Monday, November 23, 2009

Serve it up!

Some thoughts on the tennis serve
Most observers say that the most important shot in tennis is the serve. One report I read said that the serve (and return) can account for up to 65% of the points won in a match.

The serve historically was meant simply to start the point. As recently as the 70s and early 80s, champions such as Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors seemed to use the serve for that purpose more than any other. The story today is quite different, led by a school of big servers such as Ivo Karlovic, John Isner and of course Andy Roddick.

Now, it is primarily used, I think, to hit aces, service winners, or force weak replies and go on the offense. In fact, if a player does not try and use it for that purpose, it is probably a weakness or liability in their game.

*What causes the biggest problems to most players on the serve?
For me, the biggest problem with the serve, probably common to most recreational and club players most of the time, is that my motion is simply too tight and tense, and not loose and relaxed. More than anything else, the successful serve motion requires a loose and relaxed swing, the proverbial "spaghetti arm". Next issue for me, and probably many others, is simply losing control of the toss - simply too low or not enough out in front. The end result is too often the ball going into the net, or landing out wide, which means that the racket head on contact is too open facing the sky, or too closed facing the ground.

The successful serve is meant to be hit with racket head flat against ball on impact, and the left arm (or non-dominant arm) held up as long as possible, with the shoulders tilted to the sky at 60% or 70% angle or higher. "Serve-and-stretch", and also "serve-to-the-sky", as many instructors say. Too often, I drop my left arm too quickly, thus causing my shoulder and head to drop and the ball to fall into the net.

*How can common service problems be fixed?
A relaxation strategy - physical and mental. Think not about double faulting, missing the box long or throwing the ball into the net but about placement, spin and racket head drop. On the physical side, literally shake loose your shoulder, arm and hand. Stretch the low back. Deliberately hold the handle with a loose grip. Practice a lot of shadow swings to loosen up. Practice a lot of shadow tosses. If possible, try some practice serves from the service line, then from no-man's land, before practicing from the baseline. Focus on pronation "pops" - that pop noise when the ball smacks the middle of the racket. Keep the left arm up as long as possible and serve up to the sky...

The toss. The goal appears to be placing the ball consistently where you want it, and specifically at the point in the sky where your swing sports it's "strike zone". As Bill Tilden said in How to Play Better Tennis (1950), "You toss at your swing, you don't swing at your toss."

How do you keep the toss consistent at the same angle in front of you? Jack Kramer rejected the word "toss" the ball, and instead called it "place" the ball. To master the toss, Kramer once suggested that you place a handkerchief in an area about 2 feet in front of you and slightly to the right (if you are right-handed) - and practice until you can land 100 balls in a row on the handkerchief.

What about toss height? Roscoe Tanner is probably the most often mentioned who had a successful serve with a very short ball toss. He is very likely, though, an exception. Most instructors suggest tossing the ball up higher than the racket swing of your racket to get a little better rhythm and timing.

Should you hit the ball on its way up, at its peak or on its the way down?

It is probably very difficult for most players to hit the ball on its way up. The timing required for this is likely extra-ordinary. Bill Tilden used to do it and opponents said that it made the disguise and speed of his serve uncanny. Not easy for most of the rest of us.

Ellsworth Vines, regarded by experts as one of the best pure servers in history, said that by experimenting he found that he could get more power by hitting the ball on its way down from the toss. He thought that more power can be generated through forward thrust on a tossed ball moving downward than a motionless one at its peak. It certainly worked for Vines who served an average of 2 aces per service game.

Since the time of Vines and up to now, most instructors usually suggest hitting the ball on its way down for most players.

*What about a serving ritual or routine?
I think this is vital for most people to help with relaxation and rhythm. Many players bounce the ball several times before the serve, as I do, or have some other ritual. The ritual is also used to focus the mind and give a pause in the play. When a player misses the first serve, I think the ritual, and slowing things down a bit, is even more important to re-focus for the second serve. Too often, I see nervous and embarrassed servers launch into their second serve motion too quickly and just double-fault.

*What do you think about as you are about to serve?
I try and get a good balanced platform stance (the other popular stance is the pinpoint stance), and show my opponent a good "look" to my serve-to-come. Coaches say locate a target and visualize the ball going there. Think also about the type of serve contact (flat, slice, kick). I also try to focus on the depth of my racket drop - a deeper racket drop creates a longer "runway" to pick up power and spin. Many coaches call the deeper racket drop, the "buttscratch", and the long runway serve, the "sweep-and-serve".

Ideally, you might want to "jump into the serve" with deep knee bend, landing on your non-dominant foot, to increase power and spin, though this is considered an advanced athletic motion.

*Two recent interesting articles
I recently read 2 interesting articles on the serve - one discussed the number of serve targets available to a player and how to think about the service box, and the other about the types of service rhythms.

The author of the first article suggested that the service box should be divided into 3 parts - down the middle T, out wide and into the body. He also said that the type of serve contact - flat, slice and spin might be considered a "target" goal.

Let's take the deuce side. Since you have potentially 3 types of serves going to the 3 parts of the service box, you have 9 different targets (i.e. location of serve and type of serve).You have another 9 targets also on the Ad Side.

Thus, you have 18 targets, according to this writer.

I think that if most players can even hit half those 18 targets consistently with even just a little disguise, they will effectively disable most opponents up to 4.5, maybe even up to a 5.0. My opinion.

The author of the second article discussed the importance of rhythm and timing to the successful serve. He identified three (3) types of service rhythms most servers fall into and reviewed their checkpoints- the classic rhythm, the abbreviated rhythm and the staggered rhythm. Examples of classic (Federer, Lisa Raymond), abbreviated (Roddick, Nadal, Henin), staggered (Safina, Tsonga, V. Williams).

Take another look at the serves of these players on TV or You Tube, and see how they differ based on their descriptive titles and which style your serve most resembles.

[Thanks to "Understanding the Service Box", Paul Lockwood, Coach/Director, and "The Three Service Rhythms", Doug Eng Ed.D, Ph.D.]

*Is there a mental aspect to the serve?
From a recent ESPN article:
"As many point out, the mental component is key to the serve since it is the one stroke they have complete control over how they hit. It is also the most complex stroke, involving coordination between the racket arm, the ball-tossing arm and the legs, as well as explosive movement from a standing position. That leaves it more vulnerable to disruption."

See Why Can't the Women Serve?

*Does the serve affect the rest of your game?
From the same ESPN article:
"The impact of struggling on serve is not confined to the shot itself, observed Ana Ivanovic: "It was really frustrating, and it was affecting my whole game. I think it's not only case with me, it's with every player who has a big serve. And then all of a sudden if the serve is not coming, it affects your whole movement or your whole game."

*How would a new player learn the serve?
The short answer, of course, is practice-practice-practice. I would think that a new player might need to familiarize himself with the throwing motion itself, perhaps by literally throwing a football around on the court. I think there might be some value also to getting the new person familiar with the natural pronation motion of the arm during the serve, perhaps by watching the mechanics of the bullwhip in action.

There may also be a value for this new player to learn about "pronation pops" without worrying about trying the get the ball into the box. If, for example, they hit serves with "pop" against the back fence or hitting wall, it effectively takes the service box out of the equation.

*Final comments
I think that every sport has its "sexy" shot or play - in golf, the hole-in-one; in basketball, the slam-dunk; in football, the long-bomb touchdown. In tennis, I think it's the serve, that untouchable ace that players love to hit and everyone loves to watch...

May all your serves be aces!


A quick look at the awesome serve - silky-smooth and powerful - of one of history's best players, Pancho Gonzales.

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