| By Lisa Dodson

Do you love your serve? I certainly hope so because it is the most important shot in the game of tennis. It would make sense that anyone who loves the serve should love the overhead as well, but that’s not necessarily true. One thing that is certain … if you don’t love your serve, you will definitely not love your overhead. No tennis player can afford this.

It’s important to understand that the serve and overhead are not the same in many ways. Yes, there are similar qualities, but there are also some major differences. Understanding the difference(s) is a critical step towards a successful overhead. If you attempt to hit your overhead like a serve, you will be spitting into the wind.

One of the biggest problems with the overhead is in the name: “OVERhead.” Exactly what we do not want is for the ball to be over our head, we want it “FORWARD” of our head. Nor Cal Master Pro Rosie Bareis uses the word “ForwardHead,” … what a smart idea.

Take a few minutes to consider the major differences between the serve and overhead. When someone advises you to hit your overhead just like your serve, keep these points in mind:

Serve Overhead
Stationary shot Movement shot
Drop toss and hit arms Raise toss and hit arms
Contact hitting “up”  Contact hitting “down”
Always drive up off front Drive up off of front or back leg or both legs
Contact point can vary Contact point needs to be the same
Follow through is longer Follow through is short
Accurate, versatile, high percentage shot  Overpowering shot


There are a significant amount of core similarities. The key is to be able to choose the correct combination of movements and factors off of the shopping list.

Serve and overhead
A. Sideways set-up with Continental grip
B. Relaxed arms and legs
C. Pronation of forearm, wrist and hand for “throwing” action
D. Power gained through efficient use of legs, trunk, shoulders, rotation and pronation
E. Contact is forward (except for kick and topspin serve)
F. Potentially a power shot

This is a tremendous amount of information. Concentrate on Part I of this article and clean up the first moves in your overhead. You will find immediate improvement.

Stationary vs. Movement Shot and proper preparation for balance and movement
When serving, you are in complete control of the situation. You can choose your grip, toss location and stance, take your time setting up and select the exact serve that you’d like to hit. This is relatively simple. For a typical serve:

1. Stand at a 45-degree angle to the net
2. The ball toss is forward and in front of the hitting shoulder
3. The ball travels straight up and down without spin or arc
4. Weight will shift throughout serve with the feet still (except for pinpoint) by means of the ankles, knees, hips

Of course all of this changes when you are hitting an overhead because you are no longer in control of the situation. You are at the mercy of where your opponent(s) sends you. Also, you are typically beginning the overhead preparation from “ready position” instead of standing sideways to the net in service preparation. Gaining this balanced, sideways position is often a challenge for most players. Let’s get started.

1. Make sure that your ready position is balanced and “light.” A good ready position is exactly that–you are physically ready to move in any direction for any ball. Your legs are flexed, your weight is forward on the front of the feet, you are holding a Continental grip (when at the net) with hands out and tip of the racket pointing towards where the ball is coming from (see left).

2. Balance is paramount to good, safe movement. Assuming the opponent is attempting to lob over you, the first move back is the most important. From ready position combine three factors in one movement in order to move back.

From an accurate ready position, lift both arms straight up (forming a V), turn and push back off of the left leg (for righties, right leg for lefties) to get sideways to the net. If you combine the movements efficiently you will be balanced and on your way back to the lob that is traveling to your side of the court. This way you will get a head start on getting back to the ball. Remember, you cannot make up for lost time.

Many players drop the free hand and the racket like a typical service motion. All this does is add unnecessary upper body movement and adds several degrees of difficulty in timing. Setting the arms and hands with the turn frees you up for quick traveling to the ball (see right).

4. With the non-dominant hand upstretched and the hit arm prepared simply work to keep the ball between your body and the net. At this point, only your legs are moving. The head, front arm and hit arm are still. Like the serve your best results come from contact in front. Fight to keep the ball in front of you and use the upstretched hand to help guide you into the right place. Keep moving so that the ball appears to be falling into the upstretched hand. At the same time, you have achieved proper shoulder angle (see left).

5. The most common error on the overhead is letting the ball get over the head. This is mostly due to judging a ball that is coming towards you and that has varying height, arc, spin and trajectory. You don’t have to deal with any of these factors on the serve (even with a poor ball toss) so the degree of difficulty rises exponentially. It is best to err on the side of moving too far back until you become accustomed to judging the flight of a high, arcing ball. Stay high on your feet and keep them moving to make adjustments during the entire flight of the ball. Since your upper body is prepared you are free to move wherever you need to go.

Remember the first move is always the most important on the tennis court. Your quickest and most responsive movement will come from a balanced ready position. With flexed legs and a prepared grip you will begin to hit overheads that you thought were impossible. Get your hands up and your body turned at the same time so that you can begin safe, balanced movement. Use a slide or crossover step to move back.

Practical homework
1. Practice these movements and the act of moving backwards without hitting a ball to produce a quick, automatic response.

2. Record yourself on video so that you can see what you actually do compared to what you think you do. It’s important to see what you are doing. Then, you can picture the changes you need to make and measure your improvement.

Have fun and look for more information in Part II in the next issue of Long Island Tennis Magazine.

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.