Bird's Tennis Tips: Racquet Spin

November 1, 2005

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

A short one this month, dear readers, as The Bird is in the process of moving to a new city. Don't despair, however, as the bounds of cyberspace cannot be transcended.

Basically, that's just a flowery way of saying, “I can still e-mail in my column.”

Okay, this month we're going to tackle a subject that few people ever attempt. I guess it's supposed to be “common knowledge,” but clearly it isn't. Many of you are asking, “what is this whole 'up-or-down' thing, and what's the correct answer?”

The short answer is, “it's the racquet spin.” The long answer is, well, longer.

See, most sports have methods for choosing which team does what at the onset of the meet. Football teams flip a coin to determine who will kick off, for instance. The same goes for tennis. Who serves first? And on what side?

In professional tennis events, the umpire will flip a coin before the players warm up. The winner of the coin-toss gets to choose to serve, to receive, or which side he or she wishes to start on. He or she can also choose to defer the first choice to their opponent. Nine times out of ten, the response is to serve first, since most pros have weapons in their serves.

But in amateur events, there are loopholes. And I'm going to show you how to exploit them. As well, a coin isn't typically used. One player will spin his racquet and ask “up or down?” The opponent will choose one, and then the butt cap of the racquet will be used to determine if it was the correct decision. Typically, if the logo on the butt cap is right-side up, then it is said to be up. If it is upside down, then it is said to be down.

There are many variations on this, but let's start with how the spin is supposed to go. Player A will ask, “up or down” and Player B (the opponent) will choose one. Then Player A spins his or her racquet like a top on the ground, starting with the head down. The racquet is allowed to fall on the ground to determine the outcome. Some of the variations on this are as follows. Sometimes the racquet is spun in the player's hands and the butt cap obscured from view with a palm. Sometimes, the question is “P or D” or “M or W” if the racquet is a Prince or a Wilson respectively. Sometimes the spin is done before the call is made. These are all exploitable on one side or the other. But note, I am not advocating cheating in any way.

The first thing to realize in such a situation is that most every amateur match begins with the warm-up. Only after both players are ready to start is the coin flipped/racquet spun. The correct thing to do is to determine who will serve and from which side before the warmup begins, and then players take their starting side for the warmup. But hey, most spins come after the warmup, so this can be used to your advantage.

If the sun (or any other weather tidbit) is a factor, then by all means, warm up with the sun in your face. That way, when your opponent plays on that side, he or she won't have been able to get used to it. Use that as a way to get a quick service break. After all, service breaks are the big thing in tennis. Get one and you'll probably win the set.

Okay, so we're warming up with the sun in our face. What next?

Well, if your opponent spins his racquet and asks “up or down” (or “M or W” or “P or D” or whatever) choose whatever came second. Say “down” (or “W” or “D”). Why? Because there are a lot of players that use social engineering to try and cheat a little bit. They know that most people will choose the first of the two choices and will set their racquets to the second on purpose. Nefarious? Yes it is! But I would wager that this will get you winning around 60% of the spins right off the bat.

If your opponent asks for your choice before spinning the racquet in his or her hand, insist that he or she spin it on the ground or spin it before you choose. Or perhaps offer to spin your own racquet. There are a good number of players that know what's up and what's down on their racquet and they will spin it to whatever you didn't call. Yes, it's cheating, but by identifying it, you can get the odds back to 50-50.

Okay, let's explore the options. The winner of the spin can elect to serve first, receive first, pick a side to start on, or defer to the opponent. The opponent then has the choice of what's left, except he cannot defer. So, if the winner elects to serve, then the opponent gets to choose the side. If the winner chooses a side, then the opponent can choose to serve or receive.

Okay, so you've won the spin. What now? Well, truth to tell, you may be better off losing the spin. And here's why.

Let's go back to the sun idea. You've warmed up with the sun in your face, so you're used to it. And you want to get the quickest break you can, before your opponent can adjust. So, the ideal thing is to have your opponent spend his first sun-blinded game serving. So, let's say your opponent wins the spin and elects to serve. You should then elect to start on the side that he warmed up on. Why? Because then he will serve the first game of the match with the sun in his face and you can get a quick break.

But what if he elects to receive? Well, then you stay on your side because you are used to the sun, can hopefully hold serve, and then when you switch he will have the sun in his eyes for his first service game.

Simple, right? Just play the games out in your mind and that will direct the decision.

So, if your opponent wins the spin and elects to take your side of the court, what do you do? That's right, you receive. Make him serve that first game that he faces the sun.

So, we can see that making the first decision (i.e. winning the spin) isn't necessarily a good thing. So, if you win the spin, perhaps you should elect to defer. Many crafty players do just this.

“But, Bird,” many of you are saying while hurling rotten fruit my direction, “you just told us to win the spin.” True. Very true. But if you win, you can defer, and your opponent cannot do anything about it. And in most circles, most players do not know what you are currently learning, and they will just elect to serve first, not really understanding why that is a good or bad thing.

Okay, so many of you are now saying, “what about indoor tennis?” To which I reply, “stop interrupting!” But then I will go on to say that, then things get a bit more interesting. Does your opponent have a good serve? Do you? Is it liable to win you free points and games? What about your fitness level? Remember, the key is to maximize the potential for holding your own serve while also trying to set up the best possibility for breaking your opponent's serve.

This was always a big factor in my matches growing up. The blazing Texas heat factored into a lot of my singles matches. I noticed that if I served first, then that meant that I served the second game after each changeover. So, by the time I was serving, I had already played a game and was farther away from the previous rest break, and that much more tired. So, I quickly got comfortable with receiving first. That way, late in the second or third set, when my opponent and I are battling the heat as much as each other, I would serve right after having had a rest on the changeover. Yes, I know that this choice only really affects the first set and that the set scores determine the later changeover patterns, but some of us get tired even in the first set. And you don't want to get broken at 5-all simply because you're tired and you made the wrong decision early on. So, to sum this point up, if fatigue is a factor, then try to receive first.

So, in the end, there is no magic formula. But I hope I have given you a good list of things to think about when it comes to the racquet spin.

Now, on to the e-mail portion of this month's instruction. Irwin F. writes:

I was playing tennis last night with a group of "friends" and we had an interesting situation come up that sparked a minor debate. I wanted to get an expert's opinion and a rule clarification.

We were playing doubles and I was receiving from the ad court. My partner called the opponent's first serve out even though it was clearly in (he is getting old). As I returned the serve back into the court my partner reversed his call claiming the serve was good. As soon as he reversed his call we stopped the point and the server took two. This is customary with our friendly group but what is the legal course of action in the situation?

I also wanted to know how many women you have bagged as a tennis pro? Is it a good way to pick up chicks?


Irwin F

Well, Irwin, there have been many rules changes over the past few decades, so I am not necessarily the best to ask for an off-the-cuff answer. Back in the day, we were taught that any bad call, regardless of the circumstance, is to be immediately given to the opponent. So, in this case, I would say it was the server's point regardless. But let's go to our old buddy, “The Code,” for this one.

For those of you who are unaware, “The Code” is the USTA (United States Tennis Association) rules for conduct in tennis. It is specifically written to answer questions such as Irwin's.

“The Code” states:

12. Out calls corrected. If a player mistakenly calls a ball “out” and then

realizes it was good, the point shall be replayed if the player returned the ball

within the proper court. Nonetheless, if the player’s return of the ball results

in a “weak sitter,” the player should give the opponent the point. If the player

failed to make the return, the opponent wins the point. If the mistake was

made on the second serve, the server is entitled to two serves.

So clearly, the rules have changed since my youth. In this case, Irwin and his “friends” handled the situation correctly, assuming that the return wasn't a “quacker.”

On the second issue, that of using tennis to “bag” women, well, here's the thing. Tennis is a great way to meet a plethora of people from all sexes, same and opposite and otherwise. And it's a great way to pick them up. That is, if you can pick them up in other situations as well. If you can meet women in a yoga class, then you can meet them on a tennis court. But if you can't hook up in a women's prison, then you probably won't have any better luck on a tennis court.

As to the specific question of how many I've bagged... well, I'll just let your collective imagination run wild. I've had my share. Um... if my share is, say, two. Once, there was this Navy nurse and... whoops, said too much already.

In response, Irwin, I must ask... why did you put quotes around “friends?”

Until next month, dear readers, this is The Bird saying, “keep those e-mails coming.”

Send your tennis questions and comments to Mike Swanberg at
Read more tennis tips.