All serves can, and should be, hit with an identical swing pattern and a fast swing speed. Sound crazy? It’s not. First and second serves are often taught and thought of as two different strokes. This approach makes the already difficult stroke more physically complicated and mentally stressful, especially for women.
Swing speed on the first and second serve should be the same, if not faster, on the second. How can we accomplish this? The key lies with using one swing pattern and overcoming fear.
All statistics show that a high first serve percentage results in winning more points. A good day yields more easy points and a bad day can be devastating, especially if the second serve is weak. Unnecessary pressure is placed on the first serve. Fear of a weaker second serve looms in the background and directly takes confidence from your entire game.
The simple solution is to develop one swing pattern with varying grips, a consistent tempo and informed ball toss location. This will, in turn, create consistent timing and movement for a service motion that is used for all serve types. You will need several basic grips to be a fast swing speed server. Grips will change dependent upon what type of serve is being hit. The grip needs to be paired with ball toss location for specific serves. Grips and toss locations change but swing patterns do not.
Pairing the correct grip with the correct ball toss location (contact point location) is a simple and essential concept for developing a variety of fast swing serves. This simplification takes away the physical and mental threat of having to learn a different “first” serve and “second” serve. Concentration on one technique and one swing speed leads to more consistency, builds confidence and removes fear.
Simply, all you have to do is choose what type of serve you want to hit (flat, slice or kick), pair the grip and ball toss location. This is how you develop different amounts and types of spin. The more spin you create, the faster you have to swing. You’ll learn to depend upon a fast swing speed instead of fearing a second serve miss. You’ll also quickly develop a variety of serve types naturally. This concept is the key to:
►Reduce double faults
►Hit a higher percentage of first serves
►Develop a variety of serve speeds and spins
►Create weaker returns and get more free points
One swing pattern
The serve is a patterned swing that has shape and rhythm. There are many variations of patterns and shapes and some are definitely more efficient and less riddled with excess movement that cause problems and missed serves.
Consistent and powerful servers use one consistent movement pattern. In other words, if you look at each individual serve, they look basically the same. So, in essence, there really is no “first” serve or “second” serve in the way that we usually think of them. There is no marked technique difference besides moving grips and ball toss locations. They both use the same pattern and speed but typically the second serve will have more spin for safety. The spin comes from moving grips and ball toss locations, not from changing the swing pattern.
How can that be?
If we keep the pattern the same and match a corresponding grip to the ball toss, then the body will make natural and appropriate changes within the swing pattern. The pattern remains the same, but modifications happen because of how you are holding the racket and where you will contact the ball. Make sense?
So, if we simply toss a ball up into the air and use a forehand grip, we’re going to get a lot of failure. An unknown contact point or flawed ball toss location cannot work with an unmatched grip and often causes joint pain, wear and tear and injury.
Did you know that the beveled areas on the grip are different sizes? When the racket is on edge, the beveled area that corresponds with the edge is approximately 1.5 centimeters. The beveled area to the left of that is approximately one centimeter. These are small areas. So, when you are asked to move your grip, those adjustments are usually very small if you are in the right range. (See Figure 1 to the right)
Correct serve grips vary in a range. The term “Continental” is used most often and players often do not understand that grip modifications can be made to form a larger range of grips. All of these modifications are made by shifting the hand to the left.
Moving your hand to the left of Continental, in very small increments, will create more spin for a slice serve and if moved more drastically (see Figure 2 with blue V marker) you can will change the edge angle and develop the ability to hit a kick or topspin serve (see Figure 3 below).
Incorrect serve grips are anything to the right of the first left bevel or in the direction of a power forehand That is not to say that one cannot hit a flat serve with the grip with a quarter-inch move to the right of Continental. This small change can work for some players but it is essential not to move any further to the right on the grip (see Figure 1 with red V marker for incorrect grip).
Tempo is everything
We’ve all seen some pretty odd looking serves on the courts. They usually look like a lot of work and effort for not much of a result. Good looking serves are generally more efficient and have a good swing pattern and rhythm. In a word … effortless.
Of course, the start of any motion sets the path to the result. The beginning tempo of the serve is critical to successful timing of toss and hit.
Servers need to be mindful to create a slow downswing or take-back in conjunction with the toss arm. This enables the server to incorporate the entire body (legs, torso, arms and head) that leads to the accelerated movement to contact point.
Think of it as a one/two movement or slow and go. The initial phase is slow and then GO (acceleration) happens as the racket is dropping into racket head drop position. The entire body is ready to make this powerful move.
If beginning tempo is fast or unorganized then power, efficiency and timing are gone with the wind.
Determine where you want your ball toss to go
The toss is sort of a complicated deal for most people. After all, you’re using your non-dominant hand and arm to do a very specific and detailed task. Not to mention that the rest of your body is doing lots of other stuff.
One thing that helps everyone is determining where you want your toss to go before you serve. Forget about the how and concentrate on the where. Look up to that place before you initiate the serve and watch the ball come into that spot. Work on some toss technique over time but use this method for success at all levels
We’ve discussed grips so now you need to know about which grip goes with which toss. For a flat or slice serve pair your Continental Grip (green V marker) with a ball toss that lands about 12-18 inches forward of the baseline and to the right (in line with your hitting shoulder). The flat toss will be at the further distance and the slice serve will be slightly closer but also about six- to-12 inches further to the right.
For the topspin or kick serve, your grip will be left of Continental (in the range of blue V marker) and your ball toss will arc back for contact over your head. If you let it fall, it would drop in the range of on top of your head to slightly behind your heels.
Notice that there is no mention of a ball toss for the forehand serve grip (red V marker).
If you work within some grip and toss guidelines you’ll improve drastically and will likely reduce wear and tear, pain and the likelihood of injury.
It’s time for a major upgrade for your serve and therefore your entire game. Considering your serve motion as a swing pattern and not a HIT is critical. If you start to get this concept then YOU will be able to swing away on first and second serves.
The first and second serve feed on each other physically and mentally. The cycle of fearing the second serve can be broken when you learn to depend upon a fast second serve swing speed.
In turn, a consistent swing speed will increase your first serve percentage, help create a neutralizing second serve and boost the overall confidence of your entire game.
Now doesn’t that sound like a plan?
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.