Arguably, the most important shot in the sports of tennis and pickleball is the serve. In tennis, holding serve is an important factor in staying on a winning course and maintaining a positive attitude. This is even more of a factor in pickleball, because I can only score points when I’m serving and I only get one serve!
The basic premise of a winning strategy in both games is very simple, be the last person to hit the ball over the net and inside the lines and you win the point. With that said, if we don’t get and keep the ball in play a high percentage of time, our odds of winning are greatly diminished!
Today I am going to discuss the serve in tennis.
As an instructor, I believe the serve motion is the most challenging of all strokes to efficiently conquer.
While the serve is fundamentally a throwing motion, we have several additional things occurring which make it more challenging than just throwing.
For one, our brain is used to our hand being at the end of our arm, but when we are playing tennis, we have added a 27-inch extender to the end of our arm, aka the racquet! Our brain must now recalculate and recalibrate this in order to be efficient in its use.
In addition to this challenge, different from just throwing an object out of our hand, we must strike an object (aka the tennis ball) with this extended hand.
In addition to that, we are required to attempt to place this object – the tennis ball – in the perfect position with our non-dominant hand at the same time we are executing a throwing motion.
Not to mention, with the challenge of all of this already going on, we must place the serve into a spot that is the most difficult 1/4 section of the entire court!
All of this combined, is a lot to conquer! So we must address this with an attitude of crawl before we walk and walk before we run.
We need to break down the individual parts of the motion. Perfect each motion individually and then somehow combine them all as one unit. Much like a golf swing, there are a lot of little things that can go wrong. Any andall of which, if not executed properly, can lead to disaster!
Becoming proficient at this motion is very challenging and will take a lot of time, dedication, practice and patience.
So let’s get a better understanding of all that is going on. As stated before, the serve is basically a throwing motion, so lets focus on that first.
Most of us know how to throw a ball. However, to be proficient in being able to direct a throw to a certain location requires a more controlled and efficient motion.
Lets take baseball for instance. If I am a shortstop who has fielded a ball and I am going to throw the ball to the catcher at home plate, I will use a different trajectory of flight of the ball than I would if I were an outfielder attempting to throw the ball all the way to the catcher.
When serving in tennis, we actually want to be hitting up into the ball with our throwing motion (like an outfielder throwing). While the basic fundamentals of my throwing motion are the same, the execution and timing of sequences of my shoulder, elbow and wrist will vary in regards to the trajectory of flight I am putting on the ball.
Notice I said, shoulder, elbow, wrist! It is vital that my throwing motion executes these three things in that specific order.
In beginner level tennis, I often see players utilizing more of a push from the wrist, with the elbow and the shoulder following behind, simply because the elbow and shoulder are attached to the wrist and must follow it.
Also, unfortunately this incorrect throwing motion is encouraged by players serving with an incorrect grip.
It is much easier to execute a serve motion and be able to make the strings contact the ball using what is commonly known as a frying pan or western forehand grip. Most beginner level players serve this way simply to not miss their serve.
Advanced level players serve with what is known as a continental grip, or sometimes even an eastern grip, which allows them to apply more spin to the ball.
The continental grip creates a challenge for beginner players because in order to get the strings properly making contact with the ball, we must learn to pronate our wrist as we swing the racquet. That is why most beginners usethe western grip for serving. With the western grip, the string bed / face of the racquet are able to make a flat contact with the ball without having to coordinate any kind of wrist pronation.
As an advanced level player, the reason we need a continental grip and a pronation of the wrist, is to be able to apply spin to the ball when we serve. The spin allows us to direct / curve and guide the ball into a specific part of the service box. Much like a baseball pitcher utilizing spin on a baseball to place it in different locations over the plate.
In order to proficiently be able to pronate our wrist and make proper contact with the ball, we must first be able to precisely place the ball, (using our non dominant hand) to a very specific location above our head and slightly off to a 1 o’clock position for right handlers or an 11 o’clock position for lefties.
This placing of the ball, aka “the toss”, needs to be a coordinated, slow and graceful motion. As an instructor, I observe most recreational club level players utilizing way to fast of a tossing motion.
We need to slowly lift the ball, letting it gently float off of our fingertips, with virtually no spin or rotation on the ball as it leaves our hand. We don’t need to toss the ball any higher than we are able to reach and extend with our racquet. Also, to most efficiently be able to strike the ball, we actually want to try to hit the ball as it stops, at the top of the toss, which should be in relation to the top of the reach of our throwing motion.
Once we have conquered the challenge of a proper toss, it is now time to execute the throwing motion.
I do a drill with my Island Kids Juniors players where I actually have them throw old racquets over the net. I start them in the mid court at the service box line and slowly move them back to the baseline. As they move back farther away from the net, they begin to realize that they need to throw the racquets higher, as opposed to harder, in order to get them over the net. They also begin to naturally utilize the combination of shoulder, elbow,wrist in their throwing motion.
One of my favorite sayings in regards to serving is: Percentages and placement precedes power.
On a professional level of the game the players go for more on their first serve. Because of this, a first serve percentage between 65% to 70% is considered to be acceptable. With that said, if these players don’t have a high percentage on their second serve, (at least 85% to 90%), it’s going to be a very challenging, and probably very short, day on the court!
While none of us as recreational players can ever expect our serve to have the speed or spin of a pro level player, by conquering the continental grip we can achieve a high percentage in both our first and second serves by being able to apply more spin on the ball. In addition to high percentages, we add a lot of variety to our serve and hopefully, (like a good baseball pitcher), have several different serves which will keep our opponents guessing at what we are throwing them, and not allowing them to get into a rhythm against us.
We must approach all of this with a game plan of short, medium and long-term goals.
Our short-term goal would be to work on each individual part of the serve. If any one of these individual parts becomes too much of a challenge, then focus on another and come back to it later.
Our mid-term goal would be to combine the parts and put them all together as a unit.
Our long-term goal would be to improve our overall service percentage and create a variety of spins, which will allow us to pick and choose placement of the ball into the service box.
You will be amazed how your overall confidence in the rest of your game improves when your serve is on!
Wayne Clark is a certified professional tennis instructor with over 23 years experience coaching players on all levels of the game. Wayne is also qualified in pickleball instruction. He has been the head instructor at the Marco Island Racquet Center since 2001. The Racquet Center offers clinics, private and group lessons for both tennis and pickleball. Coach Wayne’s Island Kids Tennis juniors program runs year round and has classes for players from kindergarten through high school. Contact Coach Wayne by email at WClark@cityofmarcoisland.com, by phone or text at 239-450-6161, or visit his website at www.marco-island-tennis.com.