Bird's Tennis Tips: The Serve

December 29, 2004


Mike Swanberg is a former collegiate player at Livingston University and each month he will give us a new tennis tip.

I know many of you are asking, "Bird, how did you get to have such an awesome serve?" Well, I will answer this question... right after I answer a more pressing question...

"Bird, why should we listen to you about how to serve better?"

I don't know. You asked the question. But we'll get to my paltry qualifications later. For those of you who are wondering, talk to your local pro. Ask them if what I'm saying is true. And if they say no, they're lying.

There are many many factors that go into creating a good serve. Personally, I go for the scare factor. That's right... scare the bajeezus out of 'em! People gather to watch me serve because it's a spectacle, I can assure you. But it's not near as "wow" as you might think,l once you get under the hood.

Step 1: Remove the vibration dampener. That's right. Take it out of the racquet. Nothing makes your serve SEEM bigger than the crack it makes coming off of a non-dampened set of synthetic gut. One of my old tennis buddies used to tell me, "Bird, it's not the power in your serve. It's not the placement. It's the gosh-darn noise it makes coming off your strings! It sounds like a shotgun." Heck, as recently as last weekend, one of my opponents was telling me that he could tell that whenever I hit a serve (or an overhead, for that matter) people from other courts would look over to see what the noise was. Shock and awe, people... shock and awe.

Step 2: There really isn't a step 2. Step 1 is only for those of you who can hit a big serve and don't worry about tennis elbow.

But seriously, folks, there are some very sound elements to serving that we all can benefit from. And why should we? Because your serve is the only shot you'll hit that your opponent cannot monkey with. And as long as you play indoors, you don't have to worry about the wind or the sun or lights monkeying with it either. As such, I truly believe that every tennis player should strive to make their serve a weapon. As we'll see, power isn't the only way to make this happen.

So, let's look at the best serve in tennis. Who would that be? Roddick? Rusedski? Dementieva?

No, no, and puh-lease!

For my money, the best serve ever belongs to none other than the Chairman himself, Johnny Mac. McEnroe never hit a ball over 115 in his life. But he knew how to make it extremely tough to break. And how, you may ask?

Forget the fact that he's a southpaw and can keep you hitting backhands all day long. It was really all about disguise.

Now before you all run out and learn how to serve with your back to the net, let's look at some other means of disguising your serve.

Disguise 1: The toss. Upper-intermediate and advanced players should take some time to learn how to hit different serves with the same toss. I tell you, there is nothing more satisfying than giving a guy five kick-serves with a toss over my left ear and then watch him flail as I hit flat with the same toss. In the end, this can mean two things. One, have a variety of serves that you can hit with different tosses so that your opponent can't predict what's coming by the toss. Or two, hit every serve in your arsenal with the same toss. If you vary your tosses wildly, it can make the serve predictable and give your opponent a split-second edge.

Disguise 2: Mix it up. Most of us are one-trick ponies on the serve. We have one that we hit well and we go to the well repeatedly. Well, I am here to tell you, that even in intermediate levels, a predictable serve, even at 130mph, will start to come back more and more and more. And after all, isn't that what an effective serve is all about: keeping it from coming back? So, even if you have the rocket at the T, you can't hit it all the time. Only if you take your opponent wide frequently will the T-shot be a great serve.

Disguise 3: Spin, spin, and more spin. I can't emphasize how important spin is to a serve. Some of my regular opponents take my flat serve and crank into it like it's all they've ever been able to do. One guy I play hits his forehand returns back at me harder than the serve itself. But if I throw him the junk, he slaps balls into the bottom of the net or else they're still rising when they hit the back fence. Yet another of my frequent opponenets likes to take my serve from 8 feet behind the baseline. He tries to outguess me: forehand or backhand, and then let the longer distance between us give him an extra millisecond to wind up. When he guesses right, I am in trouble. But I make it where he guesses correctly far less than half the time by giving him some spins to worry about. A good slice pulls him so wide that by the time the ball gets to him way back behind the baseline, he's in the side fence.

Okay, that's the basis for what makes a serve a good one. But now you may be asking yourself, "how do I achieve this?" Well, you have to do more than ask yourself... get out there and LEARN. Go to your local pro and get help. It is never too late. In the meantime, here are some things that you should think of.

Beginner: Make sure you are getting private instruction on your service motion. The technique is paramount in building a sound foundation for a serve that will someday become your greatest weapon. It may feel more natural to take a frying pan grip and pooch the ball over, just to get it in. But you really need to get the back-scratch double-loop motion down pat. Also make sure you work on a consistent ball toss. It should be peaking just above your point of contact, which is at full extension. As well, the ball should have no horizontal movement; it should be straight up and straight down.

Intermediate: Work on the consistency. You need to have a reliable serve that can keep you on the court. Feel free to experiment within your own ability on the first serve. More power. More spin. Whatever. Just know that you have the ultra-reliable second ball to back it up. And remember, power doesn't mean just flail at the ball harder. You have to keep the proper technique. Legs and shoulders. Hips and wrist. You may also wish to work on placement. At this level, it is a great weapon to be able to serve to your opponent's weakness (typically the backhand) at will.

Advanced: Advanced players should never stop working on their serve. If nothing else, learn a new serve. Try kicks and slices and topspin and heavy flat serves. All of us at all levels have rough spots in their serves that can be poilished. Learn your weak spots and work on them. Figure out what makes your serve go awry and concentrate on making those a thing of the past. Find a circuit pro who has a service motion similar to your own and tape him or her playing a match. Try to watch them serve over and over and over again until it creeps into your subconscious.

For those that want real ultimate power... the Y Stance is bogus. Drop it. The servers with the biggest guns (not Roddick, he's just a freak of nature) keep their racquets by their ankles in the pause, with the tossing hand extended upward. This gives the double loop more space to accelerate and adds an easy 10-15mph to it.

Stay tuned... next time we're going back to school. It's Geometry, people! And you thought it would never help you outside of school...