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TURBOSTROKES: The First Serve

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

If there is one topic about which I receive questions through numerous e-mails from readers of this column, it has to be the serve.   The serve is, arguably, the single most important stroke in tennis.  Why?  Well, it is the only stroke which is within complete control of the player.  The player tosses the ball, the player hits the serve, and the player determines serve placement, spin and pace.  Second, if a player never loses her/his serve, she/he will not lose the match…it is inherent in the scoring associated with tennis.  Fortunately, we get two tries per point to make a successful serve.

For most of us, the serve is, at least initially, a fairly difficult stroke to master.  It requires movement and timing that are not immediately natural for most players.

Men and women who have played baseball or softball may have an advantage when learning to serve.  Why?  Well, the throwing motion involved in these sports is similar to the serve motion and develops the same muscle groups involved in serving.  Although I am not certain, I believe that volleyball players may also have an edge when it comes to learning how to serve.  In this sport, the “spiking” motion is very similar to the serving motion in tennis.

Given how important this stroke is in the game of tennis, it never ceases to amaze me how little players actually practice the serve.   I make it a point to hit at least 100 serves virtually every day.  Often times, I hit these practice serves in addition to any serves that I hit in matches played on the same day.  You really can’t practice the serve too much.  It is that important.

Well, this month’s column is dedicated to teaching you the first serve.  Usually, players’ first serves are the serve with the least amount of spin and the most amount of pace.  We all would like to have first serves like Pete Sampras, Goran Ivanisevic, or for you older players, Roscoe Tanner.  They win a lot of “free” or easy points off of their first serves.

It is more important to always get the first serve in than to have a big first serve.  The data compiled from matches (both pro and amateur) indicates that, when a player gets her/his first serve in, she/he is statistically much more likely to win the point…regardless of the serve’s pace.  Still, a first serve that lands in the box deep with some pace can be a real weapon. 

The most important ways to get maximum power in your first serve include:

  1. Keep your arm completely relaxed throughout the serve. Never try to “muscle” any serve…but this is particularly important when you want to impart pace to the serve.
  2. Try to develop a smooth fluid movement in your serve motion.  The idea is to serve in an even, continuous manner that allows for body weight transfer (from back foot to front foot).  This is what we mean by putting your weight into the serve.
  3. Bending your knees and moving (or even jumping) upward as you make contact with the ball will also help to give you power.
  4. Racquets that are stiffer and strung at lower tensions will also help you impart pace to your serves.  However, you must keep in mind that you will also need to hit groundstrokes with the same racquet.  Too much racquet/string power is difficult to control when hitting groundstrokes.

Before we actually get to the mechanics of hitting the first serve, it is important to review the tennis priority ladder.

Pace

Spin

Direction

Depth

Getting the Serve in the Box

Players must realize that they need to start with just getting the serve in the box.  When this is a given, they should try to keep their serves deep.  Next, players need to be able to serve to the opponent’s backhand, body and forehand (Direction).  Spin is the next most important factor in serving (slice and/or topspin).  Lastly, players should try for pace.

Unfortunately, many players attempt to start with pace, and usually, they miss lots of first serves.

So, let’s begin, as we always do, with a discussion of proper grip(s).  The first serve is a “flat” serve (meaning the ball has very little spin), travels low to the net, and does not bounce too high.  Often times, the first serve can have enough pace to make it “skip” a bit on fast surfaces (like indoor courts or grass courts).  The best grips for this type of serve are the Eastern Forehand Grip, the Continental Grip or the Hammer Grip.

The Eastern Forehand Grip

                          

The Continental Grip

                           

The Hammer Grip

This grip is really a tight fisted Continental Grip

 

                           

Please note that the blue areas on the grips are the top and sides of the racquet handle.

Most beginning players start to serve using an Eastern Forehand Grip.  This is because most of them feel that their wrist is firmer or stronger using this grip. They feel that they can hit a more powerful serve with this grip.  In addition, the Eastern Forehand Grip automatically puts the racquet face in a desirable position at the moment of contact. 

Still, I believe the Continental and Hammer Grips can be used with great effectiveness when hitting first serves.  They can allow for power but add just a little more spin on the serve for control.

If you use the Eastern Forehand Grip, you will need to do several things:

  1. Use a more open stance. (You should face the net a bit more than when using other grips.
  2. You will need to toss the ball in front of your body.
  3. Lower tosses are actually better than higher tosses when using this grip.

If you use the Continental Grip or the Hammer Grip, you will need to:

  1. Use a more closed stance. (Standing a bit more sideways to the net)
  2. Toss the ball directly over your head, perhaps, a little in front of the body.
  3. Lower or higher tosses work well with these grips.  It is really a matter of how you move your body in the serve that determines the height.

The next question that needs to be answered is: “Where should I stand when I serve?”

If you are playing singles and are a right-handed player, look at the diagram below. You want to stand where the “O” is located when serving to the deuce court and where the “X” is located when serving to the ad court.  Why would you want to be farther from the hash mark when serving to the ad court?  Because, it increases the likelihood that you can serve the ball out wide.

                                               

Here are the singles positions if you are a left-handed player.

                                               

If you are playing doubles, you will want to position yourself where the “X’s” are located in the diagram below.

                                               

To develop the correct service motion, I advise that you model your movement after those of baseball pitchers.  When I teach new players to serve, I always have them throw some overhead “pitches” from the baseline into each service box.  Then I have them try mimicking this motion with a racquet in their hand, but without a ball. 

Finally, I will have the player move to her/his own service line.  I will have her/him serve a ball to the diagonal service box in the opponent’s court.  If the ball lands in the box, the player takes a step back and hits the serve again.  If the ball does not make it into the opponent’s service box, the player stays and serves again until she/he does get one in.  Eventually, the player works her/his way back to the baseline and is serving what are normal serves.  I learned this technique from tennis guru Oscar Wegner, and I find it the best and fastest way to learn to serve.   In fact, when my college team players begin their pre-season workouts, I like to see them get back into their serving motions by using this same process.

Videotape analysis is a great way to monitor and evaluate your service motion.  Place a camcorder on a tripod near one of the net posts…or have a friend videotape you.  Serve about 20 to 25 balls.  Make certain that you serve to both the deuce and the ad courts.

By watching this tape at home and comparing your motion to those of the pros, you will find ways of amending your service motion that will allow for a smooth, “hitch-free” and forward/upward movement.   Believe me, this is the best and fastest way to understand your service motion.

Make whatever corrections you believe appropriate and practice them…again, using the camcorder.  I promise you that within 5 or 6 sessions, your service motion will drastically improve.

When serving, you always want to hit the ball with a forward and upward racquet motion.  Despite what you may believe, the serve has to be hit upward to clear the net. Many rookie players will try to hit down on the ball because they think the toss above their heads necessitates it.  Not so.

I try to hit up with my racquet and to move forward with my body at the moment of impact.  This usually gives me the net clearance and pace that I want in a first serve.

Remember, first serves have little spin and travel low over the net.  This will automatically force the serves to land deep in the opponent’s box.  To improve my service direction, I, often times, will practice serves with targets inside the service boxes.  I place targets in the center and each corner of both the deuce and ad service boxes.   I use empty tennis ball cans as targets.  The goal is simple…try to hit the target.

By practicing my first serve in this manner, I find that I arrive at a good blend of pace and control.  But I must confess, I don’t knock over every target during a practice session.  It is harder than it looks.

Finally, we need to address the finish or follow through in the service motion.  Again, I ask the reader to look at pitchers in baseball.  They always finish on their front foot with the body weight moving forward.  Their throwing arm actually crosses in front of their body.  In tennis, the serve is exactly the same.  Your weight should be forward on your front foot when you finish the serve.  In addition, the racquet should cross your body after it hits the ball (a different racquet finish may be necessary for spin serves…but that’s for next month’s column).

Here are some pics of some great first serve finishes.

Let’s review the key ingredients in a good first serve.

  1. Position yourself appropriately on the court (see previous court diagrams)
  2. Choose the right grip…Eastern Forehand, Continental or Hammer
  3. Use the right stance for your chosen grip.  Use a somewhat open stance when serving with the Eastern Forehand Grip and a somewhat closed stance when using either the Continental or Hammer Grips.
  4. Try to develop a smooth serve motion that replicates that of a baseball pitcher’s throwing…transferring weight from the back foot to the front foot…making contact with the ball in front of your body when using the Eastern Forehand Grip or directly above your head when using the Continental or Hammer Grips.
  5. Make certain that when you hit the serve that you hit up on the ball in addition to hitting forward.  This will assure that the ball clears the net and lands deep in the opponent’s service box.
  6. Make sure to finish the serve with the weight moving forward (on your front foot) and with the racquet crossing your body.
  7. When serving, remember the priority ladder.  Control is more important than power.  If every first serve lands in the box, your chances of winning go way up.
  8. Don’t forget to videotape yourself serving from time to time.  It is the only way that you will truly see the strengths and weaknesses in your serve.

Incorporate these guidelines into your serve and practice your serves everyday, and I assure you that in no time, you will 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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