Chapter 10: The Serve

The serve is the first ball hit in every point.

The point continues until someone hits the ball into the net or outside the boundaries of his opponent’s court, or is unable to get to the ball before it bounces twice. The player who makes the error loses the point. (Any ball touching the correct boundary line, no matter how slight the contact, is considered to have landed inside the court.)

In a match you must serve from behind the baseline (the back line of the court). To make learning the serve easier, you would start the drills from inside the court, closer to the net. You serve the first point from the right, hitting the ball to the diagonally-opposite service court. Serve the second point from the left, hitting the ball to the other service court, the third point from the right, and so on, alternating.

The same player serves an entire game, comprised of several points. Your opponent serves the next game, and so on. One game is part of a set, and one set is part of the entire match. The full scoring system is explained in Chapter 12.

A player can return a serve only after it has bounced in the service court.

The Drills

You can learn to serve quickly through a simple procedure. Stand about six feet from the net, slightly to the right of the center line.

The service court where you will serve is the smaller area across the net and to your left.

DRILL #1: Without your racquet, toss the ball gently overhead over the net and into the service court. Repeat several times and observe how the ball curves down into the service court.

DRILL #2: From the same position as in Drill #1, pick up your racquet from near the throat with a hammer grip, as it if were a shorter racquet. Hold the ball in your left hand.

Toss the ball slightly above your racquet strings,

and push it gently with your racquet, over the net and into the service court. It is best to address the ball first with the forward edge, as if you were about to hammer it with the frame, then let the frame turn to the right as you hit. This is called pronation, and it will be a great tool to develop a serve of different spins.

This push is done by extending your arm towards the right of your target, so it gets some side and upwards spin. Play with those to get an idea how to spin the ball.

Serve balls from this position near the net until you are successful in getting the ball in the proper court. Advance your hand, rather than just the racquet head.

DRILL #3: Get a bucketful of balls and gently, from close to the net, hit a serve into the correct service court. Every time you get the ball in the service court, you are allowed one step back toward the baseline, staying to the right of the center. Observe how the upward spin curves it down.

Every time you miss a serve, take a step forward toward the net.

By moving away from the net only after a successful serve, you’ll instinctively develop a feel for the serve. You will sense how much power you need to release to get the ball over the net and still drop it into the service court. Curve the trajectory of the ball, rather than hitting it straight.

If the ball touches the top of the net and lands in the correct service court (this is called a “let”), repeat the serve from the same position.

You can move your hand gradually toward the normal grip position, or you can keep the racquet short for a while. Do what you feel is best in order to develop your serve at your own speed.

Stretch your arm upward to get the ball to curve over the net.

The angle of the racquet will determine the direction of the ball.

As you get better, move your arm and racquet across the ball, from left to right, to give it spin. This will add to your control, and is a significant part of developing a good serve. Just be aware of the racquet angle while you move your arm. The more you want to spin the ball, the more you need to angle your racquet to the left.

Feel your arm movement, especially the upward push of the ball. As you develop a better serve, exaggerate the length of your push past the impact point. Extend your arm farther and up to get the ball to clear the net, increasing the curve and the spin, rather than going for a hard hit.

When you get to the baseline keep going back one step at a time until you are near the back fence or wall of the court. This will lengthen your swing. You may also be turning to get more power, your toss may be a little higher, your swing longer. Let all this develop as needed to get the ball over the net and into the service court.

CAUTION: Before you try harder serves, you need to get used to ending your swing with your right arm across your body and to your left, as shown in the picture sequence further above. Otherwise you might hit your legs with your racquet.

This is not a problem in the beginning, because your swing is smooth and slow and probably stops with your arm in the net’s direction.

As you lengthen your swing and increase your arm speed, first bring your right hand up toward your right to spin the ball then, when your arm starts falling, bring your hand toward your left hip, finishing with the racquet throat in your left hand.

DRILL #4: As soon as you can serve consistently from the backcourt go behind the baseline and start serving from there, still positioned slightly to the right of the center line.

You are not allowed to touch the baseline or the inside of the court as you serve (this is called a “foot fault”). Your foot can land inside the court only after the ball leaves your racquet.

Serve ten to twenty balls into the correct service court.

DRILL #5: Come close to the net again, standing to the left of the center line. Now you’ll be serving to the service court across the net and to your right. Repeat the same process that you did on the right side of your court: one step back for every ball you get in and one step forward for every ball you miss.

Continue past the baseline, then come back just behind the baseline, to the left of center, and serve ten to twenty balls into the service court from there.

DRILL #6: Practice a few balls from the right side, then a few from the left side. As soon as you feel good about getting the ball where you want, alternate, serving one ball from the right side, one from the left, and so on. Work until your accuracy is well over 50 percent.

DRILL #7: In a match you are allowed two serves, that is, two chances to get your serve in. If you miss your first serve, you then take a second serve. You better get this one in, otherwise you lose the point. Missing both the first and second serves is called a “double fault,” and the point goes to your opponent.

“Let” balls (touching the net and bouncing into the service court) have to be repeated from the same position, whether it is a first or a second serve.

Now practice this way: Serve one ball from the right side. If you get it in the correct service court, count it as your point, then serve from the left side. If you missed that first serve, go for your second one. If you make it good, count it as your point. Otherwise count it as your opponent’s point.

Now serve from the left side, using the same procedure: first serve, second serve if necessary, either your point or your opponent’s point.

Alternate serving from the right and the left up to ten or twenty points or until you no longer serve any double faults. Double faults should be a rare thing, even at this stage.

After that, switch to your opponent’s court and serve ten or twenty points from there.

This is the basic learning process for your serve. You can do all this by yourself. Many professionals go out on the court with a bucket of balls and practice dozens of serves. You can do the same, both to learn and to develop your serve, but only after you have gradually developed your arm and shoulder muscles.

If you don’t have many balls to do these drills, serve gently and have a friend catch your serves on the other side. He can then send the ball back to you after each serve.

As soon as you have completed these drills successfully, turn to the next chapter, “The Rally Game,” to improve upon your skills and get ready for a game.

Later in your development you can lengthen your swing by going down and then up with your arms, prior to the swing, like the pros, but to do it here in the beginning may complicate your progress.

You now have an easy and effective way of serving with which you can start the point and play with anyone. A gradual development of your skills with many hours of practice is much more efficient than learning too many things at the start. Get on the court and practice what you already know, before tackling the advanced player’s full-motion serve.

Advanced Serves

The professionals get momentum on the serve with a very coordinated motion similar to an overhead pitch.

The racquet starts in front, resting in both hands. The arms separate, going slightly down, then up, while the player leans forward, turns the shoulders, and arches the back. The left hand releases the ball in an upward toss, coordinated with the upward movement of the right arm. The right arm bends, looping the racquet behind the back. The player feels the accumulating momentum (power). The arm and racquet are then thrust forward and upward, while the body uncoils and stretches, leaning into the court and jumping off the ground. The racquet makes contact with the ball, moving as far up as possible, and making a circular arch that goes first to the right, then down to the left. The acceleration and stretching go way past the impact point with the ball, while the player falls forward, stepping into the court.

The Slice Serve

In the slice serve (for a right-hander) the ball would spin, as seen from the server’s viewpoint, clockwise on a clock in the ceiling. As a result, the ball curves toward the left of the server.

The American Twist Serve

The American Twist serve is similar to hitting topspin in your groundstrokes, except that it is more difficult in the serve to get the ball to roll forward and still clear the net.

Players achieve this serve by tossing the ball slightly behind themselves or to their left, then bringing the ball up and forward with a closed racquet face. The ball gets a combination of topspin and some sideways rotation, curving down and slightly to the left during flight, but then jumps to the right and up on the bounce, curving again to the left.

This serve is very safe, because the ball drops very quickly, clearing the net by as much as three to four feet.

Top players use it for second serves, not only for its safety, but also for its effectiveness in keeping the opponent from attacking the serve due to its kick.

For the serve-and-volley player, this serve’s slower flight speed gives them plenty of time to get to the net, while making it difficult for their opponent to drive through for a forceful return.

Contrary to the flat serve and the slice, the American Twist hangs in the air much longer, then accelerates on the way down to the bounce, regaining speed, and kicking way up. This particular feature makes it more difficult to judge. Returning players have to resort to moving back to return this serve with a full drive or making a slower and safer return.

Professionals use different degrees of spin according to the surface and the score situation. Most first serves have some spin.

Only on grass does the American Twist lose some of its efficiency. The ball slides and doesn’t grab the surface on the bounce, losing the characteristic high kick that otherwise makes it so difficult to return.

Summing up, spinning the ball in your serve creates curves that help get the ball in the service box. It allows the player to hit the serve much harder with a smaller percentage of errors.
It isn’t a difficult stroke to learn, except that you have to hit up much more than you ever imagined. The best way to learn it is to exaggerate both the upward pull and the spin.