The Art and Science of Victory
The Serve

The serve is both the easiest and the most difficult shot in the game. It is the easiest because you don't have to chase the ball - it is always right where you expect it to be because you get to put it there. On top of that you get two chances to hit it.

It is the hardest because if you fail to hurt your opponents with the serve, they will hurt you with the return. The serve is a short, high bouncing ball and that is exactly what you opponents want to see. You may not ace your opponents with the serve, but you have to do something good with it or they will do something bad to you.

The service motion is the most complex of all the strokes, yet it is also the most consistent from player to player. This is because it is perfect. After eons of throwing things at one another, we humans have pretty much perfected the art. The service motion is nearly identical to throwing a spear except that, unless sorely provoked, you don't let go of the racquet.

Preparation

Preparation - an imaginary line is drawn from toe to toe. The right foot is oriented at right angles with respect to the line, the left at about 45 degrees.

The serve is a ritual dance ...think of it as a little dance of death for your opponents. It should be performed with tedious, obsessive-compulsive repetitiveness. If you feel the need to pick your nose just before you server, you should do it every time - first and second serve, no matter how rushed you may feel. Sherrie here likes to bounce the ball before serving - and she does it before each delivery; the same number of times with the same cadence.

The preparation achieves the following:

  • Solid balance. Note Sherrie's weight is solidly on her front foot.
  • Proper rhythm - a powerful, accurate serve depends on a precisely-timed sequence of movements. Hurry and a step is not completed ...delay and the kinetic chain is broken.
  • Muscle relaxation - a tight muscle is a weak muscle.
  • Creating drama - Drama is an important source of Energy. Don't just throw your serve into the court - make it an event.

Note the starting position of Sherrie's feet.The orange arrow is the orientation line - note that it points to the right of the line of flight of the ball. Her feet are lined up along this line with her right foot perpendicular to the line and her left foot at 45 degrees. Her feet are about shoulder width apart and all of her weight is on her front foot. The orientation of the orientation line varies from pro to pro but is usually just off of the proposed line of plight of the ball. This when Sherrie is serving into the ad court her feet will be oriented roughly along a line that points at the right net post. This is the ONLY difference between serving into the ad and deuce courts.

Note that Sherrie's shoulders and hips are pointing along the orientation line. This establishes a counter-rotation or "twist" that prepares her body for the cocking phase.

Launch and Toss

 

Launch and Toss - The toss begins with - and depends upon- a rocking motion that throws the weight fore ward onto the front foot. Any weight left on the back foot will disrupt the toss and wreck the serve.

In the launch phase weight is transferred momentarily onto the back foot as the racquet comes down then 'bounces' off of the back foot onto the front foot as the racquet goes back behind Sherrie. This gets the weight moving forward so that the back foot can join the front for the explosion phase.

This is key to a consist ant toss......What?!..,.. Whoah!! What in heavens name does the footwork have to do with the toss?

The answer is ....Everything.

IF you "hit off of your back foot" which means bring your left arm up with any weight on your back foot you will either toss the ball back over your shoulder, or over compensate and throw it away from you out into the court. You will occasionally get lucky and throw it where you can hit it , but that will be the exception rather than the rule.

Here is why: When the left arm goes up to toss the ball and the right arm goes back into the cocking phase of the service motion, the body's balance is thrown backward. If you have two feet on the ground at this stage you will tend to catch your weight on your back foot. There is also an instinct to shorten the tossing arm which is throwing you off balance by bending the elbow. Both of these actions tend to redirect the ball back over your head. Worse yet, the weight transfer varies from serve to serve resulting in a toss that is inconsistently inconsistent, You could compensate for a toss that was consistently in the wrong spot, but if you never know where the toss is going to end up you are lost.

This is a very big deal. An erratic toss leads inexorably to an inconsistent serve. When your serve isn't working, nothing seems to work; ground strokes, volleys,..the lot. The inner logic goes something like this: 'If I can't execute on a balI that I get to put right where I want it, how can I handle one that is hit right where I don't.' It creates a crisis of confidence.

So:

  • Do not keep any weight on your back foot. Bounce your weight off of the back foot during the DOWN phase of the stroke only to get your weight moving fore ward.
  • Through the rest of the stroke the weight is moving forwards slowly. Just before the explosive HIT phase you should be falling forwards, feet together. You must me totally committed to the stroke.
Counter rotation

Counterrotation - in the DROP or cocking phase of the serve the

Power in the serve comes from maximizing racquet head speed at the point of contact. You cannot achieve racquet head speed by shoving the racquet at the ball - it must come from rotation. Speed is greatest when there is a cascade of rotation which works like this:

  1. Sherrie slides her right foot up next to her left and bends her knees. Her hips and shoulders are cocked or 'counter rotated', storing power. If she stops or 'hitches' at this point that power will dissipate and the serve will bloop.
  2. Sherrie's legs explode, lifting her feet off the ground. this extends the back resulting in counter rotation of the spine in the vertical plane(green arrow down, yellow arrow up).
  3. Sherrie flexes her spine releasing the pent up energy. This brings the upper body down which prolongs her hang time - her feet fairly float over the court. This feeling of flying in the middle of the serve is not only effective kinetics but it feels really good.
  4. Simultaneously the upper body uncoils and first the hips then the chest turn toward the net. The right leg goes back to counter the rotation of the shoulders and hips.

Note that the movement is smooth and continuous. Although the rhythm varies from pro to pro, the serve is cadence is basically four equal counts of:

  • DOWN - Sherrie's racquet and ball come down together. Her body weight is transferred onto the forward foot.
  • UP - Tossing had goes UP as racquet goes back and then up (so one could call this count 'UP-UP'). Back foot starts moving forward. Note that the ball toss arm is straight and goes all the way up to her ear and stays there through the DROP cycle.
  • DROP - Sherrie's knees bend bringing the rear carriage down and the elbow drops so that the upper arm is parallel to the shoulders. Her racquet head id dropped behind the head. Her back is arched slightly. Some may recognize the trophy pose here - there is a good reason for that, because this position is a prerequisite for winning a trophy.
  • HIT - Allot happens here in a very short time, but ether are only two things you have to actually do and they are both pretty simple - jump up and pull the left arm down. If you are in the correct position (see DROP) the hit is fairly idiot-proof. Sherrie's legs explode - her hips and shoulder rotate into the court and her back flexes. Meanwhile she yanks her ball toss arm down across her chest. This unleashes the pent-up energy in the upper body. The left shoulder comes down and back suddenly. The result of all this is the right shoulder is moving up and forward very fast, pulling the hitting arm unit along behind it.

Sometimes it helps to repeat the cadence to yourself during the serve. If you rush any part of it it all breaks down, the kinetic chain breaks and bloop-bloop-bloop.

The second serve and first serve are identical. I cannot stress this enough. The second serve has the same cadence, setup and POWER of the first. The difference should all be inside your head - the second serve is hit with a little more spin and more conservative placement.

Rhythm

Rhythm- If you got no rhythm, count out loud: DOWN - UP - DROP - HIT. If you rush through any of the four counts of the serve you will loose power and control.

Note that the movement is smooth and continuous. Although the rhythm varies from pro to pro, the serve is cadence is basically four equal counts of:

  • DOWN - Sherrie's racquet and ball come down together. Her body weight is transferred onto the forward foot.
  • UP - Tossing had goes UP as racquet goes back and then up (so one could call this count 'UP-UP'). Back foot starts moving forward. Note that the ball toss arm is straight and goes all the way up to her ear and stays there through the DROP cycle.
  • DROP - Sherrie's knees bend bringing the rear carriage down and the elbow drops so that the upper arm is parallel to the shoulders. Her racquet head id dropped behind the head. Her back is arched slightly. Some may recognize the trophy pose here - there is a good reason for that, because this position is a prerequisite for winning a trophy.
  • HIT - Allot happens here in a very short time, but there are only two things you have to actually do and they are both pretty simple - jump up and pull the left arm down. If you are in the correct position (see DROP) the hit is fairly idiot-proof. Sherrie's legs explode - her hips and shoulder rotate into the court and her back flexes. Meanwhile she yanks her ball toss arm down across her chest. This unleashes the pent-up energy in the upper body. The left shoulder comes down and back suddenly. The result of all this is the right shoulder is moving up and forward very fast, pulling the hitting arm unit along behind it.

Sometimes it helps to repeat the cadence to yourself during the serve. If you rush any part of it the whole serve will fall apart, the kinetic chain breaks and bloop-bloop-bloop.

The second serve and first serve are identical. I cannot stress this enough. The second serve has the same cadence, setup and POWER of the first. The difference should all be inside your head - the second serve is hit with a little more spin and more conservative placement.

Crack of the Whip

Crack the Whip - this is the business end of the serve (use the slider to scratch through this motion). Note that the hitting face of the racquet goes from facing the left side wall in the cocking phase to facing the right side wall in the early follow through. This is due to the forcible pronation of the forearm - the secret of racquet head speed that gives the serve both pace and spin.

N.B. - You don't think about this part of the stroke when you are doing it. If you have done everything right up to the DROP then the rest is more-or-less automatic. Just jump up and hit the ball. You do not have to read this section unless you can't seem to get the energy from the legs and torso to the ball. (or if, like me, you are throwing-motion-challenged).

The business end of the serve takes place between the DROP and HIT counts.

  1. As Sherrie pulls the left arm down violently the right shoulder moves up and forward it leaves the racquet arm behind. The result is a very painful looking position with the elbow bent, the shoulder externally rotated , the forearm fully supinated and the wrist fully extended and flexed toward the thumb side (radial flexed). This position (called the 'late cocking phase' by phys-ed phD's) is perfect counter rotation and stores energy generated in the legs and torso in the racquet arm.
  2. As Sherrie reaches the top of her jump she instinctively rotates the shoulder, extents the elbow, flexes the wrists and pronates the forearm. Pronation is the key to maximum racquet head speed and pace. The flexor-pronator muscles in the forearm are very strong and can act over a large range of motion. Virtually every sport that uses a stick, bat, ball, club, sword ...depends on pronation of the forearm to produce power. Note that the hitting face of the racquet faces the left side of the court in the late cocking phase and the right side of the court in the follow through - a full 180 degree rotation from full supination to full pronation.
  3. Sherrie follows through on the right side of her body = not across. This is essential for both power and control because it maximizes the time that the racquet is pointing at its target.

 

One way to tell if you are doing this motion correctly is to listen to the racquet as you perform the serve without a ball. The racquet should whistle through the air at the top of your reach. If it doesn't then its back to the drawing board.

Spin

Spin Serves - The effects of spin from the viewpoint of the server and receiver. Red = cannonball, green = slice and blue = kicker (topspin).

A serves can be classified as a Cannonball (flat or no spin), slice (side spin) or Kicker (topspin or American Twist0:

  • Cannonball - All things being equal this serve is the hardest and fastest but not necessarily the most effective. Like the fastball in baseball it can be dangerous if your opponent can figure out the timing of it - it tends to come back as fast as it goes in. It is also by far the least reliable of the three serves. Because it relies on gravity to pull it into the court, it must pass perilously close to the net to come to earth before it crosses the service line. It does make a very gratifying thwack sound when it hits the net strap going 100+ miles per hour.
  • Kicker - Firstly, this requires talent to perform it so it probably isn't even appropriate to mention in this context. Second it is murder on the back because of the toss and point of contact (see below). That being said, when hit well it can be one of the most effective serves in the game. It is very reliable; the topspin is like extra gravity pulling the ball down into the court, so you can clear the net by a health margin with a well paced serve. It does curve into the court, but its the crazy bounce that does the damage. The ball comes sliding in with moderate pace, curving toward the server's left (for a right hander). It digs into the court then accelerates up and to the left (the 'kick'). The ball's exit vector depends more on the amount and direction of spin than its course, so it is almost impossible to anticipate in which direction it will bounce.
    I have been hit in the briskit more than a few times by a kicker serve. Because of residual spin the exit vector off of the receiver's racquet is also pretty random, so you must place the ball very conservatively on the return. Returning a kick serve is challenging against a right handed server, but it is nearly impossible against a left hander.
  • Slice - This is the serve I use and usually recommend. The slice serve always has some topspin on it so it is safer than the Cannonball, but it is much easier to execute and easier on the back than the kick serve. It can also be placed more precisely than the kicker. The spin can be varied - less for a flatter serve with more pace, more for a safer serve which slides away from or right into the receiver. Usually the first serve is hit flatter and the second with more spin for safety.

Actually of these are all variations on the same serve. All serves have some side spin and some topspin because the racquet is traveling from low to high and left to right when it contacts the ball. With smaller amounts of spin, side spin predominates and as the spin increases the spin becomes ever more top and less slice.

Spin is created when the racquet head is traveling in one direction but pointing in another when it hits the ball. To increase the spin on the serve, follow through a little bit more toward the right net post and throw the ball a bit more straight up to catch it slightly earlier in the swing. To hit the kicker you could just exaggerate that - follow through to the right of the net post and throw the ball back over your right shoulder arching your back to catch it very early in the stroke. I say you could do that but you really shouldn't unless you are very gifted and have the back muscles of an ox.