Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Serving in tennis is tough, but it can at least be a little easier with good advice

It's downright strange that serving is so difficult in tennis. I mean, I almost never miss a serve in volleyball and I almost never play volleyball. But I play tennis all the time and the serve remains at least a partial mystery and I view it as a lifetime goal to improve it.

I can rocket my first serve but it often has a low percentage, so it’s not great. I used to dink my second serve instead of swinging hard through from the 7 o’clock to the 2 o’clock positions to get good spin and action. At least I'm doing that now and realize that swinging slow is a recipe for a double fault. 

I’ve been getting coached and watching and reading a lot about serving in recent years and I think my serve is finally becoming a weapon, which is an ultimate goal for someone at the 4.0 level like myself.

Returning your opponent’s serve is also part of this equation. I tend to think I'm fairly decent at reading my opponent's body language to anticipate where the serve is going to go. But I don't think I've ever consciously watched the toss to get clued into where it will go. This article online at Feel Tennis has some good pointers along those lines. The advice is also helpful in showing where I should be tossing the ball myself depending on whether I'm serving flat, with a slice, or with a kick/topspin (see image above).

For match play, the serve begins right at the coin toss. It’s been assumed forever that if you win the toss, you elect to serve. But Ian Westermann, in his, well, essential book (and website) Essential Tennis, says electing serve is the right choice “for about 20 percent of the tennis-playing population. If your serve is a weapon and you can consistently get it in, then by all means, serve!”

He says that if you are a skill level of 3.5 or below, always let your opponent serve. Even at 4.0 and higher, let your opponent serve unless: 
  • your serve is a weapon
  • you’ve had a chance to fully warm up your serve, and 
  • you’re “on” and feeling great before the match starts.
Also, if you lose the toss and your opponent elects to serve, choose the side for yourself that will have your opponent serving into the sun to start things off. 

In a recent scenario, I played a guy who only took six warmup serves and I had gotten there before him and taken a couple dozen warmups, so I knew he didn’t need much warmup and would just get his serve in no matter what, plus I was warmed up, so I made the easy call to serve first.

On the actual serve itself, Westermann recommends stopping trying to serve your brains out on the first serve, which, as mentioned, I’ve done most of my life. He logically says to find the serve that gives your opponent the most trouble, which will be different from player to player, but that a kick serve that the returner has to try to hit at head level may be a good option for many servers. 

For a second serve, he preaches “up and away,” meaning to keep a quickness in your motion and a slice spin (moving your racket from 7 to 2 o'clock). Slowing down your motion, even though it seems like the right thing to do, is never the answer. I’ve been working on that a lot over the past year, trying to eliminate my tendency to dink my second serve, and I can vouch that this is absolutely the right advice. It just takes a little getting used to after a lifetime of having a bad habit.

Westermann says players are only as strong as their weakest link, which is often the second serve. His recommendations for getting rid of the dink - what he calls the pattycake - second serve are:
  • to practice rolling the tennis ball on your palm with your racket up above your head where you would be hitting the serve (see the photo to the right), which will in turn give you a sense of feel for how you'll be putting spin on the ball
  • then nice and casually flip the ball off your hand and turn your racket so the side that was rubbing the ball is flipped to facing the wall or fence behind you and the court, and
  • then continue further on and have the racket go down around in front of your legs, so that your motion has completed almost a full circle.
Westermann says that after getting comfortable with all those individual parts of the full motion in his "curve the serve" technique, try performing an actual serve with that motion. The full swing should be mostly parallel to the baseline rather than towards the opponent and that you should hear an aggressive "clicking" or "brushing" sound rather than a flat "thud" sound. Once you see that your second serve is clearing the net by 4 or 5 feet, then you can start getting more aggressive with it since you know you have so much room to work with.

Westermann also recommends playing a set with an opponent and making it a rule that you both only get one serve each time. This will help both of you to make your serves tougher to return and more accurate at the same time.

No comments:

Post a Comment