell a player who is using an eastern forehand grip because in some way, the service motion will resemble what is a "badminton-like" service motion. John McEnroe serves with his back to the net. This is most unusual. In interviews, he stated that he developed this service motion to prevent strain on his back. I am not sure how or why this works for him, and I have not seen anyone else adopt this stance when serving. So, I do not recommend this.
 
Probably the most important ingredient in having a truly powerful serve is to be relaxed throughout the service motion and to NOT attempt to "muscle" the ball!!!
 
Ivo's service motion is very relaxed! He is a very fit man, and has well developed muscles. However, it is not his muscles that make his serve so powerful. While photographing Ivo, I became aware of a somewhat unusual practice that he employs while beginning his actual service "motion." He actually opens his hand on his racquet handle! He does this on every serve. I am quite confident that this is a technique he uses to make sure that his arm, shoulder and hand are completely relaxed through the service motion. The only time he truly grips his racquet handle tightly is at the very moment of impact during the serve.
 
Here are two images of Karlovic as he begins his service motion. In the second image, you will see that I have enlarged the grip. You will notice that his hand is seemingly completely open. He holds the racquet with only his thumb and the upper part of his index finger!
 
 
 
I am not suggesting to the reader that she/he model this open hand "grip." But, I do believe that having a very relaxed hand while going up to make contact with the ball actually will increase power. I know of players who simply grip the racquet handle with three fingers and leave the little finger or "pinkie" loose to help relax their overall grip.
 
To illustrate my point on relaxing, try the following. Take a crushed up piece of paper that has been shaped into a ball. Now, while keeping your arm tense and muscles strained throw this paper ball across the room. Now, repeat this experiment only this time do the entire motion with a fast but relaxed motion. Which ball went farther?
 
Racquet head speed is the essence of every powerful shot in our great game! More often than not, a player needs to have a relaxed arm, relaxed shoulder and relaxed hand to generate maximum racquet speed. The time to grip really tightly is a fraction of a second before making contact and at the moment of impact. After making contact, the player wants to again relax all of his/his upper body.
 
The overall service motion is of critical importance in generating power. There needs to be an overall "harmony" or "synchronous" nature to the way in which we move as we serve. Most will refer to this as the kinetic chain. When all moving parts are working in a relaxed, integrated and efficient manner, the serve power is automatically amplified.
 
You may want to video yourself serving and examine each of the following components in your overall service motion. There should be an effortless, seamless, flow to your service motion. Looking at yourself on video (easily done with modern smart phones and a willing assistant) will help you change what may be any "hitch" in your service motion.
 
The key elements upon which to focus are:


  1. Toss height and consistency.
  2. Foot movement.
  3. Body rotation at the waist and with respect to the shoulders.
  4. Knee bending and possibly going airborne.
  5. Weight transfer forward.
  6. Hitting up on the ball.
  7. Pronation.
  8. Crossing the body with racquet follow through.
  9. Landing inside the baseline.

There are various schools of thought about what is a proper toss. Some recommend a low toss, where wind and other elements cannot move the ball around. The service motion associated with a low toss is by necessity very economical. Having seen videos of Roscoe Tanner when he played professionally, I can say that his is the lowest toss that I have ever seen. Roscoe is a lefty and had one of the biggest serves on the tour during his time. In truth, his motion was so economical that it almost seemed as though he was "quick serving" his opponents.
 
Many players opt to strike the ball at the apex or highest part of the toss. Here, the ball is motionless for a moment, and it is seemingly easier to strike it with greater certainty and consistency. I suspect that many of my readers use this toss approach.
 
Ivo uses a very high toss and allows the ball to drop as he goes up to strike it. Many players use this high toss. On a windy day, it may be a disadvantage, but in most circumstances, it is fine. This high toss enables a very full and complete service motion to unfold before the ball is actually struck.
 
Here is an image of Ivo's toss before it begins to descend. You can see that his toss is very high.
 

 
I cannot know which of these three toss approaches would suit your serve. However whatever toss you use must allow for consistency and appropriate timing with respect to striking the ball at the moment of contact. More often than not, players who seem to have powerful, flat serves will opt for the higher toss. I would recommend that you experiment with different tosses to discover which is actually the most likely to provide you with power. Service motions need to have good body and shoulder rotation to help increase power. These coupled with a deep knee bend are the components in the "kinetic chain" that can add more umph to anyone's serve regardless of toss or a person's height.
 
Karlovic does add shoulder and body rotation in addition to a knee bend to his flat serve. In this shot below, you can see that Ivo's knees are bent; his body and shoulder are turned so that his back is facing the net a bit. (Please note that he still has his hand wide open on the handle of his racquet at this point in his service motion.) A good and powerful service motion will always have this "coiled tension" quality to it.
 

 
Generally, a player will need to move her/his rear foot forward as the service motion unfolds. Most modern players will bring the two feet together to form what is often called the pedestal position. In a pedestal serve, the two feet are probably touching each other and the server is up on her/his toes as she/he reaches up to serve. Gael Monfils is a modern tour player who conspicuously uses the pedestal serve. As you can see in the image above, Ivo Karlovic is also one who forms a pedestal with his feet during his service motion.
 
Here is an image that shows Ivo's pedestal foot positioning. (Note that in this part of his service motion, Ivo has closed his hand around the racquet handle.) His grip is not all that tight at this juncture. He is on his toes, and his feet are actually touching. Note the tension in his quads (thighs) as he uses his legs to propel him upward and forward.
 

 
A great benefit to the pedestal serve is that it provides a really good "launching pad" for upward movement. Many pros on both tours will actually go "airborne" and jump off the surface when making contact with the ball on the serve. This has two distinct advantages. First, the legs come into play more, and their catapulting of the body upward and forward imparts more energy into the serve. Second, the serve's contact point is higher. So, a somewhat smaller player can actually make contact with the ball at a location that is very similar to that of a taller player. The higher the contact point, the more likely it is that the ball will clear the net and land deep in the service box... it is all in the angles.
 
In addition to being 6 feet 10 inches tall, Karlovic does go airborne in his serves. This elevates his contact point even more and enables him to really get his "body" into his serves. He certainly does not go up as high as some players, but every little bit helps!
 
Here are a couple images that show Ivo moving up to go airborne in his serve.
 
 
 
Apart from going airborne, in both of the images above, you can see that Karlovic is actually pointing the butt of his racquet handle at the ball, as he moves up to make contact. I strongly recommend that this technique be incorporated into your flat serve. This will bring more of the upper arm muscles into the equation (particularly the triceps) without having to deliberately "muscle" the serve. The net consequence is an increase in racquet head speed. This racquet head speed is synonymous with increased "power."
 
A good cue to help you use the upper arms and shoulders effectively is to think of attempting to hit the ball with the racquet head frame. By this, I mean point the butt of the racquet handle at the ball... then pretend that you want to hit the ball using the frame of the racquet head as if you were wanting to "cut" the ball into two halves. Think of the racquet as a hatchet. How would you reach up and cut the ball in two? This kind of racquet motion allows for a very fast racquet head motion. Not to worry!!! You will naturally pronate your arm as you are about to make contact.
 
The idea is to accelerate the racquet head's movement and speed until the very last moment. Then, you pronate (turn the face) to make contact with the ball off the strings.
 
In this shot, you can clearly see that Ivo is pointing the butt of his racquet handle at the ball as he moves his racquet up to strike the ball. Imagine for a second that the racquet is a hatchet and the ball is going to be cut in half. Or, imagine that the racquet is a hammer and the ball is a nail. These are the types of motion that you want until you pronate the racquet head to hit the ball on the strings.
 

 
Pronation is where the server twists his arm to allow the strings to make contact with the ball rather than the racquet frame. We do this naturally when we serve. If we didn't, we would be hitting every serve off the frame and not off of the strings.
 
For right handed players, pronation is similar to "unscrewing a light bulb." For lefties, it is the opposite turn or twist. Exaggerating the pronation in your serve is another way to increase power. The more pronation, the more power in your serve.
 
In the following image, we can see several important components. The image shows Ivo a fraction of a second after making contact with the ball during a serve. First, he is airborne. He is about 5 to 6 inches off the ground and was elevated at this level when actually striking the ball. Second, notice how pronated his arm is. The racquet face is actually facing outward to his right. Ivo exaggerates his pronation when he serves. This exaggeration helps him get a bit more power into his big, flat serves. Lastly, you will note that Ivo is inside the baseline. When he lands, he will be about a foot to a foot and a half inside the baseline. This is evidence of his "forward" body movement while serving.
 

 
Karlovic is a serve/volley player... especially when competing on grass. Once he lands, he will move forward to close the net. I am a little surprised that his forward motion in his serves doesn't take him even farther into the court. It would seem to me that every step closer to the net he may gain off of his serve is one less step that he needs to take in closing the net to volley.
 
Every stroke in this wonderful game of ours needs a complete and proper follow through or finish. This is true with flat serves as well.
 
Generally, the best flat serves finish with the racquet coming across the player's body and ending with the racquet head on the non-dominant side of the body.
 
Ivo finishes his flat serve in just this manner. He lands on his front foot, the body weight is moving forward, and the racquet has moved completely across the front of his body and finishes on his left side.
 
You can see all of these elements in the image below.
 

 
So, let's take a look at a series of images of Ivo Karlovic serving to put all of these components together.
 
I have deliberately made each of the following images large. My hope is that you may printout one or more of these images and use them to "visualize" or model Ivo's service "components" in your own service motion.
 
As I stated earlier in this column, video analysis of your own service motion coupled with a bit of "trial and error" will yield results that may astound you.
 
In truth, I was amazed at the power, consistency and placement of Ivo Karlovic's serves!!! He used the same serve for both first and second serves in the matches that I photographed. However, he was very crafty with respect to his second serves' placements. On second serves, he always did one of two things: He would hit a big, flat serve to the opponent's weaker wing OR he would jam the opponent with a big, flat serve directed at the opponent's body.
 
I am not sure that any of my readers will master the flat serve as well as Ivo, but I am sure that you can add some miles per hour to your first serves by modeling his technique. If you do, you will certainly become a tennis overdog!
 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


 

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