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Coaching Tips - Serving

"If you buy an ice cream cone and make it hit your mouth, you can play tennis. If you stick it on your forehead, your chances are less."
(Vic Braden)


Get that first serve in!

Why do commentators go on and on about first serve percentages?

Well, they do it because the serve is arguably the most significant shot in modern tennis. Typically, in a match between two pros, the server has a better win/loss ratio when the first serve goes in. So it's important that it does go in! The first serve percentage is obviously used as an indicator of a player's effectiveness in this area.

OK - it's a significant factor in the pro game. Is it significant for us?

You bet it is! Apart from anything else, repeatedly using two serves per point is tiring, especially in the course of a long match. You can ill afford to waste the energy! You should be looking to get 60 - 70% of first serves into play.

Missing your first serve means there's pressure on you to get your second serve in, and this pressure can start to affect your confidence over time. As a match progresses, a good returner will apply more pressure by moving in on the second serve and looking to attack you. So you find that it's not enough to just get the second serve into play - it's got to have a reasonable amount of depth and penetration as well. This added pressure can lead to double faults.

So if you're missing your first serves, put a bit more spin on (for control) and get those percentages up again.

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Don't Jacknife!

How can I stop burying my serves in the net?

One of the most common errors is bending forward at the waist (jacknifing) as you swing.

Reach up to the ball, first with your free hand (extending your fingers up towards the ball for a moment AFTER you release it) and then with your racket. Donít wait for the ball to come down to you.

Feel that you are pulling your shirt-tail out of your shorts/skirt as you reach and swing up and out at the ball.

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Coil and tilt!

How can I get more power on my serve?

There isn't just one answer to this, but bear in mind that power equals racket speed.

One way to increase racket speed is to rotate the shoulder of your racket arm so that it is slightly on the inside of your ball toss. Uncoiling the shoulder from this position will produce increased racket speed. Be careful not to uncoil too early.

The key factor, however, is the distance the racket travels when you throw it up to the ball. Next time you practise, experiment by tapping your back as low as you can with your racket before you throw it up to the ball. When you release the ball, your shoulders should be tilted (the shoulder of your racket arm lower than the shoulder of your other arm). This alignment then allows you to produce a shoulder-over-shoulder trunk rotation.

Here's something else you might like to try - move your hand further down until the bottom of the grip is in the fleshy part of your palm. This makes a longer lever of the racket and should therefore produce a faster serve.

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Serving for clock-watchers!

What is a topspin serve and how do you do it?

When a right-hander serves with topspin, the receiver encounters a ball which kicks up, forwards and away to his left, forcing him to play a difficult high backhand.

It helps to place the ball slightly more to your left and maybe slightly further back than normal. Bend your knees and drive up with your legs. Swing your arm with a bent elbow so that your racket face brushes up and (left to right) across the back of the ball. It might help to imagine a clock face on the ball and strike from 7 to 1 on the clock face. Try to create a swishing sound as you brush up and across the ball.

Be patient. It takes time to master this shot, but it's worth it - it could become your stock second serve. Keep an eye on the clock and get kicking!

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Get your serves at Tesco!

How high should the ball be when you hit it?

As high as possible! You should contact the ball at full reach. The higher the contact, the more you can snap the racket over the ball. Tilt your shoulders so that the shoulder of your racket arm is lower than the shoulder of your other arm. That allows you to produce a shoulder-over-shoulder trunk rotation, which, combined with a drive up from your legs, enables you to hit up and out.

Imagine you're at the supermarket and what you want is right up on the top shelf. Reach up for it. That's where they put the best serves - on the top shelf!

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The art (or science) of consistent ball placements

How can I make my toss more reliable?

Cast your mind back to those school science lessons - do you remember those tripod thingies? Well, use your thumb and first two fingers (actually you can use your third finger too!) to create a kind of inverted tripod. Place the ball in it, not letting it drop down past the fingertips.

Avoid flicking - and launch the ball by simply opening the fingers as you fully extend your arm above your head. Think of it as a pushing action rather than a throwing or tossing action. The ball shouldn't climb any more than a few inches higher than you can reach with your racket and your fingers should remain extended, pointing at the ball for as long as possible, even after the ball has been released.

Keep everything straight and you'll avoid flipping the ball off course. Get the tripod out and let science show you the way to a consistent ball placement!

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Stay loose for more juice!

How does pronation occur on spin serves?

You don't have to think about pronating when you hit a flat serve. Assuming you use a continental grip, holding the racket like a hammer or a tomahawk, and assuming you start your action sideways on to the net, your forearm and wrist must turn in the opposite direction to the rotation of your upper body in order to get the racket face square-on for a "high-five" with the ball. This will occur naturally enough once you get used to the grip and the basic throwing action.

When you go for either a slice or topspin serve, you simply use your wrist to help accelerate the racket through the required swing path. Again, assuming you're using either a continental or an eastern backhand grip, and assuming your ball placement is correct, any pronation should occur naturally. If you start consciously trying to rotate your wrist and forearm, your muscles will tense up and the action will slow down. The secret is to keep your arm loose and relaxed. The action of the strings up and/or across the ball will produce the spin.

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Dozens of service variations in just a couple of sentences!

My serve is too predictable. What can I do?

Developing service variations can take time and lots of practice and you need to be competent with your basic service action first.

But wait a minute! If you hit one serve to the forehand, another to the backhand and another to the body, well - that's three variations isn't it? And if you can hit a slice serve as well as a flat one, that's six variations (flat serve to forehand, slice serve to forehand, flat serve to backhand, slice serve to backhand, etc).

If you hit a medium paced serve and vary it with a faster one, that takes us up to 12 variations (medium-paced flat serve to forehand, fast flat serve to forehand, medium-paced slice serve to forehand, fast slice serve to forehand, etc).

If you serve some from close to the centre line and others from a wider position, the permutations start getting silly - does that make it 32?

What's that? Topspin too? I can't work these out any more!

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The PR5 System

How do I master a basic service action?

Here at the Cave, we advocate the PR5 system. Sounds complicated and technical, doesn't it? Don't worry - it isn't!

PR5 stands for Place, Reach and High-5!

Stand sideways on to the net and hold the racket with a relaxed continental or 'chopper' grip:

"Chopper" grip

PLACE the ball where you can REACH for it at full extension with a throw of the racket arm and "high-5" the ball with a relaxed, flexible wrist.

If you keep your arm nice and loose, your wrist allows the racket head to go through the impact ahead of your hand. If that doesn't happen and your wrist leads the way instead, the ball tends to go long.

Use the PR5 system for a PR5 - Perfectly Respectable 5-star serve!

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Brush up on your technique!

How can I get more topspin on my serve?

If you're not getting enough topspin, you should try a steeper brush as you accelerate the racket face up and across the ball away from your body. Imagine the ball as a clock face and brush up the back of it from 7 o'clock towards 1 o'clock.

You need good lower back flexibility for a topspin serve. If your back's okay, arch it slightly, bend your knees and push up from the ground. Place the ball slightly further back than normal and let it drop slightly lower than you would for a flat serve.

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Stick on a Band-Aid!

My serve keeps going long. How can I fix it?

Providing people with coaching tips "online" can sometimes work very well. It allows the questioner to consider the suggested solution before attempting to apply it. Questions like this one, however, demonstrate the limitations! I really need to see your serve!

Could be you're letting the ball drop and then swinging through it, instead of reaching up and using your wrist. Could be you're leading with your wrist and hitting the underside of the ball. Could be your grip or your ball placement. Could be a problem with your balance or co-ordination or rhythm. Like I said, I really need to see it!

And as I can't see your serve, I'm not going to attempt remote surgery! If it's a deep-seated problem and it won't go away, consult a local coach and seek help with your technique. Sorry, but if you want a proper cure, it's the only way. If you tinker about with your serve in an unsupervised way, you may end up introducing even more problems!

However, if it's something that just crops up from time to time, I'll offer you the band-aid solution! In fact, I'll mention a couple of these. You see, it might sound strange, but there's some good news about your problem. And the good news is that it's consistent, i.e. your serve consistently goes long, right? Now, if you're in the middle of a match and you encounter a consistent problem whereby your serve either goes long all the time or you hit it short all the time, you can't wander off and find a coach. But what you can do is stick on one of these band-aids:


Place the ball further forward

Place the ball further back

Simple, I know - but don't knock it! We all encounter these little "cuts and scrapes" as we play our matches and it's just sensible to have a couple of band-aids available just in case!

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A whippy tip!

What is pronation? I don't know if I'm doing it right!

Gustavo Kuerten serving Itís nothing more or less than a momentary action that takes place naturally on contact with the ball on the serve.

If you watch the pros serve, look at how the palm of the racket hand moves - at the start of the swing, it faces the ear; but after they hit the ball, it faces away from the ear, indicating outward pronation. This is clearly demonstrated here by Gustavo Kuerten.

The body tends to do it naturally to alleviate stress on the elbow and shoulder. You donít need to think about it really - just keep your wrist and arm flexible enough to allow a rolling, whippy sort of action as you accelerate the racket head up and through the ball.

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Anyone for one-serve tennis?

My game is ruined by double faults! What can I do?

There's a well-known tennis truism - you'll certainly have heard it - about being "only as good as your second serve". The thing is - no one can deny it. It's a significant factor in matches at all levels.

But we hardly ever practise them! That's true, isn't it? When we warm up serves before a match, are they first serves or second serves? Yep, let's be honest - they're first serves!

The only way to tackle those second serve gremlins is to confront them face-to-face. Find a like-minded practice partner and agree to play a set where you only have one serve (so imagine each time you serve that you've already missed your first serve).

Ultimately, you probably need two types of second serve - a slice serve and a topspin one. And you must develop the control to serve into either half of the service box with both types of spin. Remember to accelerate the racket in both cases. Nerves often lead to players decelerating the racket to reduce the risk of an error. But if youíre trying to apply spin, racket head speed is really important.

If you practise "one-serve tennis" on a regular basis, you'll eventually conquer the fear of double faults.

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Hop - but skip the jump!

How do you jump properly when you serve?

If you watch the top players, you'll notice that they bend their knees and store a load of energy in their leg muscles before releasing the energy by pushing up from the ground as they extend up to serve. It's a powerful extension, but not a jump.

These guys are great athletes. If they wanted to jump, they could probably clear the ground by a couple of feet - even from a stationary starting position. Yes, their feet leave the ground, but only by an inch or two. They produce a powerful propulsion upwards towards the ball, but they keep their balance strictly under control, landing (usually on the front foot) in a manner that's more akin to a hop than a jump.

Try and emulate your favourite server by releasing the ball slightly to your right (assuming you're right-handed), slightly in front of you and high enough for a full extension of your body and serving arm. Slightly coil your body and bend your knees to load up with energy under the ball ready to drive up towards it, simultaneously throwing the racket up and out towards the contact point.

Hop - but skip the jump!

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The time for diplomacy is over!

I just punch my serve in. How can I develop a fuller action?

Many players settle for just pushing the ball in to start the point when they first take up tennis. But most quickly get frustrated with it. It's kind of like having to do diplomacy when what you really want is to go to war!

The serve should be an overarm throwing action. Biomechanically speaking, it's referred to as a kinetic chain system enabling the body to uncoil from the feet, to the knees, to the hips, to the trunk, to the shoulders, to the elbow, to the wrist and right through to the fingers. It's a motor skill like swimming or riding a bike or doing handstands - it can be learned and it can be improved. Develop a good throw to develop a good serve. If there's a river or a lake or some other large empty expanse of land or water somewhere near you, get out there and throw some rocks. Practise throwing them higher and further.

I'll try to describe a full service throwing action:

1. Use a continental or "chopper" grip with your fingers spread and your wrist nice and relaxed.
2. Release the ball from your fingertips so that it's slightly in front of you and high enough to allow a full extension of your racket arm. Rotate your shoulders, trunk and hips away from the court, sink your knees and bring your racket up behind your head.
3. Lift your elbow, allowing the racket to drop down behind your back. Push up from the ground and uncoil your hips, trunk and shoulders.
4. Transfer the velocity to your arm, accelerating the racket up to the ball. Roll your forearm out to allow the strings to whip up, through and over the ball. Follow through across your body.

The time for diplomacy is over. Someone once said diplomacy is the art of saying "nice doggy" until you can find a rock!

Are you ready to pick up the rock?

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Can you pinpoint the difference?

Should I use a pinpoint stance like the top pros?

When you take up position to serve, your front foot should be at about 45 degrees to the baseline and as close to it as possible without touching it. Your back foot should be parallel to the baseline, a comfortable shoulder-width behind your front foot.

It's a base that allows a good trunk and shoulder rotation and a smooth transfer of weight from back foot to front foot. Most players use it at the start of their action, although many top pros change the position of their feet before they actually execute the serve. Some keep the feet apart, but the majority bring the back foot up behind the front foot in what's become known as the pinpoint stance.

Inevitably, there are arguments for and against both options and they probably just about cancel each other out. Keeping the feet apart ensures the good balance you'd expect from a wider base. Bringing them together permits a slightly higher contact out in front of you.

If you're keen to try the pinpoint option, I would simply warn that making this change in your technique could jeopardise your control and balance and will require plenty of practice.

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The wind-up on my serve is too fast. How can I slow it down?

You may be able to resolve this by simply placing the ball a bit higher, but if the problem is not caused by rushing to get your racket to the ball, maybe this will help:

Imagine yourself as a drill sergeant. You'd typically use commands that consist of two segments - a preliminary segment that prepares the troops for a particular action, followed by an executive segment that tells them when to do it, e.g. attennnn-SHUN, riiiight-TURN, quiiiick-MARCH. The preliminary segment is delivered slowly in a tension-building manner. The executive part is delivered in a short sharp tone designed to elicit a response. Between the two, there's a short pause.

You can make up your own command when you're next on parade with your ball hopper. If you can't think of a command, use the name of your favourite server, e.g. sammmm-PRAS, rusedddd-SKI, etc. If there's no one else around, you can call aloud; otherwise, just do it in your head. Try it without actually hitting the ball at first - just get the command synchronised with your movement, making sure you build tension with the preliminary part.

For our purposes, the preliminary segment of the command should map to the preparation phase of the serve (the ball-placement, backswing and wind-up), the pause should mark the moment the racket drops from its position behind the head ready for the throwing action and the executive part should map to the throwing of the racket up and out at the ball.

Okay, drill over. Stand at ease!

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Help! My centre of gravity won't leave my body!

I'm too static when I serve. How can I correct this?

You're right to consider this a problem if you're an advanced player. To get the maximum out of your serve, you need to transfer your weight forward into the court. The foot-fault rule means you can only achieve this by shifting your weight from back foot to front foot. You can, however, exaggerate this by moving your centre of gravity out in front of your body before you make contact with the ball, i.e. by pushing your hips forward into the court. Weight transfer takes place as your body recovers its natural balance.

The obvious thing to try first is to place the ball a bit more in front of you.

Here's a simple tip that may sound a bit bizarre at first, but I can vouch for the fact that it really does help:

When you practise serves, you obviously have a stock of balls - maybe in a ball hopper, maybe loose on the ground, maybe in the hands of someone feeding you. Instead of positioning this stock of balls behind or beside you, put them out of harm's way somewhere on the court between you and the service line. Obviously you'll have to move forwards to collect the next ball. After a while, you should find forward weight transfer becoming much more natural.

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Don't be erratic - be pragmatic!

Is it a bigger problem to hit serves in the net than long?

Irrespective of which shot we're discussing, I always maintain that hitting the ball in the net is the worst kind of error in tennis.

I recommend you insure against a netted serve even before you start your action. You can do this by making it the focus of your pre-serve visualisation. Put the emphasis on the flight of the ball over the net during this visualisation and you should find it easier to come up with the mechanics required to achieve it. So take up your position behind the baseline, check your opponent is ready and - STOP! Take a good look at the net and get a clear awareness of how far away it is and how high it is. Then visualise clearing it with your serve.

It can be difficult to know where to start if you're trying to remedy an erratic serve. At least if you're consistently clearing the net, you've made things much simpler - you've halved the symptoms! And it's a relatively straightforward adjustment to correct a serve that's flying long - just keep a relaxed wrist and use more of a brushing action to impart some spin.

You know, it helps to be a bit of a pragmatist when you play tennis and there's a really good reason why serving long is better than serving in the net - sometimes long serves don't get called out!

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Rock 'n' roll serving!

I'm an intermediate player with a beginner's serve. What can I do?

Intermediate players are usually ready for the transition to a continental grip for serving. This involves holding the racket as if you were going to use the frame of it to hammer a nail into the ground. Avoid gripping tightly - use a soft, loose, relaxed grip with your fingers slightly spread.

If your first attempts with this grip produce misdirected serves and/or excess slice, that's because the edge of the racket initially points to the ball and you need to roll your wrist and forearm outwards to present the full face of the racket to the ball. Try serving a few with your hand choked up towards the throat of the racket and just try to get a feel for how your wrist and forearm must pronate (roll outwards) to bring the strings into contact with the ball. It's part of a kind of "up and over" action - as if you were throwing the racket at the ball - and you accelerate the racket so that it overtakes your wrist as you hit the ball. Don't get discouraged if it takes a while to perfect this - the technique will eventually give you a whole lot more racket acceleration.

Intermediate players should also start to pay attention to weight transfer. If you start your serve with your weight on your front foot, rock onto your back foot. Placing the ball up and out in front of you (so that it would drop inside the baseline if you were to let it), shift your weight from your back foot to your front one and push your hips into the court.

To keep these points in your mind when you're next at the practice court, remember to ROCK back and then forwards again and ROLL your wrist and forearm - you're about to get yourself a ROCK 'N' ROLL serve!

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You'll never hit a target unless you aim at it!

How can I make my serve more accurate?

The best way to improve accuracy is regular use of practice drills involving targets.

You can use all kinds of things as targets - cones, ball tubes, racket covers, racket bags, etc. You can even make a target pyramid using four tennis balls. Just make sure you choose something that gives you a chance of success - it's no good aiming at something you're never going to hit!

Place the targets inside the service box, one in a central position inside the service line and another two inside the corners. If you always put them in the same locations, you can measure your progress over a period of time. Serve in batches of ten and vary your patterns, remembering to include spin serves as well as flat ones.

Bear in mind that the top pros are usually happy with a first-serve percentage of 60-70% (that's 3 or 4 serves out of 10 that don't even land in the service box, let alone in the precise target area!). So don't set your initial expectations too high.

Continue improving accuracy in practice matches by visualising the targets.

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Back to basics

I need to go back to basics. What are they?

Stand behind the baseline, one foot behind the other, sideways-on to the court. Assuming you're right-handed, your front foot should be angled towards the right-hand net post. Rock your weight onto your back foot, resting the ball against the strings of your racket.

Raise your arm smoothly to release the ball, aiming to place it just a bit higher than you can reach with your racket at full extension. Ideally, the ball should be aligned slightly to your right (or to your left, if you're left-handed) and slightly in front of your leading foot. Your other arm should swing your racket up behind your head, poised for the throwing action you're going to use.

Transferring your weight from your back foot to your front one, push your hips into the court. Using an "up and over" action - as if you were throwing the racket at the ball - accelerate the racket so that it overtakes your wrist as you hit the ball. Aim to strike the ball at full reach and allow the racket to swing around your body on the follow-through.

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Variety is the slice of life!

How do you hit a slice serve?

Left-handers should make the usual translations to the following advice.

Let's clear up one thing to start with. A 'slice serve' is actually a bit of a misnomer, because slicing a ball can produce any type of spin depending on where and how you slice it. What people mean by a 'slice serve' is actually a sidespin serve. From the perspective of a right-handed server, the flight of the ball curves from right to left, particularly after the ball bounces. It's mainly useful for taking your opponent out of court (e.g. a right-hander's serve to the deuce court, or a left-hander's serve to the ad court) or jamming a serve into the receiver's body. Spin always results in a slower serve, but the longer string contact ensures better control and safety. It's therefore a good option for a second serve.

As with any spin shot, you achieve the effect by applying a glancing blow to the ball. In this case, you want the ball to rotate left-to-right. If you imagine the ball has a clock face, you could impart the spin by scraping the racket across from 9 o'clock to 3 o'clock, but it's actually simpler and more effective to think of angling the racket face and just brushing the right hand side of the ball (at 2 or 3 o'clock). Follow through on the left side of your body.

When you first try this serve, it may help to place the ball further to the right than usual. If you're comfortable with it, it may also help to move your racket hand round towards an eastern backhand grip.

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A tip about the tip!

Would a certain type of racket give me a faster serve?

I'm often asked this question. To be honest, I usually pull a face and try to steer the conversation to technique and biomechanics, but the fact is - the racket can make a difference!

The tip of the racket moves faster than the rest of the frame. So, if you hit the ball quite high on the string bed, i.e. closer to the tip than the centre of the strings, you should get more pace on your serve.

Some racket manufacturers recognise this and they produce rackets with an elongated sweet spot which extends up towards the tip.

There are some other things you might want to consider. Michael Chang got more pop on his serve when he switched to a longbody racket. A longer racket gives you more reach and more power. You could also try getting a restring with a lower tension or add lead strips to the head of your racket to give it more mass (make sure you apply them evenly on both sides of the racket).

Bear in mind that none of these solutions will give you more control and they may affect other aspects of your game! Before you go for a radical solution, optimise the biomechanics of your serve and, at the very least, reach up for a high contact. Oh well, there I go again!

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Trespassers will be foot-faulted!

What is a foot fault?

Serena Williams serving The server must stand behind the baseline between the centre mark and the inner sideline (in singles) or the outer sideline (in doubles). It is a foot fault if any part of either foot encroaches these boundaries before the ball is struck. Note: it is not a foot fault unless the encroachment involves touching the ground, i.e. if the feet are in the air (as shown here by Serena Williams), encroachment is permitted.

The relevant rule is Rule 8 which states:

The Server shall throughout the delivery of the Service:
a. Not change his position by walking or running. The Server shall not by slight movement of the feet which do not materially affect the location originally taken up by him, be deemed "to change his position by walking or running".
b. Not touch, with either foot, any area other than that behind the base-line within the imaginary extensions of the centre-mark and side-lines.

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Advancing on three fronts

Please suggest a progressive method of mastering the serve

There are three key elements to developing a sound service action and, to some extent, you can work on them in parallel:

(apologies to left-handers who must make the usual translations!)

1. The ball placement and point of contact

Reliable serving requires a reliable ball placement. Practise at first by simply releasing the ball and allowing it to drop back into your outstretched fingers without hitting it. Try to achieve this with no adjustment to the position of your hand between the release and the catch. Then try to release the ball without imparting any spin on it. Next, place a spare racket on the court so that the butt is on the baseline in front of your left foot and the tip angled towards the intersection between the net and the singles sideline. Release the ball as before, but now, instead of catching it, let the ball drop onto the ground. Practise getting the ball to land on the strings of the racket lying on the court. When you're happy with the reliability of your placement, start serving for real and focus on getting the ball to travel high enough for you to strike it at full extension (but not so high that you have to wait for it to come down!).

2. The grip

People often start out using an eastern forehand grip for serving, but its limitations usually prompt a change to the continental grip which facilitates a more powerful and versatile use of the wrist. During the transition to a continental grip, an adjustment to the mechanics of the service action is required. To ensure that the racket face is in correct alignment at the point of contact, the forearm and wrist must pronate (turn anti-clockwise) and you should allow plenty of time to get used to this.

3. The throwing action

Your first attempts at this could involve simply throwing the ball over the net (younger players will need to stand near the service line to start with). When you're ready to use a racket, develop the throwing/snapping action by serving from the service line instead of the baseline. Keeping your arm relaxed and flexible, use your wrist to snap the ball down into the service box diagonally opposite you. See how high you can get the ball to bounce. If you're a beginner and you're having trouble co-ordinating your arms, it may help to start your action with the racket up near your ear (eventually you will need to practise swinging the racket into that position as you place the ball up). As you gradually move your start position back towards the baseline, you will need to adjust to hitting less down and more up and through. Advanced players can eventually progress to developing spin serves and also to accuracy drills, setting up targets in the service box.

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© 2001-6 Dave Winship

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