| By Lisa Dodson

The serve is the most important and the most under-practiced shot in the game of tennis. We all want a blistering serve, but wanting and owning are two very different things. Personally, I think that most players don’t fully understand the importance of the serve, so don’t put the effort into fully developing it. Most serves remain ordinary and ineffective. When one really wants something, they do something about it. It’s time to feel that way about the serve, TODAY.

It really isn’t difficult to greatly improve your serve. The serve has the reputation of being so hard to learn that players just stop attempting to do better. Don’t believe the hype and don’t be afraid of the serve. The information below will give you the start you need.

Four great reasons to start improving your serve
1. Get cheap points: Your serve doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t need the trifecta of factors: Power, spin and accuracy, although that would be great. A serve with spin, speed or direction will be returned less often and with less accuracy. Basically, you get free points. If you can count on two no-returns or weak returns per game, it’s the rough equivalent as starting the game at 30-love.

2. Shorten point length in your favor: This is an extension of point number one. If you are just putting the ball in the box, you are not forcing play in your favor. Your opponent can get a jump on you by making you run on the return or hit winners off of your weak serve. This is in their favor. A stronger serve starts the point in your favor potentially eliminating those pesky 30 ball rallies and giving you the opportunity to dictate play

3. Raise your overall confidence level: Go onto the court knowing that you can depend on your serve and your entire game will be elevated. There is nothing better than getting up to the line and feeling in control of the situation. It will give you newfound confidence and change your attitude towards the entire match. It also gives you the impression of being a formidable opponent. That’s always in your favor.

4. Be the “go to” doubles partner: Everyone will want to play with you and not against you. In doubles, the serve is particularly important for many reasons. First and foremost, you want your partner at the net to be a dominant, moving force. A strong serve will cause weaker returns and allow the partner to move and finish points quickly.

Fast TIPS for immediate serve improvement
1. If you don’t throw well, start practicing throwing
Throwing is the same action with the arm as serving and the same grip is held on the ball (see the photo above). Start with the correct grip, elbow back to the fence, with the triceps parallel to the ground. The non-dominant hand and arm are extended forward. Pull the non-dominant hand and arm to the same side of the body quickly before the throw arm moves. Aim to throw high rather than far using a very relaxed hand and arm. The fingers, palm and inside wrist of the throwing hand will finish facing out away from the body just as they do when pronating to contact a ball with a racket. This all may sound complicated but it’s not. To use a well-known phrase … “Just Do It!” It’s far easier to throw than to serve and throwing will greatly improve your serve.

2. Bite the bullet and change your grip
There really is no choice in grip if you want a good serve. Move it over to Continental and practice the movements without hitting a ball. Get accustomed to what this grip feels like (see the photo above). Players often make a fatal error by trying to hit the serve without shadowing the motion or using a teaching tool to help them. As first the ball typically goes down, sharply to the left (for righty) and feels powerless. The player quits because it seems too difficult. Go through the motions first with the just the racket, toss arm and body without hitting a ball. When you do begin serving expect to spend some time “failing” before you start to improve. Results have nothing to do with learning correct technique. Making mistakes is essential to learning what is correct.

3. Hold a very loose and low grip on the racket
A loose grip will ensure a loose arm and body. Since we are trying to gain racket head speed for power and spin, we need the racket head to move faster than the hand. A loose, low grip will let this happen

4. Understand that using the Continental grip you will naturally be putting spin on the ball (known as slice) for the serve
This basically means that you are going towards the ball with the front edge of the racket. This spin makes the ball always travel in a right to left curve (righties) and left to right curve (lefties) towards the service box. If you are accustomed to your ball traveling flat and straight you aim directly for your target. With a slice serve, you must aim to the right (righties) of your target to allow for the curved flight of the ball. If you hit a slice and aim as though your ball will travel straight it will always go further left than you planned. If you don’t understand this, you will want to quit because your ball never lands in the service box.

Effectively practice for short periods of time by using zones
The Zone Practice article in the last issue minimally covered the serve. Basically, the practice zone was depth in the service box not right, center or left directions. Now, we will get more specific on how to move the ball laterally in the service box. The photo above shows the deuce court service box marked off into three sections: Wide (forehand), At the Body and Up the Middle (backhand).

30-Minute Serve Practice (10 minutes per zone)
Start first in the deuce court hitting to the wide zone. Check your grip to make sure it is correct. Serve to the zone. If your ball goes to the left of the zone, simply aim more to the right as the picture shows by markings on the net top.

Aim at points on the net top net that will allow for the curve of the ball flight. You’ll have to use your “Mind’s Eye” to aim at a different target on the net other than the end point you want the ball to land.

For example: If you want to hit a wide serve, aim to the center net strap and your ball will curve nicely into place. For a body serve, aim further right and even further right for up the middle.

Eventually, you won’t have to think about aiming to right because your mind and body will assimilate the information and this will be your new and improved way of placing the ball.

Remember … your ball will always curve right to left (righty) and left to right (lefty) with a slice serve. So, on the ad court, you will still aim to the right of your target zones (righty) and left of target zone (lefty).

If you are up to it, switch to the ad court and spend another 30 minutes. Otherwise, save it for another day. Practicing is about quality and quantity, not just quantity. Practice in batches for best results.

There is no reason for anyone to settle for just getting the ball in the box. With this information and Zone Practice, you have a huge head start to learning, changing and upgrading your serve. Stop making excuses and start getting free points now!

Lisa Dodson

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.