How to serve like a pro


In A serving masterclass from coach, Tanya Williams I showed a sequence of photos of Oxshott coach Tanya Williams serving, along with some notes from me. As former Ukrainian number one junior, Tanya is a great example of good tennis technique. What I wanted to show was the key points which are vital for a good serve. If you look at the pros serving, you will see lots of different styles, but there are certain aspects that will be the same on all great serves.

Sally George, who plays for OVSC first team and is an active member of the 45 club, asked me to write this article comparing her serve with Tanya’s. Before making the comparison, there are a couple of important things to point out. Firstly, it doesn’t work to try to completely change our technique all in one go. It’s too much, and can result in the stroke really breaking down. The way to do it is to break it down by working repeatedly on one part of the technique at a time.

Secondly, don’t attempt to make major changes in technique when you have matches coming up. There needs to be a period of at least a few weeks to work on the technique without the pressure of a match. Otherwise you will end up either reverting back to your old technique because it is reliable or, even worse, using a combination of old and new technique resulting in confusion and the whole thing breaking down.

I wouldn’t normally look for faults in a serve like I’m doing here – if I was coaching a session, I would try to focus much more on the positive. But Sally asked me specifically to write the article this way, so here goes………

1) Tanya is turned a bit more than Sally to start with, so she’ll be able to get more rotation of her hips into the serve. Tanya has a continental grip (otherwise known as chopper or hammer) whereas Sally has a forehand grip. There is much more potential for both power and spin with the continental grip. Tanya’s arm is almost straight on the ball toss, and will continue to extend as you’ll see in the next photo. Sally’s throwing arm is very bent and I would say has probably stopped and is on its way down.

 

2) Sally has brought her right foot next to her left which has turned her hips towards the court too early. This takes away the opportunity for her to throw her hips into the stroke. Tanya has also brought in her right foot, but it is behind the left rather than beside it and her hips are still sideways to the court (or slightly further). Sally has brought down her left arm too early and the racket face is quite open. See how Tanya’s left arm is still stretched up, with the racket face closed (pointed slightly towards the ground).

 

Looking at the third photo, you can see why Sally will struggle to get any power, however hard she tries. Her hips have already turned, so she can’t use them much. Her left arm is down by her side, which means she can’t really use her shoulders in the serve and her elbow is out in front of her. It will be her forearm doing most of the work here.

 

On the other hand, Tanya’s hips are still turned ready to be thrown into the serve, her elbow is behind her in a good throwing position, the tip of the racket is pointing at the ground with the butt pointing up at the ball and her left arm is just coming down as her racket comes up, meaning her shoulders are working in a kind of cartwheel.

Serve is all about a good throwing action. Look at the two photos here and imagine that they were simply throwing a ball.

 

Sally has used her legs well here to push upwards, but  she contacts the ball very low. This is very likely a result of that left arm coming down so early and causing everything to collapse. It’s hard to get much power from a low contact point as we get the most leverage when we really stretch up.

Looking at Tanya’s serve here, this is one area where she could make a small improvement, which is very easy for me to write from the safety of my computer keyboard! But she could increase the power of her serve by meeting the ball a bit higher and slightly more to the left. Nevertheless, you can still see how she has now thrown her hips and shoulders into the serve for plenty of power.

 

Finally, we can see how the momentum of Tanya’s serve has taken her forward into the court as a result of thrusting up and out, whereas Sally has fallen off to her left as the serve had collapsed downwards. They both land on their left foot, which is good.

 

 

Now, it is of course very easy for me to pick holes in Sally’s serve action. I have a fair bit of work to do on my own serve! The important question is, how can she improve it? Well, keeping in mind what I have written in the first two paragraphs, this is what I would recommend.

 

1) Standing more than sideways to the court (nearer 45 degrees), start by practicing the ball toss on its own, focusing on keeping the left arm almost straight and keeping it extended afterwards. Get comfortable with this position before doing anything else.

2) Practice serving with a continental grip. But it’s too hard to go straight to a full serve, so practice with an abbreviated swing (start from a throwing position) with her hand half way up the racket. Just slowly from the service line. Try to get comfortable with this in addition to the last exercise. The wrist needs to be very relaxed for this grip. Think of shaking water of a wet hand.

3) ‘The hat drill’. Resting the strings of her racket on her head, toss the ball, then let the racket drop right down her back before reaching up. This helps to get the closed racket face position which I mentioned. All of this while still maintaining the good habit of keeping the left arm stretched up and body turned until the last second.

4) ‘Point the butt’ drill. She starts by pointing the butt of the racket up at the sky, the tip of the racket at the ground. Like Tanya is doing in picture 3. Then serve from that position.

5) Trapping the ball against a wall – this needs a high wall or fence. She should stand with her left shoulder pointed at the wall, racket already up. Lift the ball, keeping that left arm extended, then turn her hips towards the wall, stretching up nice and high, trapping the ball between the wall and her racket. This will help her to learn to meet the ball much higher up.

By this point, Sally will be close to the point of putting this all together into a full service action. There are one or two more exercises, but there is not quite the space to go through them here.

Each of these exercises builds on the last. Don’t move on until an exercise is mastered. But it is possible to build a great service action, step by step this way.

Here is a photo & video example of Sharapova serving. Look out for some of the points I have mentioned. Tip – on the video, press the pause button then use your arrow keys to scroll through the video frame by frame.

 

The techniques I have mentioned here are heavily influenced by Modern Tennis International

I’d love to hear your comments and questions on this.

Karl

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