The Evolution Of Tennis Serve Technique

tennis serve technique
1979, The New Spear.
Illustrated by Tom Dunnington

Do you have to take tennis lessons from an expert coach, or can you learn to serve with a natural method that follows the laws of physics and biomechanics?

As you can see in the pictures above, there are striking similarities between a caveman throwing a spear and Roger Federer about to serve.

Let's see why.

Developing tennis serve technique is a journey of discovery similar to that for forehand and backhand technique and volley technique, but it has one not-so-logical and intuitive difference.

We'll come to this difference soon, but let's first start developing tennis serving technique based on physics and biomechanics.

Tennis rules state that you must serve from behind your baseline into the diagonal service box.

In order to serve into the service box with good speed, you must contact the ball as high as possible so that the angle of serve is as big as possible.

tennis serve contact point
(Picture: A low contact point gives you a low - risky - trajectory (green line), barely passing the net and landing close to the service line.

A higher contact point (yellow line) gives you more margin for error above the net and from the service line. The yellow trajectory has a greater angle than the green trajectory.

Ivo Karlovic has the highest point of contact (his height is 208 cm or 6'10''!) of any ATP player on tour and that's why he is one the best servers.

He leads ATP stats in 3 categories (July 2007) :
  • Service games won - 94%
  • 1st serve points won - 84%
  • Break points saved - 73%

And to generate racquet head speed, you must swing at the ball in the most powerful way.

Also, using the racquet face angle, you need to direct the ball toward the service box.

The most obvious way of doing this is shown in the video below, and that is also how most people serve if they haven't received any tennis lessons.

But, as you have noticed, none of the pros serve this way. Why?

There are two reasons:

1. This movement does not give you the most power you can generate above your head.

Here we meet the main difference between developing serve technique and developing groundstroke and volley technique: groundstroke and volley technique can be developed with a logical and natural progression.

But in the serve there is one, quite unusual movement that gives you more power than just swinging at the ball.

As shown in the video above, this movement is called pronation, and it is done by rotating your forearm counterclockwise.

Based on the biomechanical analysis of modern tennis players it has been measured that this movement ALONE is responsible for 40% of the speed of the racquet head.

More than any other isolated movement in the tennis serve!

Although I am not a professional tennis player, I do feel and use the power hidden in this movement. So hopefully my demonstration of pronation will show you the power of this movement.

This movement is quite hard to discover, and beginning tennis players are unable to use it at first. You must develop a feel for pronation to make the most of it.

But there is a natural way to discover this movement if you also understand the second reason why tennis pros don't serve like I demonstrated in the first video (the waiter serve).

2. Serving the ball flat - without spin - at high speed is too risky.

In other words, we are unable to find the perfect angle of the racquet head, one that sends the ball into the service box a high percentage of the time.

The margin for error is too small. If you miss the angle of the racquet by just a degree or two, you will either hit in the net or over the service box.

So again, you will have to spin the ball very fast (as with your groundstrokes) in order to create higher air pressure above the ball to "push" it down into the service box.

Remember that topspin is generated by the racquet brushing the back of the ball upward.

The only way to brush up on a ball overhead is to:
a) have the ball right above your head or even slightly behind it,
b) position yourself sideways to the court and then
c) hit upward on the ball.

Only in this position can you move the racquet upward and forward at the same time.

See in the video below how this need to move the racket both upward and forward determines my position relative to the net. I try to spin the ball with my body facing the net - frontally - but this position is very uncomfortable.

So I position myself sideways. That is much better, but then I FEEL that the forehand grip I have been using is very UNCOMFORTABLE.

So I change my grip and find the most comfortable grip to hit the ball upward. It's called the Continental grip.

Again, you don't score any points on a tennis court by knowing the names of the grips. You score points by serving effectively. ;)

Now I know how to hit the ball with topspin, and this sideways position automatically forces me to pronate too.

WHEN I pronate makes a difference. If I pronate BEFORE I hit the ball, I hit it flatly with great power (and risk).

If I pronate AFTER contact (actually during contact, but it happens so fast that it's almost impossible to notice), I hit with topspin (or slice).

Now I need only find more power and more spin to hit a faster and more controlled serve.

So I swing more.

That's why we need to take a backswing, bend the knees, rotate the body, and explode with the legs and whole body into the ball.

tennis serve technique
1979, The New Spear.
Illustrated by Tom Dunnington
Notice any similarities between the Stone Age man and the 21st century tennis serve? ;)

The point is that you don't have to learn this. It's natural.

It's the same as if you want to throw a ball far: for more power you automatically use more body rotation, bend your knees and swing back your arm to take a big windup.

So when you want to serve faster, you just need to hit MORE. Do it in the most natural way possible. That's the way in which all the elements of the serve appear.

See the video below about how I go for more on every serve until I find the serve that you are used to seeing from tennis pros.

One more thing - there is no such thing as a flat serve. We call the flat serve "flat" only because it's relatively flat compared to spin serves. In reality every ball is hit with either slice or topspin, and pros make the ball rotate extremely fast.

That's the only way they are able to serve successfully with a 40-60 serve percentage and with speeds up to 200 km/h.

So where does the correct (the most effective tennis serve) come from?

1. Hit the ball high to make it easier to hit the service box (increase the angle).
2. Use topsin to create more margin above the net.
3. Combine that with pronation for more power.
4. And find the most natural, powerful and comfortable way of doing it (with respect to grip, sideways stance, knee bend, and so forth).

Hit hundreds of serves, feeling your way (NOT THINKING!) and looking for the most comfortable and powerful way of hitting the ball with topspin into the service box.



Win More Matches When It Matters Most

Most tennis matches are decided not by a better stroke but by a better tactical play and by a stronger mind.

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