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Build An Effective Tennis Serve

Serving in tennis isn't just about aces or first-serve winners. While those are great, starting the point strategically is a more reliable way to gain an advantage over your opponent. Mastering various serving types, developing a dependable second serve, and understanding tactics can significantly elevate your game at any skill level. This article explores effective serve strategies, providing insights and tips for all players.

What Are The Main Types of Tennis Serve?

There are 3 main types of serve used in tennis in different scenarios and these are: Flat, Kick, and Slice. There are also some bonus types discussed below. Let’s look more in-depth at each main serve type:

1. Flat Serve

Even though this serve is known as the "flat serve," there will always be some spin present; it is lower than the other two main serve types. Its higher speed and minimal spin characterize the flat serve. It travels in a straighter line, making it the fastest kind of serve. There is, therefore, a lower margin for error due to the reduced spin and increased speed, making it more suited to use as a first serve.

serving
serving
serving

2. Kick Serve

The kick serve, or the topspin serve, generates heavy spin, causing the ball to bounce high and away from the court at speed. The Magnus effect of topspin causes the ball to drop quickly, meaning you can serve the ball higher over the net. This makes the kick serve the safest and most reliable, which is why it is the most favored choice by Pros for the second serve.

serving
serving
Peyton Stearns (Indian Wells 2024)
serving

Here's a video from Ryan at 2minutetennis.net showing you how to practice the kick using the TopspinPro:

3. Slice Serve

The slice serve imparts sidespin on the ball, causing it to curve to the side. It’s particularly effective for pulling opponents wide off the court and is most useful when serving from your dominant side of the court to out wide: For right-handers when serving from the right (deuce) and left-handers from the left (ad). It can also be used to swing the ball into your opponent’s body, making it hard to return.

serving
serving
Andrey Rublev (Indian Wells 2024)
serving

Here's a video from Ryan at 2minutetennis.net showing you how to practice the slice using the TopspinPro:

Looking At Spin

As discussed previously, the "flat serve" actually has a certain amount of spin whether you are consciously applying it or not. This can vary for a number of reasons, such as the player's height, biomechanics, and technique. But here's what ultimately controls what happens to the ball:

  1. Direction - The direction the ball travels depends on the direction the strings point in at the contact
  2. Spin - The spin added to the ball depends on the direction the racket is traveling in at contact and the speed it is traveling in that direction.

Below is an example of what your racket path may look like during either a kick or a slice serve:

serve
The Kick and Slice racket path

Delving further into spin levels, the graph below gives us an interesting look at the average spin for flat, slice, and kick serve at the pro level. This shows us that the average flat serve has around 1200rpm, almost half that of the slice, with the kick having the heaviest amount of spin.

serving
Credit: Elliott B, Reid M, Crespo M. Technique Development in Tennis Stroke Production. London, UK

Bonus Serves

As mentioned previously, there are some extra serves that are less commonly used, such as the trick serves listed below. The hybrid serve is commonly used by mature and pro players alike and is a great way to add another dimension to your game.

Hybrid Serve

A combination of a flat serve mixed with either a slice or kick. This produces a slightly faster version of the spin serve and can be used to throw off your opponent as a change of pace.

Trick Serves

Tennis purists often frown upon trick serves, but they can be a practical part of your game and maximize the use of the rule book. The most common trick serve is the underarm serve, which was recently made famous by Nick Kyrgios.

Here’s a video showing you a selection of serves including the underarm, tweener and reverse serves:

 

How To Improve Your Serve

It’s important to remember that the second serve is the most important of the two serves and really the most crucial shot in tennis. The average tennis player focuses on achieving a powerful and penetrating first serve and often neglects the second serve. But, in reality, a lot of the time, 50% of your points will be started with a second. Both serves need equal focus, and understanding the tactical differences will help take your service games to the next level. Here are some ways you can improve both serves:

First Serve

Choose Wisely: Don’t get into the habit of blasting big serve after big serve. Sure, you might get an easy winner now and then, but often, you will be using up extra energy just to hit the ball out or into the net. Develop an arsenal you can choose from. Have a big flatter serve, train variations of speed and angle on the slice, and a reliable hybrid kick/flat serve. This is the best way to keep your opponent guessing and change up your tactics and open up the court in different ways. The more you develop this, the better your first serve choice will be in a game.

Practice Consistently: Regular practice is essential. Dedicate specific practice sessions to developing that arsenal, focusing on technique and placement.

Work on Placement: Aim for specific targets within the service box. Hitting precise spots increases the effectiveness of your spin.

Second Serve

Work On Depth: It’s best to use the kick serve for the second most often, as it is the most reliable and can be used to keep your opponent back. The key to this is having the confidence to hit your kick with decent speed and depth. Practice achieving consistent depth by using cones and markers to create zones. It’s easy to tighten up a match and slow your second serve down too much if you haven’t practiced.

Practice A Routine: Tension can lead to errors. Maintain a loose grip and smooth motion throughout the serve. The best way to achieve this is to have a regular routine to keep you loose on each serve. Know your routine and stick to it. This also helps with toss accuracy.

Build Consistency: You want a second serve you can rely on. If you double-fault once or twice per game, then that’s too often. Once or twice per set would be a more favorable amount. Build mental and technical consistency by putting in some practice hours on your own and with a partner in some practice points.

How To Use Your Serve

First Serve

Aim For A High Percentage: Don't go big all of the time. Use spin and increase your percentage of successful first serves. Also, figure out where to aim for your personal highest rate of success, especially when under pressure.

Target Weaknesses: Identify your opponent’s weaker side and target it a good percentage of the time. Check to see if your opponent struggles with slice or topspin.

Disguise Your Serve: Maintain a similar motion for different types of serves to prevent opponents from anticipating your shot. Also try not to move to other positions along the baseline because it will be more obvious what you are doing.

Create Spaces: Use your service to create spaces both wide and deep. This not only moves your opponent more but also opens up the court for your second shot.

serve
Slice Serve Out Wide From The Deuce Court (Right Hander)

Second Serve

Don’t Be Too Predictable: Many players hit their second serve in the same spot each time. This may be consistent and reliable but to take your second serve to the next level you need to still apply pressure.

Serve To The Score: If you are 0-40 down it’s probably not the best time to go for a huge second serve. Keep your serve with the score, if you have a good lead then you can afford to be more aggressive.

Miss Long: We don't want to miss, but if we do, it's better to be long than in the net, especially on a kick serve. This is a sign you have been confident, kept good acceleration and height and not tightened up. A short and slower second serve is a classic sign of nervousness.

Use Instructional Self Talk: This means using keywords or statements that will help keep you positive in the moment. There's a lot more pressure on the second serve than the first. If you think, "I hope I don't miss," as you are about to strike it, then you can bet you know what will happen! If you use instructional self-talk such as "hit up" or "accelerate," it keeps you focusing on the task at hand rather than panicking.

Summary

Mastering different types of serves, developing a reliable second serve, and understanding tactical serving can significantly improve your tennis game. By incorporating these strategies and techniques, you can keep your opponents off balance, control the pace of play, and win more points on serve. Remember, effective serving combines technique, consistency, and strategy—practice these elements regularly to become a more formidable server.

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