I just returned from a great “teaching vacation” in Mexico with a large group of players, some whom I have known and worked with for many years. I always learn a lot every time I walk onto the court to teach, but this time was really striking.
These people really love to play tennis … I mean really love it, and it was fun trying to tune up some of the major parts of their games. So, we worked a lot on the serve and the biggest obstacle was, of course, the grip.
By far the most common misunderstanding, difficulty and hurdle with the serve is feeling OK with the Continental grip (see right). It’s really not that difficult, simply different than the grip most people hold. The problem starts when players initially start serving with the forehand grip. The forehand grip sets a full racket face forward to contact point so there is a high success rate of over the net and in the box. This addresses the first practical goal of the serve and the first big step towards playing a point. The problem is that the longer we serve with the wrong grip the harder it is to change. Eventually attempting to hit spin, speed and variety becomes hopeless.
A few observations
Here are several tips for teaching pros, coaches and good players trying to help others:
1. We show players what to do. Don’t overestimate the ability of our students to copy or to see what we are trying to show them. Unless you have an exceptional athlete on the court, showing a nuance or move (for example, dropping the racket down the back or a hit hand opening in back) does not help a player to be able to do it. They may get it intellectually, but this rarely leads to the physical ability to produce the motion. This is especially true when showing pronation. You need to get them to feel and experience what you are trying to get across.
2. We tell players what to do. People can only concentrate on one thing at a time. When trying to string together movements to create an effective motion, we just clog them up with too much information. Yes, it’s important that they have a concept of what they are trying to achieve, but let them feel success before you move on. Even if they have some other glaring flaws, achieve one thing at a time. Again, feeling is the key to real understanding and success.
3. In summary, with the serve we show the grip (necessary) and then we get way too detailed with showing how the hand moves and pronates and we tell players what they should be doing. Faster and more understandable results will happen if we just put the racket in the hand and let them feel what they are attempting. Let the body, not the brain, do the work.
Players … set yourself up for success by hitting a slice-serve
Understand that if you are going to be making a grip change on your serve, you are no longer hitting the same serve as you were before. So, don’t expect the same sound, feel and result. With a forehand grip on the serve, you can only hit flat. With a Continental grip, you are now going to hit the ball with a specific spin (a slice-serve).
We’re going to keep this really simple. Remember, you cannot think of 17 things at once. You can really only concentrate on one thing at a time. If you allow the small successes to move you forward, you will improve significantly very quickly.
These are the initial signs leading to success with the Continental grip on the serve:
►The grip feels different, awkward and difficult
►When you strike the ball, it feels powerless and sounds funny
►The ball often doesn’t reach the net and curves off sharply to the left (for right handed servers and to the right for lefties)
It sounds unbelievable that these symptoms should be positive signs considering they are common reasons players quickly abandon doing the right thing. If you stay with the grip for 25, 50, 80 balls, you’ll start to get it and see some light at the end of the tunnel.
Most players expect results immediately and when they don’t get them they quit. Understand this … when you are learning and changing, you have to get worse to get a lot better. Doing anything differently the first time is a challenge so we have to be willing to work through the tough parts for the rewards.
The Foolproof Drill
The Foolproof Drill (see left) will allow you to feel all of the things you have been shown and told. The goal of the drill is to hit the left side fence on the opposite side of the net (for righty, reverse all for lefty)
1. With a loose Continental grip, stand about 10-feet from the net on the right side of the court. If you are on a single court with surrounding fences, this is ideal. If not, move a bench or large object as a target to the opposite side of the net, wide of the alley and service box (in the picture above, the ball cart to the left is the target)
2. Begin with your racket in an abbreviated position, hand closed behind your head. Toss your ball up, forward and to the right (as you are looking at the net) so that it is in front of your hitting shoulder when it comes around to square with the net (see right).
3. Let the edge of your racket lead to the ball (see pic below). The correct grip will set the edge forward so be sure to leave it that way. This will cause your ball to curve sharply from right to left giving you success in hitting your target. The reason: This is the direction that the ball will travel naturally so let it go there. Do not attempt to flatten your hand or to “pronate” to get the ball to travel in a straight line. Keep doing this from the same place well after you are having success with the drill and are consistently hitting the side fence, wall or bench. You need to accept that this is the correct feel and sound for the serve. Your hand, wrist, elbow and upper arm will begin to naturally do the right thing. The hit will get stronger later.
4. Gradually move back to the service line, then step back three paces at a time until you reach the baseline. Continue hitting the serve into the side fence. The ball should be hitting the same target point each time. Now you have worked your way back to the baseline with a curving slice serve.
The trick part: Fool your brain
You’re getting really good at hitting the fence now, right? So how do we get the ball to go into the service box? It is really quite easy but first you have to understand something pretty simple. Previously with a forehand or flat grip, you hit a ball that traveled in a straight line to the target point because the strings were all heading directly towards the ball. Your brain accepted this fact and thought that the ball would always travel in a straight line. Now, with the Continental grip, the front edge of the racket is heading towards the ball. You are surprised when it curves (and consequently think it’s wrong) because normally you ball travels straight.
Understand this … if you are right-handed, now your (slice) serve will always curve from right to left. If you are left-handed, your slice serve will always curve from left to right. So, if you aim in a straight line you will fail to hit the service box.
Put a cone or target in the center of the deuce service box across the net from you. Take a towel and hang it on the net to the right and midway between the center net strap and the inside alley line (see right).
Hold your Continental grip and prepare to hit the ball with the same technique you hit into the side fence. In your “mind’s eye,” serve to the towel (which is about 15-feet to the right of the target). Your ball should curve and land somewhere in or near the correct service box. Now you will begin to get the idea of how to aim a curving ball.
Give yourself time to start feeling what it is that will give you great results. Don’t quit because it’s not going perfectly right away. Do this drill several days in a row if possible to start making some headway.
With a little persistence, you will finally understand what everyone is talking about when it comes to the Continental grip. What once seemed impossible will now be your strength and you’ll have room to grow into a bigger and better game.
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.