The tempo of the take-back is the first and most critical phase in the timing of the serve. It doesn’t matter whether you use a classic, abbreviated or somewhere in between motion. Remember you have to organize your feet, legs, hips, torso, shoulders, arms, hands and head in a continuous chain event to get to one specific moment in time: Contact point. It only makes sense that you must begin in a specific and detailed manner in order to keep coordination of the body parts moving throughout the chainlike event that is the serve. In other words, there is a lot to do before you can effectively strike a serve consistently.
In my experience, most players are far too lax in their routine and first phase of the serve. We’re all in too much of rush to hit the ball instead of sitting the ball toss in a predictable racket path. Taking time to check the essentials before serving and centering your thoughts (your routine) and beginning the take back in a slow and deliberate manner create a successful recipe for high percentage serving.
Service motion technique should be identical every time whether you are hitting a first or second serve or hitting various serve types (flat, slice, kick, etc.). This is the secret to success for world-class players. The best players in the world strive to make their process of hitting the serve the same all of the time. We need to embrace the importance of this. Focusing on repetitive sameness ensures great timing, a perfect contact point and a high rate of successful serving.
So, how do we hit various serves using the same form or technique? We vary the grip and ball toss placement. These factors will determine how the racket edge and face approach the ball and will give you potential to hit many types of serves. Once this is understood serving becomes a much easier task. Regardless of what type of serve you are hitting, consistency in tempo is critical.
The main focus of this article is to help you understand how to begin your take-back consistently and efficiently. To do this, we need to look at the events that precede and therefore contribute to an effective take-back. So, here we go:
Begin each serve with a deliberate routine
When walking up to the service line, typically we go through a routine for serve preparation. No matter what the score or how you feel you need to stick to this routine. The purpose of the routine is to physically begin your serve the same each time. If we do things successfully and correctly in an unconscious manner through repetition, this calms the mind and the body so that we can produce these same movements under all circumstances.
Before stepping up to the line we have decided what type of serve we are hitting and where we want the ball to land. Swing speed is not in question, because it will basically be the same every time. Check the grip, set your feet, bounce the ball, hold the racket and ball still for a long count, take a last look at your opponent and let it fly.
Why is routine so important to the tempo of the take-back?
The simplest explanation is that if you are still and deliberate at the start you will be able to determine your tempo. Many players rush through this part by dropping and raising the toss and hit arms quickly, starting the serve fast rather than slow. You need to feel what you are doing rather than just starting to whirl the racket.
The legs and hips initiate the take-back. Holding the racket hand and toss hand in a fixed start position lets the legs activate first.
The tempo on the serve is “slow and go”
The serve is basically two speeds: (1) Slow and deliberate through rotation of the hips, toss extension and racket arm bend in back, and (2) Faster acceleration up to the ball using leg drive, toss arm pull and racket throw (pronation).
Without this slow and organized start, we cannot get our legs involved. The serve just becomes dropping the hands, tossing the ball and hitting it with the racket. Remember that all of the body is involved in the serve. We need to start it with great timing.
A typical example of poor tempo is the “Three-speed” serve. This player swings fast/slow (or stop)/fast. You’ll see a fast drop and release of the ball, a stop in the back and then an attempt at acceleration. These players have no natural rhythm or timing for the serve and lose power by swinging harder. They also have uncontrolled tossing skills. Also, the fast release of the toss and abrupt use of the racket arm doesn’t allow the legs to become involved.
The tempo of one arm dictates the tempo of the other arm
Let’s just say that our hands and arms like to move the same speed and act the same on either side of our bodies. They balance us out, and it is difficult to make them do very different things at the same time. This is one of the reasons tossing with a straight arm and bending the hit arm is so difficult. When the hit arm is supposed to bend to drop the racket down the back, the toss arm thinks it is supposed to bend as well. On the other hand, when the toss arm stays straight in front as it’s supposed to do, the racket arm thinks it is also supposed to stay straight. We intellectually know that the two arms have different physical functions. Getting the arms to understand their two different jobs is another matter.
The only way to control and feel the specific movements of each arm is to initiate the take-back slowly and evenly. If one arm moves slowly, then the other will follow, therefore allowing better control of movement.
A typical problem and solution
Most of us are focused on hitting the ball on the serve (as opposed to creating a service motion and putting the ball in the way of the moving racket head), so naturally, we unconsciously place more importance on the racket arm and hand.
This arm and hand often wrongly move fast (the three-speed serve) which dictates that the toss arm moves fast. By slowing the racket arm and engaging the legs your toss arm will move slower. This will make the toss more controllable and accurate. It will also explain the need to extend the toss hand to full extension in order for the ball to get high enough.
The serve begins with an idea not an action. The idea is the type of serve and landing location of the ball. We go through a routine, so that we can unconsciously produce successful, similar motions under all conditions. We initiate the serve with the legs and hips and slow tempo of both arms. All of this is done to produce a two-speed serve with a slower-start moving, on to faster and more powerful acceleration. If you begin to examine and feel the initial movements of your serve, you will open yourself up to tremendous improvement.
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.