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BEWARE! Your opponents will want you drug-tested because you’re about to play so well if you follow some friendly advice. Have I got your attention? Good.
Often, at any level, the serve can be your biggest weapon or your biggest weakness. Go back a few years to when Djokovic would make consistent QF/SF rounds but double faulted too often to begin his championship-winning streak.
Wimbledon finalist Tim Henman says, “Removing gluten from your diet and the doubts from your head is all well and good, but if you have a fault with your serve, your technique will tend to let you down at key moments. He was serving a lot of double faults, and if that starts creeping into your game, it affects everything.”
To understand the importance of the service, you only have to go back a month to Kevin Anderson vs Rodger Federer at Wimbledon in the fifth set. Anderson's serve was unbreakable and won him the match. Even though most of us aren’t 6’8” Goliaths serving down 130 mph rockets on a grass court (which only speeds up the ball), we can all learn some valuable insights to help us hold serve more consistently and help ourselves maintain control of the point.
Furthermore, Lleyton Hewitt is a famous example the year after he’d won Wimbledon. The Old England Club schedules the previous year’s tournament winner to “open” the tournament with his match. This year, however, Hewitt – an absolute beast on grass himself – drew one of the nastiest guys to play, Croatian; Ivo Karlovic. Karlovic isn’t really considered one of the greats for tour-level play in general but possesses a height of 6’11” and held the record for the fastest serve at 156 mph. Over his career Karlovic hit 12,936 aces! Only one of four players to ever surpass 10,000 aces in a tennis career. As you guessed, Hewitt lost. The serve is a great weapon that allows a player to gain “free” points or gives them an easy ball to put away or control a point.
Finally, Roger himself can bomb a 143 mph serve (that’s his fastest recorded) but does he? Not always. One of the most underrated servers; Federer uses his serve to keep his opponent guessing and help set up to control a point. A good server is not predictable – they mix up their service with slice, topspin (or ‘kick’), speed and placement.
Maintaining “control” of a point should be your goal at any level. If you’re only just learning to play and consistency is an issue, focus on simply making more balls in the court and let them “beat” you… aka hit winners. Tennis is hard enough, do your best to make your opponent earn the points and not beat yourself J. If you’re more advanced, the idea becomes making your opponent uncomfortable running to balls or getting them off balance so they cannot hurt you with a faster and heavier ball. If you control the point, you hurt them. If you like running, hit them a pancake serve and enjoy your day at the marathon.
All this control starts with the serve.
You could argue Andre Agassi never had an amazing serve but focused all his efforts onto his returns to help himself get into the point straight away. This is the same idea: Control the point. Agassi is arguably in the conversation for one of the best returns to ever play the game of tennis, so begin your journey on building the point hitting that fast serve where you control the whole shot – don’t play reactive tennis trying to hit that fast serve back to get in control… it’s a lot harder.
Okay, I have to make a point of highlighting the importance of the service because it’s what will dictate the rest of your play and oftentimes the match… and what I’m about to suggest to improving your own serve is rather tedious, boring, but necessary – and yes, I’ve done them all a zillion times, as has anyone who ever had a consistent - aka good - serve.
Placement over power. Work at 70% power to build technique and understanding with your coach. Hit the ball where you need to first, then back it up with power. As my juniors often hear me say, “you get nothing for the fastest double fault.”
Ball toss. What are the two most important parts of your serve? The ball toss and the contact. One directly affects the result of the other. Don’t believe me? Toss your ball to our indoor roof and try to hit it…. I’ll wait. This drill is one of the most taught drills in tennis worldwide, but it has three major parts which are often overlooked:
1. Line up your racket with the handle lying on the baseline so the strings are on the ground, inside the court. The racket serves as a reference to where/how far you want to toss the ball. You can do this drill at home or wherever you like, just take the example correctly from the court to wherever you want to practice.
2. When we serve, we line ourselves up side-on to the net. Don’t get caught standing front-on to your racket here because it’s more “comfortable.” If you’re right-handed, you will stand behind the baseline with your left foot forward and the racket slightly to your right. If you’re lefty, the opposite applies. How you position yourself relative to your racket is very important. Don’t practice the wrong movement patterns just because you lined yourself up front-on or too far away from your racket. In general aim to have about 1-2 inches between your front toe and racket handle.
3. When you toss, you want to toss up at least as high as you can reach with your racket. Any lower and you’ll be losing your height advantage to hit a harder, more consistent serve over the net. You want to be comfortable holding the ball in your fingers, more than in the palm of your hand where the ball tends to roll out of your hand rather than be “placed” up there. Open your fingers like a flower in the morning when you toss to eliminate any spin on the ball and be more consistent with your toss.
One tip that always helps my students – and what helps make your serve look graceful – is to relax your tossing arm, and begin the toss at your front thigh (or pocket). This starting point helps reduce the need for any jerky acceleration in the toss and thus creates a more consistent toss.
Bonus round: Finally, shout out to Ben Borden, a student of mine who was trying so hard to learn a kick serve with no success. I told him to go hit 40 serves in but serving on his knees. A day later, he shows me a genuinely good bouncing-off-to-the-side kick serve! You might want to try it with your knees on a towel or something soft, but serving on your knees will do wonders for your serve action, ball toss, and balance in helping your serve because you can’t compensate with your body, the toss must be good or your result suffers. Jennifer Capriati’s father used to make her toss the ball onto her racket 50 times every time she practiced her serve when she was a developing player. The rest is history. Build your serve, build confidence in setting up points, build your record and build your legacy one toss at a time.