In today’s game, there are many schools of thought as to how to create the best serve. The information is often unclear, the terminology is difficult and the execution is near impossible. I’d like to give you three clear and simple concepts to think about that will change your serve for the better in a relatively short period of time.
I. Relax already!
It is truly rare to find a player who understands what “relaxed” means in the game of tennis. Often when searching for a relaxed state, a player becomes so loose that strokes and technique are slow and sloppy. They simply haven’t hit enough technically sound serves to be confident in letting the racket head do the work for them. Especially problematic for the serve is the uncomfortable Continental Grip. Players squeeze the grip so as not to lose the grip. At the same time, they are killing the fluid and rhythmic technique they are trying to achieve.
A relaxed mind, hand and body have a direct effect on the speed your serve will travel. Here are a few practical things you can do to physically understand what a relaxed grip means. Gently put your hand in the correct grip position on the racket. Slide your hand down so that only your first finger and your thumb are on the flared butt-end of the racket. Your other three fingers will be curled under the butt of the racket. Now go through your service motion without hitting a ball. The racket should feel heavy and uncontrollable. You can feel all of the “links” in your arm contributing to your service motion. Now try hitting a ball with this grip. You’ll be surprised that this seemingly impossible task is really effective. As you put more fingers on the grip, strive to maintain the whippy feeling that allows all of the “links” in your arm to contribute to the serve.
II. Look up before you toss!
Most tennis players think that they are looking up to their ball toss when they are actually looking out. To test what you do, stand up, relax your neck and let your head go back as far as it can against the top of your back. If you are inside, you should be looking at a spot on the ceiling almost directly above your head. Your tossing arm lifts and the fingers of your tossing hand go to the sky. A high tossing hand will set the tossing shoulder higher than the hitting shoulder, making this head position feel more natural.
Clear vision is essential for great contact on a ball. A little-known fact is that the best servers look up before the ball is tossed. Looking up in anticipation of the arrival of the ball is a much more efficient method of serving. If your head goes up in advance of the toss, your eyes will be still. Now you will be fully able to focus on the target. Try envisioning a small picture frame hanging in the air at optimum contact point. Look up to that picture frame and work on being able to place the toss in that area. Focus and intent to strike the ball will be far greater.
III. Toss with a flat hand
The position of the toss hand and arm are neglected areas when dealing with the serve. The toss arm has several critical functions. How the ball is propelled up is important not only for the result of the toss but also for the next phase of the serve. Ball tosses should travel straight up and down, without spin or arc (except when intended). Fingers bent or curled around the ball assure failure.
For a successful toss, flatten your fingers and place the ball on the creases of the last joint segment. Place your thumb gently over the top of the ball, making sure to keep the hand flat by laying your wrist down. Straighten your elbow, bring your toss arm down and up in the direction of the right net post (for a right-handed server). The toss comes from the shoulder and gentle body action, and the hand finishes up in the “picture frame” described above. Gently popping the hand open at the release point eliminates “flipping” the ball off the fingers. The toss hand continues to the sky to set the tossing shoulder higher than the hitting shoulder and allowing an upward hit.
The three secrets to a great serve aren’t flashy, but are so critically fundamental to the serve that you simply cannot be as successful without them. Make mastering these principles a priority and you will soon have the stress free, dominant and powerful serve that you have been wanting.
Lisa Dodson is the developer and owner of Servemaster, a USPTA Elite Professional and a former WTA world-ranked player. She is currently the director of tennis at Shenorock Shore Club in Rye, N.Y. She may be reached by e-mail at Lisa@TheTotalServe.com or visit TheTotalServe.com.