It's been described as the most difficult shot in all sport, but don't let that put you off. The first step to getting an effective serve is to understand the possibilities. Here's our back-to-basics guide to getting started.
You could probably spend a couple of weeks just watching non-stop tuition videos on YouTube and the best part of a tennis-lifetime perfecting your serve on court, but where should you start your journey in mastering the serve?
Our mission this week is not to confuse you with grips or stances, not to explain where you should throw the ball before you hit it or how not to angle your racket. But we do want to de-mystify the task, particularly for those just setting out. Over the coming months, we will look at each of these serves in more detail, but for now the task is to understand the possibilities!
|Serves don't come much bigger than this|
The flat serve
This is the go-to serve for the pros, at least on their first serve. It's powerful and the fastest of the serves. The ball, hardly spinning at all, keeps low over the net and ideally seeks out the lines of your opponent's service court. The trajectory is as near a straight-line as a tennis ball is likely to stick to, and the taller you are the more effective it will be. Executed well, this is the fast-paced bullet that can notch up aces.
PROS... Likely to come naturally. Simple in theory. Highly effective as an outright points-winner when perfected
CONS... Really hard to achieve speed and accuracy. High probability of missing its target (either by falling into the net or by going long) which makes it too high risk for second serves. Likely to offer up the perfect ball to your opponents hitting zone if not executed well.
REALITY CHECK... For many players, even after years of work, the flat-serve bullet remains elusive. Many players' flat serve (and this goes for the pros too) isn't totally flat; some spin or slice is involved!
The SLICE serve
|Slice in slow mo|
If slicing the ball sounds complicated and best left to the experienced player, don't be put off. The chances are that as you start to apply power and purpose to your serving, you are beginning to slice the ball. Slicing simply means adding side spin to the ball that (if you are right handed) moves the ball through the air (and on the bounce) from left to right. If you are at the beginning of your tennis journey, you may not be able - as the server - to see much of a directional change, but think of the balls you receive. When serves appear to move away from you, it is slice performing the magic.
Pros... Much easier than it looks with the advantage that the ball takes a higher route over the net. By varying the power and "snap" of the wrist, you can use it for first and second serves. As the bounce is lower, the receiver has to work harder and bend to get to the ball. Can act as a "body serve", bringing the ball uncomfortably into the receiver's body.
Cons... Hard to achieve pace. Beginners have a tendency to over-exaggerate the slice action which can lead to ball falling too short (for the occasional outright winner!). Easy for the server to reveal their hand. If the receiver can easily see you are preparing to slice the ball, they know how to respond.
Reality check... Even if you think you don't, you probably are adding slice to your serve so don't dismiss it as something to learn later. Perfect your slice and serving will be a piece a cake.
The Kick serve
|Get a kick out of watching|
So-called because the ball kicks off the surface of the court thanks to the generous amount of topspin applied by the server. The kick serve can be used to pin down your opponent delivering a ball that is moving awkwardly and is difficult to read as it rears up in front of them. If the receiver can get to it, hitting a winner in reply won't be simple. On the pro circuit, the kick serve is the second-serve of choice.
Pros... It's the serve that goes highest over the net and falls the quickest into the court. That makes it a "safe" and effective second serve giving the server greater margin of error.
Cons... Who said it was easy? Of all the serves this takes the most practice and athleticism. A weak kick serve will be very hittable.
Reality check... don't leave it too long to add this to your game - the options it gives you on your second serve are not to be sniffed at. Practicing the kick serve is fun as you can easily see when it is working. Don't be afraid to practice in a match... even an unperfected kick serve used sparingly may win you points and will help build up your confidence.
The underarm serve
Not for you, you might be thinking. But it was good enough for Michael Chang (devestatinly employed against Ivan lendl on the way to his 1989 French Open Championship win), and Nick Kyrgios is on a one-man mission to return it to the mainstream. Once upon a time it was the only serve in the women's game and it is still perfectly legal as an option.
Pros... The ultimate in surprise shots and one that allows you to use the opposite spin to the conventional slice shot. Can keep you playing if you are recovering from a shoulder injury.
Cons... Likely to wind up your opponent (so you think that's a "pro"!). Rather harder than it looks
Reality check... Unlikely to add to the foundation of your game but give it a go in your practice sessions. If nothing else, it is an education in itself on how slice and spin makes the ball move.
Finally, the only serve that matters: The one that goes in
Too often players are self-conscious about their serving ability. Of course you will want to be able to serve at will to any part of the court, to add pace and power, and to disguise your intentions so every serve is a surprise to your opponent. But only one serve really matters - the one that goes in.
If your serve is a bit of a "dolly" or a "pancake" don't beat your self up. Yes, the more experienced opposition will be "on to it" but you can still throw down the gauntlet by placing the ball well and sometimes your short, weaker ball will win the point outright. And once the rally has begun, you are in the point. Unless the receiver can hit an outright winner off your serve it is game on.