There are four main types of serves in tennis: Flat, Slice, Topspin and Kick. A Slice, Topspin and Kick Serve each have a specific direction of spin. The central focus of every serve is pronating. Pronating simply means that, at contact, the hand naturally moves from an inside to outside position by means of the wrist, forearm and elbow. How and when you pronate, using the correct grip, gives you the ability to hit different serve types and different spins.
The grip and the ball toss location need to be compatible for success in hitting all serves. First, you need to know what type of serve you are hitting and have an understanding of what you are trying to make the ball do. Typically, players simply toss up a ball and try to hit it (usually hard) or they attempt to hit a specific serve type without the correct grip and corresponding toss.
If you are a player who does not hold the grip in the Continental Grip direction or cannot place your ball toss, then your first task is to understand how important this is to your serve. Most players do not realize that the serve simply cannot be hit without the correct toss and corresponding ball location. The difficulty is this: The grip directly affects how your arm can move and which part of the ball the strings will strike on the ball. Also, the toss location will either let the strings get there or not. A poor grip can make a good toss fail and a good grip becomes less effective with poor toss location.
Why is the grip so important?
How you hold the racket sets the angle of the racket face and it either allows your hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder to move naturally or not. Comfortable movement produces an effortless energy flow and keeps us healthy. The joints in your wrist and arm cannot move properly with a “flat” or forehand grip and will only allow you to strike the face of the ball. You cannot hit an effective spin serve of any kind with a forehand grip.
The grip creates racket face angle and allows you to strike a specific location on the ball. This is essential to hitting a serve with spin. A spin serve will always provide variety and a high percentage of serves in.
Pictured below are the two primary grips for the serve: The Continental and Eastern Backhand.
Notice that the grip placement shows the “V” of the hand (between thumb and forefinger) is to the left of center for both grips. Grips with the V to the right of center are not used for the serve.
For the Continental Grip, the V is on the first left bevel. For the Eastern Backhand, the knuckle is on the top of the racket. The grips in between these two places are also good for the serve as well.
What is so important about ball toss location?
Where the ball is located in relationship to your head and your hitting shoulder is critical for natural and comfortable movement of the arm and the driving force of the body. Good ball toss location will let your racket face access the part of the ball you want to strike and let your arm and racket drive for power and spin.
Let’s match the grip with the ball toss location in the pictures below:
►Toss: Notice for the Flat Serve, the ball toss is forward (into the court) and to the right. The Flat Serve contact will be somewhere between the head and the hitting shoulder.
►Grip: The Continental Grip is recommended. Hitting up and letting the forearm, wrist and hand pronate will allow a flat hit to occur. Remember that every ball has some spin and will not be completely flat. An Eastern Forehand Grip can be used, but is not shown or recommended.
►Toss: The Slice Toss is also into the court, but is slightly further to the right than the Flat Toss. It will land approximately the same distance inside the baseline as the Flat Serve. This will differ depending upon personal preference and the amount of spin being hit.
►Grip: The Continental Grip is a must. For more spin, modify closer to the Eastern Backhand.
Using the toss and grip correctly will allow the edge to travel to the ball before the hand pronates. Typically, you’ll be instructed to hit up to 1:00 or 2:00 on the ball, with the leading edge of the racket. This creates a spin that rotates diagonally forward, causing the ball to curve from right to left (righty) and left to right (lefty).
Flat and Slice Tosses travel straight up and down with no spin or arc.
►Toss: The Kick Toss contact location is over the head. If you were to let your toss hit the ground, it would land in a place behind your left and right heels. The ball is placed here so that you can drive straight up with your body and front racket edge.
►Grip: The Eastern Backhand is a must. The racket edge traveling straight up the ball creates a left to right movement of the strings across the ball giving the ball a diagonal/forward spin. Thinking in terms of a clock face, your racket will start at 7:00 and sweep to 1:00. On this serve, you must swing very hard and skim up the ball to achieve maximum spin. The ball travels high over the net and bounces to the right for the righty and to the left for the lefty. It bounces the opposite direction of the slice.
A big misconception
Many players think that all serve types can be hit from the same toss. While some of the top players can do this, it is not recommended or even possible for the rest of us.
The serve can be a complicated stroke, and there is much more involved than what is covered in this piece. If you remember that the most important action in the serve is the act of pronating, then the grip and toss combination will become your best friend. The correct grip is essential to pronating. All you have to do is decide the serve you want to hit, choose your grip and put the ball in the path of the moving racket head. You’ll be serving with variety, consistency and accuracy in no time.
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.