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Player to Player: Developing a Consistent Serve

Real Tennis Players - Like You! -  Asking For, and Offering, Advice on the Sport They Love

Player to Player is USTA.com’s regular feature in which everyday tennis players are given a forum to ask advice on the sport they love – and their fellow players will dish out advice. We’ll post a number of the best responses we receive to our question of the week.



This week's question from Carol:

Quick question that came up in a mixed doubles match:

I was up at the net and my player teammate hit a short lob to opponent who was positioned nicely to hit a really nice overhead. He was directed right at me. I said "Oh,Oh!" because I was fearful he was going to hit it at me. He then hit it at me but missed and the ball hit just outside the baseline. He said I distracted him and we played the point over again. He said I was not allowed to say anything when his side has the ball. He gave another example too. He said if his side has the ball, then I cannot tell my player on my side to switch or say anything. He said that was not allowed also. I read the rules and I couldn't find this situation. Please advice. Thanks.

Please share your advice with Carol by e-mailing Player@USTA.com and include your name and hometown.

Got a question of your own? Send that along, too!


Last week's question from Jason:  
(Please note: There's no need to send additional responses to this question)

I've had trouble serving consistently, my first serves when they go in they are REALLY big and I almost win all my points on first serve. But the problem is that after a while they never seem to go in and my second serves are weak. Any advice would be helpful. I really want my first serves to go in and my second serves to be stronger. Thanks.


From Coach Poppie, Palm Bay, FL:

Jason, lets do a self-examination of you serve. Does your toss go to the same spot every time? Find your point of contact by going to a fence. As you transfer your weight and reach up trap the ball against the fence and your string right in the sweet spot. Always swing to the point of contact not to where the ball is. Chasing your toss is the first cause of erratic serves. Are serves failing long or short? If long, lift the ball slight toward the net that will bring the ball down. If short, lift the ball slight back. This will add height & depth. Remember make slight adjustments and swing to the point of contact. Most of all swing, this act will provide the brain with biomechanical feedback. Of course, in match player if the ball is not on the right path simply don’t swing at it and start again. After all, the serve is a shot. So learn to use it to win more points.

As for your second serve, once you get control of the first serve then there should be very little difference between the two. Just add a little spin and go for more angles to land in. If all else falls and you’re feeling the pressure and need that first serve win, Michael Chang ‘em as he did to Ivan Lendl when he was 17 and won the French Open.

Ooppsss! I just dated myself, I guess that’s why I’m called Coach Poppie.

From Kambiz, D., Pittsburgh, PA:

It would be helpful to know your NTRP rating. But first, how fast is this REALLY big first serve? Is this a NTRP 4.5, 5.0 big serve or 3.0, 3.5 big serve?

Also what type of serves are you hitting? Is your first serve flat or does it have topspin? What type is your second serve?

From the couple sentences I’ve read, my guesses are that you don't have a proper technique. Hitting big serves don't mean much in tennis if you don't have the consistency to back it up. Also, placement is even more important that the speed of a serve.

One thing you should know is that a lot of players don’t have a problem returning hard serves, even a 140mph serve, if the ball lands at their comfort zone. You might even find players at 4.5 level to be able to crush those hard serves and return them with even a faster pace. So you have to have the consistency to be able to place the ball so it would be hard to guess where the ball lands. And that requires consistency.

So what could give you consistency?

- Proper technique

- Being able to toss the ball at the same position and height (toss is very important. you'll hear many people say that the toss is the most important part of a serve)

- Being able to produce the same serve motion over and over

So what is a proper technique?

Here is one recommendation before I answer you this question!

Don't ever get over confident with your techniques. A lot of time I see people who think they have the best strokes and techniques (maybe fast and powerful, but with too many errors), but in reality they don't have the correct technique. But no matter what others suggest they still stick to their wrong techniques. So you should be able to even question and criticize your best techniques. This is how I see it: "if you can't hit like the #1 player (e.g. Federer or Nadal) then your strokes need tuning.

Serving is a big topic and cannot be covered in only couple of sentences. But as far as your weak second serve goes.... your second serve should be very similar to your first serve, except it should have more spin with less power. The serves motions should be similar too. In most cases players give the ball more topspin on the second serve. If you observe most pros you'll notice their second serve is almost identical to their first serve. But when looking at their serving arm you'll notice there is a slight difference. Most of the time the extra spin given to the ball is produced by hitting more upward to the ball, and by brushing more on the ball in a arc motion from left to right.

On the first serve the arc motion can be very minimal or not at all present (flat serves), but on the second serve the arc will have a larger angle (more open rather than close)

And as for the proper technique, I would suggest you look at video clips of best servers (such as Roddick, Sampras, Federer) and try to learn more about the serve. There are some websites that have video clip collections of tour players. You can check out tennisone.com or virtualtennisacademy.com (there is a membership price, but it is worth it)

Here are some hints to help you look for clues when looking at video clips of best servers:

- Toss:

Look where the toss lands. Notice the difference between the first serve toss and the second. First serve toss is usually 6-10 inches in front of the body, while the second serve's toss is above player's head or slightly behind the head (for a kick serve)

Height of the ball: Don't toss too high or too low.

Release point: Don't release too soon! Your hand should travel up with the ball and then release it.

Holding the ball: You should be holding the ball with your fingers. Keep it relaxed.

- Body rotation:

Look at the body angles. Find out when and at what degree the body rotates. Also break down the rotations by body components: hips, upper torso, shoulders, arms, legs... and find at what time each of these happen. Also find what the angles before the hit are? What's the angle in during the hit? And at what angle a player finishes his serve.

Different servers have different variations on body rotations. For example Pete Sampras had a very close angle rotation, while Venus has a very open angle rotation which causes inconsistency for her.

- Left hand:

Where is the left hand at all times? Track it down and find correlations with other body parts. One key element to having a good serve is to tuck the left hand inside the chest during the contact. This helps you generate more power with consistency. If you don't do this your body will either rotate too much to the left (right handed player). By tucking the left arm you stop the body from rotating too much and it will help your body to stay on a forward and straight path. Also left hand allows you generate more torque by stopping part of your body from moving. Imagine a tire changing tool wrench which has 4 side like this . In order to be able to generate enough torque you need to exert force in two different directions opposite from each other. The same terminology can be applied to the serve. You need to control one side of your body to be able to generate a lot of torque. And this is achieved by stopping your left side of your body from going along with the rest of your body (with the use of left hand)

- Legs: Using both legs are becoming more popular.

- Wrist: Look for supination and pronation (breaking the wrist) - but this should happen naturally as the body uncoils. Don't try to enforce this otherwise you'll be injuring your wrist.

- Power: serve should be a fluid motion. Don't muscle the ball. Try to let your hand flow with the power you generated from your legs and coiling of your torso…

- Grip: Use continental... don't change grip during the serve! Some people start with continental then somehow during the serve, unintentionally; they switch their grip to the forehand grip.

- Head: Look at the ball until the last second you are hitting it. Don't let your head fall down.

A lot of players keep serving the balls into the net and wonder why. This is one of the reasons why you might be serving balls into the net 10 times in a row! Keep your head up and stare at the ball.

Hope this helps,

From Steve H., Columbus, IN:

Drop your racquet down your back more. Hit with more spin and take a little speed off.

From Kenny S., Highland Park, IL:

My first thought on the first serve is you lose your form as you get into the match. You are probably going into the court early, head is falling down, feet are moving, not hitting up at the ball and the normal way you hit it. This could be a conditioning issue, or just lack of muscle memory.

You need to have your pre-serve set up. Bounce the ball 2 times, and then hit it the right way, and you know what that is. Also do more stretching and weights to build your shoulder and upper body. But the serve power also comes from the legs and core like all the shots.

Your second serve could get better not only by power but by placement and different speeds, the curve ball the odd ball. I have a big first serve, but my second serve can be killed, but some different looks, and you get a return out or in the net! So work on your consistency in terms of form and keeping it the same throughout a match. A problem I have and lots of people do, really have a lot to do with the head and body going down and forward too fast.

From Eric O., San Juan, Puerto Rico:

Serve all your serves like it was the first one and like if you're not playing the game by points. Hit your second serve as hard as or harder than the first. In other words, take all the pressure off your mind when serving. That will build confidence on yourself and your serve.

From John F., Oceanside, CA:

80% of the serve is your toss. Practice your toss (no more than 2 inches into the court at the baseline & high enough for a full windup). Before the toss I look at a target in the serving area (forget about bouncing the ball, just look and concentrate before your toss). Your hitting arm should go straight up, out and down and follow through waist high. Before my toss I: 1) Look at target area. 2) Look at baseline where I want my toss to be. (The rest should be automatic. Practice in front of a mirror.

Work on your second serve first, in the same manner. It must curve slightly and practice moving it around. A good dependable second serve makes your first serve better as you can rely on it thus taking pressure off your first serve.

From Ron I., Charleston, SC:

I would suggest taking a little off of your first serve, and making it more consistent. The biggest weapon you have as a player is the first serve. You get to determine where and when you want the opponent to play on that shot. Get a few more in by taking a little off, hitting maybe an 80% shot. You’d be surprised how many points you win because it is the first serve, and you can dictate play. As far as your second serve, I’d also begin working on a spin serve, preferably a kick serve if you are up for it. What I did was took a mixed doubles season and only hit slow kick serves for first and second serves. That way when you are playing your regular season, you have developed a new weapon for your second serve (it’s great for a first too!). Good luck!!!

From Sutjipto G., San Marino, CA:

In the beginning of a match, you have enough power to generate great first serve.

The balls were hit on the right place, time and power.

After a while through the match, you utilized a lot of your energy.

If it can be measured, actually you hit the serve with less power compared to power you generated in the beginning of the match. Even if you feel that you hit the ball with the same power all along.

Solution, hit the serve harder (what it feels) to compensate the less power you generate.

From Lindy Lou, Bensalem, PA:

You have a common problem with an easy solution. This is a problem, if I may say, that occurs more frequently with men. Dynamite first serve, lollypop second serve. And the more pressure on the point, well, we all know what happens - you end up relying on your second serve. So, Jason, you just need to work on it.

The good news is - this is one of the easiest shots to work on. Why? You do not need to pay a pro or even have a partner. Just take a hopper of balls to your local high school and Practice, Practice, Practice. I will tell you how to do this.

1. Play serving games with yourself. Play regular rules for a while - you get 2 serves and get an idea of your percentages - it may not be what your think it is. In other words, out of 4 times serving, how many times are you getting the first one in?

2. Work on developing a 100% reliable spin second serve. Work on depth and placement. If you want to take a lesson or 2 from a pro, this is not a bad idea, to get pointers and maybe correct any problems.

3. This is guaranteed to produce good results. Get any of your friends to play practice games, sets, or matches with you. The rule is - YOU ONLY GET ONE SERVE! You may lose at first, but the shot will get better and better.

4. Here are some things to keep in mind:

a. In most situations, the problems are mental, and the serve is the first shot to go under pressure.

b. People respect a first serve, therefore, whenever possible, it is best to get the first one in. So, I want you to take something off of your present first serve, until your percentage is at least 65%.

From Eric R., Santa Rosa, CA:

Serving well should not be based on The Big Bang Theory.

You may know the old golf dictum,  "Big Drives are For Show, You Putt for the Dough."  Yes, BIG flat serving feels great. However, beware of delusions of grandeur.

Experience will ultimately teach you that if your serving percentage is high, and your second serve is strong, that will lead to a much greater percentage of Wins than the occasional chest puffing flat ace.

Start immediately learning to master two spins (slice and topspin kick serves)... Find a reputable pro or coach and get a basket of balls.

You may find that one type of spin is easier for you than the other.

That is normal. Whichever spin becomes your best; you must work on placement of 1st and 2nd serves. Place a tennis bag in the service court and learn to hit it. Above all, make your service practice fun!

Play a game of "Beat Mr. X." Get 50 balls in your box or basket.

A deep serve that goes in, hit solidly, gives you the point. A weak, short serve on either the 1st or 2nd serve gives Mr. X the point. A double fault obviously goes to Mr. X. Keep score and after 50 serves jot that score in a notebook. That will keep you focusing and always replicating what you want in a match. That is to say, keeping the normal rhythm of 1st and 2nd serves to alternating courts. It quickly makes you aware of how hitting deep solid serves and using spin to increase your percentage will greatly increase your Wins vs. Mr. X or any other opponent.

Ten to fifteen minutes as many days as you can spare the time should get your serve in winning shape. Play the 50 ball serving game three times if you have more time to spare on a given day, and have fun with it.

From Bob Cowan, Clive, IA:

Jason, a few years ago I was going to have a lesson from a pro, and I arrived early to warm up. The pro was on the next court working with a good player on service returns. He was serving and the student was returning. As I did my warm up, I watched to see what I could pick up. The pro was serving hard, and he missed exactly two serves in the about fifteen minutes. I was amazed, so when we got started, I asked how he did it. His reply was, "I cheat, I throw the ball in exactly the same place each time". My serve has not been reliable this summer either and I think the toss is the culprit.

From Ernie R., Montgomery AL:

I use a serving practice drill to help me and my USTA league teammates to serve more consistently. Start with a basket of balls. As you serve balls you will count the serves, whether they go in or not, as long as they are first serves. If you miss a first serve, you serve a "second" serve. Second serves must be good to count, or you start over at zero. The objective is to get to a count of 50 without a "double fault". So here is an example count:

First serve in - "1"
First serve fault - "2"
Second serve in - "3"
First serve fault - "4"
Second serve fault - "0"

A variation of this drill requires you switch from deuce serving to ad court serving after a good first or second serve.

This practice drill will help you get consistency with your first serve, and places appropriate pressure on yourself to get a good second serve in. Good luck, and let me know how it helped.

There's more to tennis than tennis!

From Karl L., Gaithersburg, MD:

You are probably veering from your pre-serve routine, and thinking about missing, rather than placement and the next series of shots. If you are missing long; your toss is probably going behind you, causing an early contact and an altered trajectory. If it is in the net; you are probably dropping your tossing arm prematurely which allows the serving platform to alter. Try to be disciplined in your set up, toss and trophy positions. Videotape several serves from various areas; ad, deuce, etc... Also pick a target in your mind before you toe the line for the serve. Alley, Body or Center? Good Luck.

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