In almost every instance throughout my years coaching tennis, whether working with juniors, women or men, beginning or advanced players, when it comes to the serve, what I hear in response is, “Ugh…” The serve is one of the most difficult strokes to master. And yet without a solid serve, winning is difficult. The reason that the serve challenges most players is that there are many different moving parts. Couple this with the performance anxiety that the serve engenders and you have a recipe for disaster.
To properly understand the service action the player must first be familiar with the concept of the kinetic chain. The basic principle of the kinetic chain is this: there is a storing of energy in the major muscle groups in the preparation phase of the serve. This energy is transferred from the ground in a sequential order–ground to legs to hips to trunk to shoulders to elbow to wrist to racquet–creating a whipping motion culminating in racquet head speed on impact. Any major break in this linked system causes diminishing power and efficiency.
THE THREE PHASES OF THE SERVE
1. Preparation phase
Establish a balanced stance in preparation for serving. The front toes should point on an angle to the baseline with the back foot on an angle BEHIND the left. This is crucial for the hip and shoulder rotation needed in a powerful serve. Eyes should be forward on the target, the body should be relaxed before entering into the toss segment. Having a repeatable pre-service routine is a hallmark of a good server.
The release of the ball or the toss is probably the most important aspect of the serve and one that most players struggle to perform consistently. The ball needs to be tossed in rhythm with the racquet swing preferably at a height slightly above the extended racquet and tossed with no spin. The tossing arm is like a flower opening its petals. The release of the ball is when the tossing arm is just above eye level.
The loading portion of the preparation phase is merely making sure that the weight is loaded into the back leg to begin the kinetic chain. At this stage the non-dominant hand has tossed the ball and is fully extended–the weight is on the back leg, the racquet head is up.
2. Acceleration phase
Establish a shoulder over shoulder and hip over hip position as the acceleration phase begins. This allows for efficient release of energy as the racquet begins to travel from the cocked position. In all cases the palm stays toward the court and does not open up. The whipping motion that occurs in this stage means that the racquet head drops behind the back for a split second before reaching for the ball in line with the front foot and the ball is contacted in the upper quadrant of the racquet. This is when the player is driving forward into the court and unleashing his energy.
3. Follow through
The decelerations process, which occurs after the hit, keeps the player on balance. It is important to keep good body balance now, keeping the head and chest up and in line with the core. Collapsing in this phase impacts both the consistency and velocity as well as balance. At the finish of this process the player should be looking at his or her opponent allowing quick reaction to the return.
Too many pieces? Every good server has a specific repeatable rhythm. This begins with the weight transfer and BALL TOSS. Practice just these pieces before you put any power into the serve. Power comes last! If you are serving at 100 mph and you get 1 out of 4 first serves in, back off the pace and work on the toss and flow. Remember: the start to the point is crucial.
– Judy Dixon
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