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Service with a Smile

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Ron Waite, USPTR

So much of the e-mail that I have received in the last two months has asked me to address the serve! It's really no wonder in that this may be the single most important stroke in the game of tennis. In addition, the serve and the overhead are radically different strokes from the volley and groundstroke, etc. This may explain why so many people seem to either love or fear the serve.

Let's begin by answering the question: why is the serve so important? Well, it is the only stroke in the game that a player controls completely and it is the only stroke that you have two tries to execute successfully. Thus, there really is no excuse for losing a point because of a double fault. Second, it is a stroke that can win you a point outright, without the opponent ever having hit the ball! Third, it a very unique shot because with the serve the ball never touches the playing surface before you strike it. A great serve can win you games, a horrible serve can force you to lose. These added to the fact that you must serve at least three times per set makes the serve too important to overlook.

I'm sure that most, if not all, of you realize that if you never lost your service games, you could only lose a set if you didn't ever break your opponent and then lost a tiebreaker. Think about this: If you never double fault in a match, what would be your chances of winning?...pretty high, indeed. If you double fault frequently, how many games would you lose as a result?...probably enough to allow your opponent to win.

So, let's take a look at serving from a TurboTennis perspective. To begin with, there exist quite a few different types of serves: the flat stayback serve, the slice stayback serve, the topspin stayback serve, the "kick" stayback serve, the backspin stayback serve and each of the aforementioned serves when you do not stayback. Instead, you "follow" the serve to net for hopefully a volley. Each of these 10 serves require its own unique set of grips, motions, etc. Fortunately, you don't need to know all 10 to be a great server. Really, you need only four.

Before we go any further, let me describe how the ball acts in these serves. Flat serves have little or no spin. They usually are the most powerful serve, cross the net at a low height, and bounce low to medium in terms of height. Sometimes, these flat serves actually "skip" or slide a bit when they hit the ground. If they do, they can be most difficult to return. However, the low path of the ball over the net, makes this the most risky serve. Slice serves have a sidespin to their trajectory. They are like the "curve balls" of tennis. They travel in an arch or curve, and "jump" a bit to the side upon hitting the ground. Unlike flat serves, they must travel higher over the net to land deep and to be effective. They usually do not have the pace of the flat serve. Topspin serves have forward spin. They travel high over the net with moderate to significant pace, and when they bounce, they jump up and at the receiver. The kick serve is really a combination of the slice and topspin serve. These "kick" serves do just that when the hit the court...they bounce up and away from the receiver. Like all serves that carry spin they do not have the pace of the flat serve and travel higher over the net. Now, each of these can be executed by staying back at the baseline after the serve is completed, or they can be executed with the serve and volley in mind. (I have deliberately not described the backspin serve. It is rare that you'll see it...it is difficult to execute...offers little real benefit...and believe me, you'll know it if someone uses it on you. If you are insatiably curious, send me a note and I'll explain it to you.)

First serves are generally flat serves. They are powerful but risky. If you miss, however, you have a second chance to try a different serve. What follows may deviate a bit from what you have heard, been told, or read about in books. My advice...always hit the first serve with an Eastern Forehand Grip! It is the best way to generate power. It automatically forces you to pronate you wrist at impact (an important source of power). It allows you to serve with a slightly more open stance (again this will increase power). Finally, it will make the ball travel flat or with minimum spin. If you use an Eastern Forehand Grip and a slightly open stance when you serve, the motion is exactly like that of throwing a baseball. Look at baseball pitchers. When they throw a ball they must open up the stance...regardless of how they begin the windup. At the actual moment of release, the pitcher's body is facing the plate. When you serve the flat serve as I have described, your body will also open up at the moment of contact. Although more power is generated when your serving arm is relaxed through the motion, this type of flat serve can be "muscled" a bit and still be powerful. When you are nervous, the arm can't help but tighten up a bit. This type of flat serve will help minimize the effects of this arm tightening.

Second serves are generally spin serves (topspin, slice or kick). The spin makes the ball drop more quickly into the court. Thus, there is a greater margin for error (quite desirable on a second serve!). They lack the pace of the first serve, but frequently, they can give a good returner more trouble than a hard flat serve. These serves require a backhand-like grip (either continental or eastern backhand...I prefer continental) and must have a closed stance. These serves require a relaxed arm. When you tighten up on these serves, you have problems. They key is to relax...even if you are going to hit these spin serves hard. (Note: hard refers to racquet head speed...not to muscle tightness. You can get the racquet head to move quickly without a lot of muscle tension!)

Ball toss is critical in the serve. You need to find your spot for each serve...flat, slice, topspin and kick. (Stayback serves have slightly different spots than serve and volley serves.) Each person's contact spots are unique. There is only one way to determine where the right spots are for your serves...trial an error. Generally, I recommend lower tosses. These help minimize the effects of wind and prevent you from developing a "hitch" as you wait for the ball to descend from a high toss. (A "hitch" is a pause in the serve motion) Usually, first serves (flat serves) where you intend on staying back require that the ball be tossed slightly in front. First serves (flat serves) where you intend on serving and volleying require a toss that is definitely in front and into the court. Toss the ball slightly in front and to your right if you are a righty or to the left if you are a lefty, when you are serving the slice serve. The topspin serve is tossed directly above your head and the kick serve is tossed slightly behind your head and slightly away from your racquet arm side. (Thus, the need for arching your back...not a good idea for senior players or players with back problems!) Regardless of where you toss, try and toss with a smooth, fluid movement...as if your were tossing up a water balloon and then going to catch it. Be certain to look at your "spot" before you toss. Then, keep your head riveted on that spot until after the contact has been made.

Body motion in the serve is a complex series of events. The worst thing a player can do is to try and analyze each of these motions. Rather, I have students begin by tossing a ball into the service box from the baseline. Then, I bring the student to the net and have him/her begin serving a few feet from the net. Each time she/he serves successfully, I have him/her take a step back and serve again. If she/he misses a serve, he/she must take a step forward and serve again. Eventually, the student will find himself/herself serving from the baseline. Throughout this process, I give only several prompts/commands...relax the arm and body, focus your eyes on your spot and see the hit...follow through after you hit.

After a while, each of us develops a service rhythm. Finishing the stroke is essential in developing a smooth, effortless serve. I encourage students to finish on the opposite side (in terms of their serving arm) for flat serves, and to finish on the same side as their racquet arm when serving second serves (spin serves). When they are serving and volleying, I don't get too concerned about the finish. Rather, I want them to get the racquet into a volleying "ready" position (both hands on racquet) as quickly as possible after the serve. When this occurs, the "split-step" associated with the volley is almost automatic.

Seeing yourself on videotape is absolutely necessary if you want to improve your serve. The motion is too complex to be described adequately in words or text. If you took a bucket of balls and served while being videotaped, you would be amazed at how quickly you would see the "problems" and begin making the proper changes. I am so convinced that videotape analysis can be helpful, that I am considering starting a videotape analysis service. You videotape yourself and identify what problems you want me to address. I view the tape and return the original tape with another videotape that contains my suggestions for improvement. Unfortunately, this service could not be offered for free. Send me a note and let me know what you think of the idea.

Many texts refer to hitting the ball when serving as if it had the face of a clock on it. I find this too confusing for most students. Here is my advice. For flat serves, try to hit the center and back of the ball. For slice serves try to hit the back and side of the ball closest to your body. For topspin serves, try to hit the back and bottom of the ball. The kick serve requires that you hit the back, bottom and side closest to your body. Actually, you will never really hit the side or bottom of the ball...but these are the visual targets.

It amazes me how many people do not practice their serve. Why not?...you don't need a partner, nor does it take a lot of time. I hit at least 100 serves (a full bucket) six days per week in addition to any other play or training. Some days, I don't do anything but practice serves (usually around 300). Once, while training at Saddlebrook, I heard Tommy Thompson chide the would-be touring pros for not practicing the serve. As he put it, they will spend hours hitting balls and minutes practicing serves...seems kind of backwards.

Finally, I will end this column by reminding you of the serve progression:

  1. First, get it in the service box! (consistency)
  2. Second, control the placement in the service box (wide, center, down the T)
  3. Third, vary the spin of your serve
  4. Finally, try for power.

These are the goals that I set for myself each time I practice my serve. If you follow this progression in your serve development, practice and execution in matches...it will result in service with a smile...or should I say you'll be smiling at your serve!

Let me end by wishing each of you the happiest of Holidays and a most healthy and prosperous New Year. Thanks for all your e-mail, and good luck in your game. 1997 is the year you become a tennis overdog.

Green DotGreen DotGreen Dot

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1996 - 2002 | 2003 - Present

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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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