How to Build the Perfect Serve

By Brendan Sheehan – November 1, 2014
Photography by Brian Fitzsimmons

The most important shot in tennis is the serve. It starts off the point and can immediately dictate the tone of the game. A beginner needs to know how to serve in order to get the ball over the net. A good player needs to know how to put spin, placement, and power into a serve to control the point and create opportunity. There is no greater offense in tennis than to have a big, powerful serve.  

There are many factors involved in developing a strong serve. While it really helps to be tall and have a powerful body, many people—regardless of their physical prowess—learn to develop an effective serve. A good serve is built on strong fundamentals, which is what I teach in my program at Westover Country Club. However, a serve isn’t always a weapon for some players. There is an old saying that you’re only as good as your second serve, and it’s true. In the heat of battle, nerves and a close score can put players under a lot of stress. It can be humiliating and devastating all in the same moment when that second serve flies into the net or goes out of bounds.  

The key to a good serve is sound technique and spin. Spin is what controls the ball and takes some of the nerves out of tennis. A player must learn to “carve the ball” to impart spin. Carving the ball is done by slicing the racquet through the air, turning the wrist, and at the moment of impact, brushing the racquet across the ball to create spin. There are many types of spin: top, inside-out, slice, and the power serve (which can have little or no spin).  

It All Starts with You

A powerful serve really comes down to who is holding the racquet. There have been many great players who have built their whole game around a big serve. Serena Williams comes to mind in professional women’s tennis; she has beautiful technique and lethal power. On the men’s side, tall, strong servers like Andy Roddick have dominated. Roddick burst onto the scene in 2000. Players and fans could not grasp how this big kid could pound serves so effectively, completely dominating a match with his huge serve. And if Roddick’s serve was returned in play, he could just rip his forehand and many times, it would be point over in one or two shots. 
Much analysis went into Roddick’s serve because, in some ways, it was unique. He didn’t do the classic hands down-hands up technique, considered by many to be the traditional and fundamental set-up for a serve. Roddick would simply set up, both hands immediately up in the air, legs loaded. His toss arm would go up, racquet swing into the back-scratch position, body fully extend, and boom—the ball would explode off the racquet.

In his prime, Roddick had one of the most effective power serves in the game. He combined the kinetic chain in his own unique way: loading the major body parts and muscle groups from the ground up—first positioning the legs, then the hips, torso, and shoulders—before getting his arm in the loaded throwing motion. Spiraling his arm upward to the apex of his reach, he then set up the final stage of the swing—the snap of his wrist. 

When this pattern is performed with relaxed muscles and good timing, great results can be achieved. Roddick had the perfect machine in his physique to initiate this kind of world-class perfection, and it won him the U.S. National Championship in 2000. Anyone who wants to maximize performance can adopt some of the attributes of Roddick’s championship serve. All it takes is the willingness to learn good technique and practice until it becomes pure intuitive muscle memory. 

Keep in Mind

-Power comes from relaxed muscle, not from trying harder.  

-To improve a serve and get more spin and placement on the ball, allow space to change the setup, make mistakes, learn, and make adjustments.  

-Integrating new patterns may cause the level of play to decline for while, but this is the course of action needed to fine-tune and improve your serve. 

Trying new serves should be fun and exciting. Serving is to tennis what pitching is to softball or baseball. It’s smart to have more than one pitch, to learn how to work spin toward or away from the receiver’s body, and to change it up. Don’t be a one-trick pony with, for example, a slice serve that goes down the middle at 60 mph. Otherwise, after a few games, your opponents will catch on and know where your serve is going.

Watch Yourself

An important part of practicing your serve effectively is to watch how you do it on video. With today’s smartphones’ video capability and apps that can help examine motions frame by frame, this is relatively easy to do. If possible, review a video of your serve with a tennis professional. Some questions to keep in mind while watching: 

-Are you extending fully at contact?

-Is the toss consistently going up straight to your desired location?

-Are you set up properly so that you are in alignment with your desired target?  

-Are you squeezing your grip?

-Is your arm relaxed at set up?

-Are you fully extended with a relaxed arm at contact? 

-Are you hitting the ball at the apex, so that the wrist snaps at contact?  

Be aware of the accumulated tension that builds in the arm and body over the course of a match. Be sure to shake out your arm to loosen it before serving and relax the grip on the racquet as you set up.

Remember: You are building a serve for life. It should be based on good fundamentals and not on overly taxing the body, which will only lead to injury. And as with many other things, good, hard work pays great dividends. As Roddick once said about his tennis, “My entire career, I’ve been a worker.”


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