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Kick Till They're Sick!

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Ron Waite, USPTR

One of the most common questions I receive from readers is: "How can I learn to hit the kick serve like the pros?" Indeed if you do examine how pros on both tours hit second serves, more often than not the kick serve is their choice.
 
There are good reasons why the kick serve is so popular. First, it is a serve with spin. As such, it is more likely to land in the service box than a flat, first serve. With the kick serve, there is a combination of topspin (this makes the ball drop more quickly and bounces higher) and sidespin (this makes the ball spin to the right for a right handed player and to the left if the player is left handed.) The combination of these spins makes it very difficult for an opponent to really be able to "tee-off" on the kick serve.
 
In addition to the above, the kick serve is very useful for serve/volley and doubles players. The added time (really a fraction of a second) that the kick serve provides allows a player to move a bit closer to the net before the opponent hits her/his return. The closer one gets to the net, the easier the volley becomes.
 
The great pro, Stefan Edberg, made a career out of serve/volley play on all surfaces. In part, he was able to serve/volley so effectively because he hit every serve as a kick serve.
 
I have found that I can use the kick serve as a first serve with great success... Even if, I am not closing the net.
 
So this month, I will dedicate my column to the execution of the kick serve. You will likely have seen lots of kick serving on the hard courts at the US Open. Indeed, hard courts and clay courts truly allow the kick serve to achieve maximum spin effects. Indoor carpet surfaces and grass surfaces where the ball doesn't bounce very high at all probably are not as likely to foster kick serves from players.
 
I have prepared a little video on this topic to help you understand the principles associated with this serve. There is a link to this video at the end of the column. Hopefully, the column and this video will make learning and/or perfecting this important serve easier.
 
So, let's begin!
 
Every stroke in this wonderful game of ours begins with the grip.
 
Generally, kick serves require a backhand grip. I find that the full eastern backhand grip is the ideal for imparting the topspin and side spin necessary for the kick serve. However, I have learned to kick serve using the continental grip. Given my ailing back, knee and shoulder which definitely need surgery, I find that the continental grip allows me to hit an effective kick serve without bending my knees and without much back arching. Either the eastern backhand grip or the continental grip allows you to bend your wrist at the moment of impact.
 
The kick serve is clearly not the desired serve for me given these medical situations that I am facing. And, I strongly encourage the reader NOT to follow my example. But if you are reasonably healthy and have no major injuries to your knees or back, you are probably not going to have any difficulties adopting this serve. I rely upon my wrist action to provide most of the needed spin.
 
In the video that accompanies this article, I demonstrate some simple ways to arrive at the eastern backhand grip and the continental grip. It is important to realize that each player has little idiosyncrasies associated with his/her grips. Thus, any guide to arriving at a particular grip is only a starting point. You will probably need to "tinker" with your specific grip a bit.
 
The next major component in the kick serve involves stance. Really, one should be able to use her/his normal serve stance for the kick serve. However if you are normally using a fairly open stance when you serve (meaning that you are facing the net), you probably want to close your stance somewhat. My rule of thumb for serve stance is simple. Your front foot should be pointing at the same net post whether you are serving to the deuce or the ad court. If you are right handed, your front foot should be pointing at the net post to your right. If you are left handed, you will want the front foot to point at the net post to your left. Using this simple rule, you will automatically adjust for the slight differences in stance necessary when serving to either court.
 
Perhaps, the most significant difference associated with the kick serve is the toss. If there is one thing that will require a bit of trial and error when learning to kick, it will be the serve toss.
 
More often than not, a good toss for this serve is somewhat high. However, I have learned to hit the kick well with a very low toss. What is of critical importance is how far behind your head you toss the ball when making contact. This is the real secret to the kick serve.
 
Normally, we toss in front of our bodies when serving. This is how most of us are taught to serve, and for flat serves and slice serves, it is quite beneficial. The kick serve, however, needs a toss that is very different... at least when you are first learning to hit the kicker.
 
When tossing correctly for a kick serve, the ball (if you were not to make contact with it) would land behind your back and a bit toward the fence behind you. When teaching clinics on the kick serve, I place a racquet on the ground behind the server. I ask her/him to toss in such a manner that the ball lands on the racquet face Obviously, they are not being asked to actually serve the ball. Rather, they go through the entire serve motion minus striking the serve. Believe me. This is a very different toss for the vast majority of participants.
 
This behind the head toss is critical to impart the topspin that is really the heart and soul of the kick serve. When hitting the kick serve, you are really targeting the bottom of the ball. You don't actually make contact underneath the ball, but you need to target in this manner to find the right upward motion necessary to generate the topspin.
 
On the video that accompanies this month's column, I show you how to practice the toss to discover the right "spot" for your kicker.
 
The motion is not simply upward, however. A true kick serve has a bit of side spin to it. So, the motion normally associated with the slice serve comes into play. So, one needs to hit upward and outward (to the side... away from the body) when kick serving. My advice is to work on adding topspin first. Once this is mastered, introduce the side spin.
 
These two spins necessitate a true wrist snap at the moment of impact. This is the second most critical factor in generating a true kick serve. Indeed, I would argue that every serve should have a prominent wrist snap... including the flat serve. Without the wrist coming into play, the arm is what is really providing the serve's power and spin. If you watch many beginners, they will serve with an eastern forehand grip and do what I call a badminton-like serve. This serve has no wrist movement and all the ball movement and power is provided by the arm. Needless to say, you won't find many accomplished players using the eastern forehand grip for anything other than a backspin serve.
 
One exception to this rule is the senior player of USTA fame, Peter Bronson. Years back when playing a tournament in Arizona, Peter confessed to me that he hit all his serves with an eastern forehand grip. I was shocked, as he could hit a fast paced first serve, a great slice serve, and he could hit a decent kicker. But again, I believe Peter to be the exception to the rule.
 
I have found that when I try to make contact with the ball using the strings on the tip of my racquet head, I generate more spin than if I try to hit the ball squarely in the racquet's sweet spot. This little subtlety can really enhance your overall spin.
 
The wrist snap also assures that there is some forward motion to your kick serve. Without the snap, the ball would simply be hit upward.
 
Given my aging back, I no longer arch my back as much as I once did when kick serving. The arched back is very pronounced with the pros. By tossing more behind their head, the pros must arch their backs to make proper contact. If you look at Andy Roddick's kick serve he has lots of knee bend and plenty of arch to his back. Both of these help allow him to generate power as well as spin. If you are young and limber, a fully arched back is viable. If you are a senior player, it is probably not advised.
 
As is the case with all serves, body rotation in the service motion (really shoulder rotation) helps with respect to power. But, seniors who have limited flexibility take heart. I truly hit my kick serve with little body rotation, virtually no knee bend and with very little arch to my back! It is possible to do this! I must confess, however, that the sidespin on my kick serves is minimal given my physical limitations. On the accompanying video, you will see that my service motion is very minimal. The key for me is using my wrist to snap up and out. My toss is not as far behind my back as is the case with the pros, but still, my opponents constantly remark about the height on my kick serves.
 
Finishes on kick serves vary a bit from player to player. However, the racquet usually does not cross the body as it would in a first serve. The proper finish is usually with the racquet in front of the body, and frequently, the racquet will finish on the same side of the body as the racquet hand. On the video, I will demonstrate this latter finish in an exaggerated manner.
 
When learning the kick serve it is very unlikely that you will deceive your opponent about your serve choice. The toss will definitely betray your intent. However over time, you can adjust the toss a bit and still arrive at a great topspin serve... if not the full kick serve.
 
Pete Sampras was a player who was able to hit all his serves with the same exact toss. This is no easy feat, and I doubt that many of my readers will reach this level of proficiency. Truly, this speaks to the greatness of this remarkable player.
 
Learning the kick serve is in some ways similar to learning to ride a bike. It takes a little time and practice to learn how to kick serve... sometimes more time and practice than we would prefer. But once you get the hang of it, you will own it. Like riding a bicycle, the kick serve is never really forgotten.
 
Placement of this serve is critical. One almost always wants to kick to the backhand side of an opponent. This is particularly true if the opponent hits a one handed backhand. Why? Well, the high bouncing kick serve is tough for the one handed player to handle. Not being able to return kick serves consistently on clay, in my opinion, played an important role in preventing Pete Sampras from winning a French Open. Roger Federer is truly one of the greats of this wonderful game in that he can return with effectiveness the kick serve.
 
Practice is required to learn the kick serve! You will first need to concentrate on topspin. When your ball is jumping up high, you can start focusing upon adding sidespin. When I practice, I use very dead balls. Why? Well if I can get these to bounce high, I know that newer balls will jump even higher. I like to make the challenges greater in my practice sessions if I can. This improves my confidence when competing.
 
Be patient with yourself. Once you get the kick serve, you will own it. But, it may take a bit of time to bring all the necessary components together.
 
A final note about the kick serves. When you have mastered this serve and it is part of your arsenal, you will have the perfect, "choke-free" serve! If executed properly the kick serve allows you to hit the ball as hard as you like. The harder you hit the kick serve, the more spin you give it. The more spin this serve has, the more likely it is to drop in the service box. In addition, the harder you hit it the higher the bounce. Usually, opponents do not like to return the high bouncing ball, and even if they do, the additive effect of lots of kick serves results in arm fatigue for the opponent. So, the kick serve is a great choice if you are highly nervous or experiencing self-doubt. Hit it as hard as you can... You really won't choke. I recommend that it become both your first and second serve if you are feeling really tight.
 
Now as stated earlier, the kick serve is not the best option on grass or carpet. On these surfaces, the kick will almost always result in a bounce that places the ball in your opponent's strike zone. But if you learn the kick serve and use it on the right surfaces, you will invariably 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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