Here is the big question: How can we expect players to do something as complicated as serving when they cannot throw and release a ball directly out of their hand? In this article, I am going to stress the importance of the grip and a throwing release as central principles to a great serve. We’re going to target kids with a special importance emphasis on girls.
Let’s look at two critical commonalities between throwing and serving. The first one is pretty obvious, but the second one is not.
►The grip is the same to allow natural arm movement [see Figure 01 above].
►The release point of a throw equals the contact point of a serve [see Figure 02 below].
It all starts with the grip: We’ve all heard the statement that girls cannot throw, so in turn, they cannot serve. That can go for many people, not just girls. So, why not teach players to throw first? Now we can say that if girls can throw, then they can serve and consequently, anyone can serve. It’s much easier to learn to throw than to serve, so it only makes sense to do the easier and more productive thing first. We also assume that boys and men can throw, but that is not necessarily true. They will need throwing basics, too.
It’s time to stop talking and start doing by using the throw as a stepping stone to serving. It’s obvious that some kids, boys in particular, serve more naturally. Boys just throw more things than girls as they grow up: Rocks, toys, sticks, balls, etc. Who would have thought that skipping stones on a pond would lead to a great slice serve motion? Kids who evolve and throw well seem to adopt a grip on an individual item that works. That’s it. Their bodies understand how to produce efficient movements simply because that is how the human body works best.
Some tennis pros have players throwing things like footballs, baseballs, rackets and cones, but they are in the minority. Throwing things is great fun and keeps things simple for learning the serve. Whatever you are throwing will go further, harder and higher if it is gripped properly. All players, girls in particular, need to be taught this simple principle from the beginning.
The release point and how it equals contact point
One cannot achieve an efficient release point or contact point with a poor grip. The hold on a ball or racket determines how the hand, wrist, forearm, elbow, bicep and shoulder can move. If the start is off, then the chain of movement up to the shoulder will be off. Not only does this inhibit power, accuracy and efficiency, but causes debilitating short- and long-term injuries.
Releasing a ball out of the hand is a pretty basic task once you get the hang of it, and it’s somewhat obvious that the release point will dictate the direction, height and distance the ball will go.
Release equals the contact point
When contacting a served ball on the strings [see Figure 03 below], the arm and hand move in the same way as it does when you release a ball to throw. This is called pronation (the action of the hand going from an inside to an outside position by means of the wrist, forearm, elbow and bicep, not necessarily involving the shoulder). If you can find those similarities, then you’re on your way.
There are many similarities between throwing and serving but here are two big differences that all players should be aware of:
►The racket stays in your hand, instead of releasing it as you would with a throw.
►Throw up for a serve, as opposed to throwing down or out for a pitch or close target throwing.
The throw and the serve: How they are alike and how they differ
Never allow a child to serve until they have some proficiency with throwing. Let’s keep this really simple. It’s much easier to throw so learn throwing first. Use these simple check points to teach kids to throw and therefore to serve:
1. Hold the ball (grip) or racket grip with the same left/right orientation.
2. Always give them a target. The target should be close to start.
3. Set the student up sideways to the target with the front foot tipping in at a 45-degree angle and the back foot at a 90-degree angle (more or less). Legs are flexed.
4. Start with the throwing hand behind the head with the ball facing the back of the head for the throw and the racket handle and fingernails toward the head for the serve.
5. The triceps should be parallel to the ground and the elbow back to the fence for both.
6. Stretch the non-throwing arm and hand across the body. For the throw, the palm will be facing the ground or tipped to target point. For the serve, the palm of the hand is angled up with the ball in it.
7. Before initiating the throw, start pulling the free arm and hand across the body and rotate the back foot so that the heel is coming up and the bottom of the foot will be flat in back. For the serve start pulling the toss arm down and across the body.
8. Release/Contact: Initiate the throw, releasing toward target and finishing with the palm away from the body. Initiate the serve, pronating hand at contact (move the hand to an outside position for finish with the butt of the racket coming out the right side of the hand) leaving palm facing away from the body. Eyes are always on the target for the throw and on the ball for the serve.
9. Finish the throw with free arm tucked to left of the body, eyes forward, throwing arm across body and back foot rotated. Finish the serve similarly, but with the upper body more upright and eyes now on the opponent.
Things to do daily on court or off to reinforce grip and contact point
Players of all ages and levels make their biggest strides when not hitting a ball. Encourage them to feel the movements without hitting. Then they will have the best chance to learn, change and improve.
1. Partner throw: Start inside the service line, gradually moving back a few paces at a time. Depending upon the age they may finish up throwing baseline to baseline. This reinforces the grip, non-dominant arm use and pronation.
2. Partner throw over the fence: Start 12-15 feet back from the fence and end up two or three feet from the fence. This will promote upward hitting for the serve [see Figure 04 above].
3. Abbreviated pronation exercise: Start in abbreviated position and swing up to contact. Let the racket head move in a natural arc over a mostly still hand. Finish with the hand at shoulder height with the butt of the racket coming out the right side of the hand (for right handed players) [see Figure 05 below].
Do the right thing
The most likely scenario for a successful serve is to spend five to 10 minutes a day throwing to reinforce grip and to feel natural movement. The legs and non-dominant arm will learn to do what they need to do simply because they are given the opportunity to figure it out with repetition.
The sure way to set kids up for failure on the serve is to allow them to start serving with a forehand grip. The correct grip is an issue that tennis pros attempt to reinforce with a tennis racket and with little success. We put a racket in a kid’s hand and expect them to persevere, fail a lot and stick with it. Ha. When that fails, because we want success, we allow them to use a forehand grip and leave transitioning for later or, more likely, for someone else.
Learning to play tennis is all about technique and not about hitting a ball. Spend more time working on core basics for easier and more natural learning. Learn to throw in order to serve. You’ll be happy that you spent your time wisely.
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.