THE TENNIS SERVE

A tennis serve is a weapon only when the technique is correct. When the serve technique is not correct, then the serve is often more a liability than an asset.

In order to learn correct tennis serve technique, simple serving tips won’t get you there.

Instead you need to follow step-by-step progressions that build the service motion from the ground up.

The following technical progressions of building a proper tennis serve can be used to correct your existing serve techniques if you find your serve ineffective.

These step by step serve lessons can also be used if you’re a total beginner and want to learn correct serving technique from scratch.

Step 1: The Stance

A proper tennis serve stance is when your feet are positioned so that the front foot is pointing towards the right net post (for right-handers) and the back foot is parallel to the baseline.

Basic tennis serve stance

Basic serve stance gives you balance in all directions

The toes of the back foot are also roughly aligned with the heel of the front foot because you need to be stable in all directions once you initiate and execute your full service motion.

This is a basic stance which you adjust depending on which direction you’re serving to.

If you’re a tennis beginner starting to learn correct serve technique, I suggest you start learning the serve from the ad side because there is less difference in the direction of the swing path and the actual ball flight, which makes it easier to master at these early stages of learning.

There are two types of stances on the serve: the platform stance and the pin-point stance.

 

The platform serve stance is where the feet remain in the same position throughout the whole service motion.

 

You simply bend your knees, coil and tilt your body and push off upwards into the serve.

Pin point and platform serve stance

Pin point vs platform stance (Images credit: tennisserver.com)

The pin-point serve stance, on the other hand, is where you initiate the serve from a platform stance, but as you toss the ball up, you bring the back foot closer to the front foot and then push off upwards towards the ball.

 

Both serve stances in tennis are correct, but typically the platform stance is used by more explosive players and the pin-point stance is used by taller players that are not looking for so much explosive power off the ground.

Step 2: The Grip

A proper tennis serve grip technique is to hold a continental grip.

There are many descriptions for how to find this grip. The one I’ll use makes it easy to check if your grip is really a continental grip.

Grip the racquet like a hammer and hold the racquet with the edge perpendicular to the ground, as shown in the picture.

Then place your left index finger in the “valley” between the thumb and the index finger of your right hand (for right-handers), just next to the bone on the thumb.

Now check where your left index finger is pointing on the racquet handle. It should point to the top left edge on the racquet handle.

continental tennis serve grip

One of the ways to check if you hold a continental grip…

The way you hold your racquet determines many things about the final serve technique and its effectiveness.

That’s why it’s crucial that you grip the racquet correctly.

In the ServeUnlocked course, I share two more tips on the grip. First, I explain how to grip the racquet with fingers spread more apart and why that helps with pronation.

Then I describe how to find a loose grip using a little exercise just before you start your serving ritual.

Step 3: The Hitting Part – Loose Drop, Swing Up And Pronation

The hitting part is where the serve happens either correctly or incorrectly.

Think of the backswing elements ‒ like coiling, bending your knees, swinging the racquet back, maintaining the trophy position and so on ‒ simply as ways of gathering energy.

You are simply accumulating energy in order to release it explosively into the contact with the ball.

It is this hitting moment that defines whether the ball is hit correctly (flat, topspin or slice) and cleanly or not.

The elements above are not directly responsible for correct hitting of the ball, although they influence it.

I can, for example, demonstrate incorrect backswing, trophy position, have no coiling in the body, completely straight legs and STILL hit a CLEAN and correct flat or topspin or slice serve – except that it will have less power and I’ll be more uncomfortable.

On the other hand, I can do the elements before the contact correctly and still not hit the ball correctly because I am not using my hand, forearm and arm correctly through the contact phase.

There are smaller parts of the hitting part:

  • loose drop of the racquet and arm
  • swing up & contact
  • pronation

The loose drop before the swing up is achieved by “bouncing” or dangling the racquet behind you.

The serve generates a lot of power because of many body parts dynamically moving when they have to. If we at any moment of the serve stop the movement, we will lose power.

When we teach serve technique in this analytical way of breaking down the whole complex motion into smaller parts since that’s easier to learn, we unfortunately also break down the natural fluid movements of the body.

And the danger in this hitting part of the serve is that we initiate the swing up from a static position which in the long term might become a part of our whole serve technique.

Therefore, I use the “bounce” element to make sure the racquet is moving and that the arm is loosened up before you swing up – because that’s exactly what will happen when you execute the whole tennis service motion.

serve drop drill

The bounce drill

The swing up and pronation parts are best imagined and learned by placing two rows of balls on the ground. The first row of balls is at a roughly 45 degree angle, and the second one is perpendicular to the net.

Two swing paths of a tennis serve

Balls in two rows give you a proper guidance on your serve swing paths.

This gives us a clear mental image of how the racquet and arm must move through the hitting part.

It’s a slight exaggeration at first, which helps the player learn to pronate and to understand that the hitting part of the serve is not one single swing through the ball with the whole arm. That is one of the most common misconceptions and mistakes out there.

The serve might look like that at first glance, which deceives us into interpreting the hitting part of the serve as one straight motion of the arm.

But, as you look closer, especially in slow motion, you realize that the swing towards the ball and movement of the forearm after the contact are not in the same line.

It is the internal rotation of the upper arm and pronation of the forearm that create these two racquet paths before and after contact.

Therefore, imagine swinging towards the ball at a 45 degree angle leading with the edge of the racquet and following the first row of balls.

tennis serve swing path up

The swing path towards the ball

Once you reach the contact, push the racquet head straight towards the net following the second row of balls and finishing on the right side of the body with the buttcap pointing upwards at a roughly 45 degree angle or more and the stringbed pointing towards the back fence.

serve swing path with pronation

Swing path after contact with emphasis on pronation

While you may think that this oversimplifies the hitting part, I can assure you that, once you fluidly merge these two swing paths together, you’ll realize that this is exactly how a flat serve is done.

I personally repeat this part very often with players who are correcting their old serve techniques because it’s exactly here where they get it wrong.

Not only that, if they eventually learn the hitting part well, the dreaded waiter’s serve position of the racquet often disappears because it was simply an indicator of an incorrect hitting part of the serve.

If the waiter’s position persists, then complement the hitting part exercise with additional drills for correcting the waiter’s serve.

Step 4: Backswing & Toss

Now that you have established the hitting part, you need to get to that stage from the initial serving position.

This part combines the backswing with the toss because they happen simultaneously.

The serve toss is often quite tricky to master and is often times practiced on its own. My own view is that it should never be practiced without simulating your backswing.

The very common toss drill where you place a target or even your own racquet in front of you on the ground and try to make the toss hit it is, in my opinion, not very effective if at the same time you are not getting into the same serving position as you would in reality.

That’s because if you just try to toss the ball in the target you won’t move any other body parts in order to be accurate.

But when you initiate your serve, you will immediately start turning your body to the side, your dominant arm will start swinging back, you’ll start leaning and coiling, etc.

All these movements must be present also when you just focus on your toss – hence, I consider backswing & toss as one step in this serving progression tutorial.

tennis serve toss technique

Imagine toss more like “‘lifting” the ball rather than ‘throwing’ it

The key points about the toss:

  • Place the ball in the middle of your hand, meaning exactly where the palm spreads out into fingers.
  • Hold the ball with your thumb on top gently.
  • Always toss with a straight arm using only your shoulder joint.
  • Release the ball at around your eye level and keep lifting the arm up following the ball.

If you’re having troubles mastering the toss, look into my ServeUnlocked course that dedicates an entire module to an integrated toss which happens simultaneously with the backswing.

The backswing should be a relaxed swing backwards, as if your arm and the racquet are a pendulum that you swing backwards.

tennis serve backswing

The backswing and toss sequence from the start (Click to enlarge)

The tossing arm moves simultaneously up as the dominant arm swings up.

The tricky thing here is that the tossing arm is much more stiff as it’s lifting the ball accurately up towards the contact point while the serving arm has to be very relaxed.

This is not natural to our body as it tends to tense or relax both arms in a similar manner.

Just something to keep in mind as you’re working on your toss and the backswing and you’re having some trouble synchronizing both arms, keeping one more stiff and the other one more relaxed…

It may be tricky and therefore takes some repetitions and time to master.

As you swing back, your arm eventually ends up in the trophy position as we like to call it.

I suggest you don’t look for a vertical racquet in the trophy position for two reasons:

  1. When your racquet is vertical in the trophy position, it tends to fall back into the waiter’s tray position as gravity likes to take over your hand’s movement.
  2.  
  3. There is also a much longer loop to be made from that trophy position all the way up until contact. This makes the timing of the toss and the swing up to the ball more difficult, and you may have troubles putting it all together. 
  4.  
  5. The most common mistake that then happens is making a very shallow drop in order to “make it” in time to the contact point but in the process you’re then losing power.

I suggest bringing your racquet into a more diagonal position which you can determine by bringing the racquet closer to your head and touching it. The bottom edge of the racquet should touch the back of your head.

tennis serve trophy position

My suggested trophy position in a tennis serve

Move the racquet then slightly away from your head and you’ll now be in a good trophy position on your serve.

From there, you will drop the racquet into the loop and find it much easier to time this swing with the ball coming down from the toss.

The whole backswing & toss sequence then consists of swinging both arms simultaneously where the tossing arm lifts the ball up (which you catch again in your hand!) and the hitting arm reaches the trophy position.

Here, the racquet is slightly tilted with the bottom edge of the racquet aligning with the back of your head.

There is one more important part of the backswing & toss sequence, and that’s turning your body parallel to the baseline as you initiate the whole sequence.

You need to initiate everything first through your body rotation, which creates the first impulse from which the arms swing.

coiling on a tennis serve

Initiate your backswing & toss from the body turn

This also starts the coiling phase from which you will generate a lot of power once you start uncoiling.

If you toss the ball up before you start coiling, you’ll probably do much less of a coiling because you’ll be running out of time since your ball will be already in the air. As such, there’s not much time left for you to complete your whole serve up until contact.

I agree that turning the body first and then starting your toss and the backswing makes it more difficult for you to place the ball accurately in your ideal contact point.

However, with some practice, you will surely master it and gain many more benefits from having enough time for your whole serving motion and more power from having more torque in your body.

Step 5: Serve In Two Parts

The serve in two parts consists of step 4 and step 3, meaning we’ll do the backswing & toss first (step 4) and then the hitting part (part 3) in sequence.

Complete first your backswing & toss phase and catch the ball back in your hand while holding your trophy position.

serve backswing into trophy

Part 1: Backswing and toss and catching the ball in your hand

Toss again from this position and complete the hitting part which consists of the drop (bounce) and two swing paths.

serve technique with pronation

Part 2: Hitting action with pronation

You can still keep the balls on the ground in two lines in order to get proper guidance on how to move your racquet in the swing up and pronation phases.

Repeat this process of serving in two parts until you are quite successful with two key points:

  • tossing the ball so accurately that you can catch it back in your hand without moving your feet, and
  • finding your trophy position where the bottom edge is just behind your head without much correcting when you check for it.

When you can toss the ball well and find your trophy position easily through a relaxed backswing, you’re ready to put your serve together.

But before we do that, let’s focus for a little while on a key move that generates a lot of power…

Step 6: The Power Move

The power move is initiated from the trophy position, and two things must happen simultaneously:

  • your racquet starts to drop, and
  • your body starts to rotate/turn forward.

If these two movements happen at the same time, the hitting arm and the racquet will start to lag behind.

whip effect on a tennis serve

Creating lag of the racquet or whip effect which generates effortless power

You will create a stretch through your body going across your shoulder, chest and core all the way down to the left hip (for right-handers).

Imagine it like a giant rubber band that you just stretched fully.

As you can imagine, this rubber band wants to snap back to its original state, and that’s exactly what we want to achieve with our body.

Most tennis players make the mistake of tensing their muscles in this phase of the serve thinking that “strong” muscles will help them hit a “strong” serve.

Sure, you can hit a serve this way and the ball will leave your racquet with some speed, but if you really want to know how the serve works and how the pros do it, then realize that the pros use a different principle of generating power.

The principle of stretching your body and allowing it to snap back generates much more racquet head speed than the principle of tense muscles and thinking you want to be “strong” as you hit your serve.

The tricky thing about the stretch principle is that you must actually RELAX in order to allow your muscles to stretch, which is a very counter-intuitive thing to do just as you’re about to hit a fast serve.

And that’s why most tennis players get the serve wrong and reach their speed plateau very quickly and cannot move beyond it.

That’s also why I am including the power move in these fundamentals of the serve technique in tennis, even though it seems like an advanced technique that only the pros should practice.

The power move has to be practiced often in order to feel the lag of the racquet and how we create a whip effect with it. This effect creates a lot of racquet head speed with little effort.

We initiate the body turn through our hips and then use our trunk and shoulders to rotate forwards while we let the racquet lag or trail behind.

technique for a powerful serve

The power move from the side: drop and turn happening at the same time

This only happens when we relax our arm so that the muscles in the shoulders and chest get stretched.

Since this is a feel-based exercise, we can exaggerate the rotation of the body in order to really feel how the racquet lags and then shoots out from our backswing through the contact zone.

So we can actually turn our body all the way up to the point where we face the net with it.

But keep in mind that, when it comes to correct serve technique, we actually decelerate and stop the body rotation at around a 45 degree angle between the baseline and the net.

In both cases, though, we are using the principle of transfer of momentum which happens only when we decelerate the body.

At that moment, the momentum built in the body is then transferred to the arm.

Since the arm is much lighter than the body and momentum has to be maintained, the arm has to accelerate.

Step 7: Serve With The Follow-Through

The best way to start serving correctly is to do a few serves in two parts and then take a leap of faith and do the complete serve from start to finish.

This is also the stage where I’d like to clarify the follow-through on the serve.

When you watch the pros serve, you’ll see that they finish their serve on the left side of the body (for right-handers) and you may want to copy that.

proper serve technique in tennis

You can see the racquet finishing on the left side of the body but did Ljubicic actually swing that way?

But what happens is that they do not actually swing or forcefully push their racquet to the left side. Instead, it’s simply the inertia and relaxation of their body and the serving arm that swings the racquet in that direction.

In other words, the follow-through on the left side happens. We don’t do it.

What we do, meaning the direction of our swing and force, is that we swing outwards towards the ball. For right-handers, that’s forward and right, roughly at 45 degrees which then changes as pronation takes place.

As soon as we finish the pronation, we start to relax our body and arm (since all the work is done and the ball is on the way), which eventually brings the arm to the left side.

tennis serve follow-through

The follow-through on the left side of the body happens, we ‘don’t do it.’

So, keep in mind that some parts of the serve are done by an intentional swing and applying force and some parts of the serve just happen because of relaxation and inertia.

Therefore, you shouldn’t try to “do” the parts of the serve that just happen.

Finding Flow – How To Generate Effortless Power From Step-by-Step Mechanics

Because we have been breaking down the serve into smaller parts so that they are easier to learn, we have unfortunately also broken down the natural flow of the body.

We stopped moving our body fluidly, making our movements now very mechanical.

Therefore, we must re-establish the natural flow of the body which is another key element of generating effortless power on the serve.

We find flow through drills that make us move our body continuously without stopping or any jerky movements.

One the best tennis training aids to do that is the Serve Master by Lisa Dodson. (affiliate link)

You use the Serve Master by swinging it in a continuous manner that simulates the whole service motion. That exercise helps you re-establish the flow of your body and feel the effects of it as you realize that you can accelerate the balls at the end of the Serve Master quite effortlessly.

ServeMaster tennis training aid

Swinging the ServeMaster helps you re-establish the natural flow of the body

You can of course also use the ball on the string or the famous trick with a couple of tennis balls in a long sock. Either of these will also help you feel the fluidity of the service motion.

Another good exercise that you can do with the racquet is the three-finger drill where you hold the racquet with only your thumb, index and middle finger.

This prevents you from holding the racquet tight as you go through your service motion and therefore creates a very fluid movement.

You can also work on one technical element while you do the above exercise. Namely, you can do the “Edges exercise” in which you always lead with the edge in any direction that you move your racquet.

tennis serve drill

The ‘Edges drill’ where you always lead with the edge as you swing your racquet

That helps you prevent the waiter’s tray mistake that happens often and also trains your arm and forearm how to be positioned throughout the service motion.

Summary

A tennis serve is the most challenging stroke to master.

Here are just some of the key reasons:

  1. A relaxed and loose way of accelerating the racquet gives you more power than tensing your body and arm and hitting the ball “hard” even though the latter approach seems to make more sense at first glance.
  2. There are two swing paths of the racquet where we transition into pronation just before contact rather than the one straight swing path with no pronation that we often perceive as we look at serves of professional tennis players.
  3. We get more power by decelerating the body before contact than if we keep rotating our body through contact, which is a very counter-intuitive thing to do.
  4. We must swing up towards the ball instead of down, even though the target is down in relation to the ball ‒ which again doesn’t make sense at first.
  5. We swing the racquet initially in the other direction than in the direction of the target, and this difference is even bigger when it comes to topspin and slice serves.

The 7 steps of building a proper advanced tennis serve technique described in this article build a solid foundation from which you can then progress to more advanced elements of the serve.

This article also addresses all of the above challenges of a tennis serve that are tricky to understand at first and often lead tennis players in the wrong direction.

In my work with tennis players of all levels, I keep coming back to these fundamentals even when I work on more advanced skills like coiling the body more, jumping into the court, learning the kick and slice serve and so on.

There are of course many drills and exercises that help you address various sticking points that you may have as you’re working on your serve.

I’ve shared many of them for free on this blog, and there are some that you can access only in my ServeUnlocked video course that goes much more in-depth on:

  • unlocking the mental locks that hold you back from hitting your best serves,
  • unlocking the body by showing you drills on how to loosen up your wrist,
  • understanding the difference between speed and “strength” and how to learn a fast, effortless serve, and
  • understanding how to integrate the toss into your service motion and how to troubleshoot it.

The ServeUnlocked video course also includes the extended version of these 7 Steps To Proper Serve Technique where I share additional tips on the grip, racquet acceleration, coordination of both arms and even how to use your shadow on a sunny day to correct your serve technique! 😉

 

tennis serve video course

The extended version also includes clips of regular tennis players where I point out their mistakes and how to correct them.

But, as I mentioned before, you really need to master the fundamentals of the serve technique which are crucial for learning how to hit a correct tennis serve with good power and consistency.

You can see a big change in the serve technique of Andrea in the video below which compares the “before and after” service motions.

All his progress, which took only a few days, was thanks to continuous repetition of the fundamental drills and techniques described in this article.

I hope this points you in the right direction of taming the most challenging tennis stroke.

But keep in mind that really mastering a tennis serve technique takes years of dedicated practice – which, by the way, is definitely attainable even by recreational tennis players as long as they follow proper progressions and are willing to dig deep into the mysteries of a tennis serve.

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