Being smart is just as important as being strong when it comes to holding serve.
By Craig O'Shannessy
Before rushing to hit your first serve as hard as you can, it’s best to do a little problem solving to give yourself the greatest chance of winning the point.
Being smart is just as important as being strong when it comes to holding serve, as there are several small battles you want to swing in your favor to gain the most control with the ultimate first-strike weapon.
Here are eight factors to consider before hitting your first or second serve in order to improve your odds of winning the point. This list takes the mystery out of serve location, and you’ll need only a few seconds to "feel" these factors in a match once you’ve gone through the list a few times.
1. Where does my opponent think I am serving?
Your opponent will return a lot better if they know where your serve is going. You’ll have your favorite locations where you want to serve, but you should mix things up just enough that your opponent is uncertain when you’re going there. This is the first question you should always ask yourself before hitting a serve, as it typically carries the most weight of all eight serve factors.
2. Where do I want the ball to come back?
The reality of tennis is that around two-thirds of first serves and almost 90 percent of second serves are returned back in play. The natural angle of the return of serve is something you can control, and this will dictate whether you must hit a forehand or a backhand as your first shot after the serve.
3. What are my opponent’s strengths and weaknesses?
You have two options here: Do you want to attack your opponent’s weakness immediately, or is it better to open up holes in the court and pressure it once the rally begins? In either case, figure out the best way to match up what you like to do against what makes your opponent the most uncomfortable.
4. What is the score?
This is always a filter that deserves considerable attention, as it plays a major role in the pressure level that exists in the minds of both players. In general, you’ll look to vary your patterns more in lower-pressure situations when you’re ahead in the scor, and stick to your primary patterns when the score is tighter and the weight of the points have greater importance. There will be times in a match when it’s more important just to get your first serve in rather than hit any specific location.
5. Where do I like to serve?
We all have our favorite locations, and there are times in the match when it’s absolutely correct to hit the ball where you want to hit it, but it’s also important at times to hit it where your opponent does not want it. This balancing act can fluctuate during a match as your opponent’s strokes get stronger or break down.
6. What is the highest percentage serve?
There will be times in a match when it’s more important just to get your first serve in rather than hit any specific location. Factoring in the spin of the serve (flat, slice or kick) comes into play here as you may be in a situation in which the most important factor will be not giving your opponent a look at your second serve.
7. What are the natural conditions?
The sun, wind and even the slope of the court are all elements that must be considered to increase your winning percentage. These can be major factors that can alter tactics at either end of the court or affect a subtle part of your decision making.
8. Where is my opponent standing?
Most players stand in the exact same spot all the time to return serve. Understand the angles you can impose on your opponent and use their location as a weapon against them. It’s amazing how infrequently players change their return position, even when an opponent launches a full-on assault to a particular location.
Remember these eight factors and you’ll outthink your opponent before your serve is even hit.
Craig O’Shannessy is the founder of Brain Game, a tennis analysis company that uses extensive tagging, metrics and formulas to uncover the patterns behind the game.