The serve is statistically the most important shot in tennis. It doesn’t matter what level you play at, the serve will be a major factor in the outcome of a match. It’s also a shot that most of us don’t work on nearly enough - even in coaching sessions. The LTA estimates that in the average lesson in the UK a player will hit 16 serves, a number which is surprisingly low especially considering the importance of the shot as well as how many different types of serves you can hit.
Obviously most coaches are aware of the importance of the serve- so why are so few serves being hit in training sessions? I’m pretty sure the number will be lower in the group sessions than the individuals. Even if it’s an after thought - most individual lessons finish with ten minutes of serves. The problem with group lessons is you often work on specific game situations, adding the serve in can make the practice too open and non specific. Less individual attention also makes it more difficult to work on a serve technically for ten minutes.
Whilst coaches can and should prioritise the serve more in sessions - players can also work on the serve themselves. In this post we are going to look why it is important to aim your serve, how to direct it and some target based practices you can use to hone your skills.
Why is placement important on the serve?
Being able to direct your serve allows you to implement tactics from the first shot of the point. Whether this is to open up the court with a slice serve or getting the ball onto someone’s backhand - being able to direct the serve allows the player to start exploiting weaknesses in their opponents game or to start a pattern of play.
Even small differences in placement/spin can have a significant impact on the quality of the return. The video example below highlights this point.
The impact of the serve being outside of the returners 'hitting zone'.
How should you direct the serve?
Just like any shot - the main way you are going to direct the serve is by the angle of the strings at contact. Ideally you want the swing to stay as similar as possible on both the ‘T Serve’ and the ‘Wide Serve’ - the main difference should be the angle of the racket at contact.
In the video below, Patrick Mouratoglu, uses a good drill to help this player get the feeling for what his wrist position should be on the flat and the slice serve. Something I especially like about this drill is how close they are to the net, this allows the player to reduce the movement with his arm so he can focus more on the wrist position. If you try this drill out for yourself then your focus should be on the direction and getting the slice on the wide serve - don’t worry too much about getting the serve in.
Once you have got the hang of hitting the serve flat towards the middle and sliced towards the wide serve then head back and try to integrate what you have practiced into your regular serve.
One last thing is don’t be tempted to cut around the ball with your racket. Back the angle of the racket to get you the spin and angle that you need. This will allow you to generate the spin without losing lots of power.
Now we know how to direct our serve it is a good time to introduce targets into our practice. Hitting a specific place on the court over and over builds better technique, focus, and confidence in your serve.
Targets should vary based on your level, here are a few ideas for targets ranging from relatively easy to advanced.
Level 1 - Basic Direction
Split the service box into two with a line directly down the middle. You now have a basic target area for both the wide and the T serve.
Level 2 - Avoiding The Hitting Zone
More important than where the ball lands is where the ball ends up. Looking at where the ball crosses the baseline is a good way of assessing if we have avoided our opponents ‘hitting zone’. In other words if your opponent would need to move in order to hit their return. Most players will struggle significantly more with the return if you avoid this area.
For the wide serve the inner tramline works as a good target. You want the ball to cross into the tramlines before it crosses the baseline. For the T serve, place a line half way between the inner tramline and the centre T. You want your T serve to stay on the outside of that line.
This is a really good target area for most players first serves and for advanced players second serves.
Level 3 - Ace Territory
Players that are coached by me will likely be familiar with the term ‘Two step reach’. This basically means that if the serve is fast then the returning player likely only has time to take two steps in either direction and then reach with their racket. If you can avoid that area whilst hitting good power on the serve then you are fairly likely to hit an ace on that serve.
For the targets you should mark out your two step reach zone both for the wide serve and the T serve. You should find that the wide serve is a little past the outer tramline and the t serve is pretty close to the middle of the court. Getting the ball to stay outside of that target area is pretty challenging but it gives you a good idea of how consistently you might be able to hit aces if you go for them.
Unless you are really driven - serve practice on your own can often be a bit boring. Using the targets above you can play games either with yourself or with a hitting partner. Here’s a few ideas to get the ball rolling.
Last man standing - Using one of the target areas above, a group of two or more players take it in turns to hit serves. Players start with three lives, if a player gets their serve in the target area they keep their life, if they don’t they lose it. The player with lives remaining last wins.
Call it - Whilst playing points the server has to call where the serve is going before they hit it. If the player gets it into the target zone they get one point regardless of the outcome of the rest of the rally. Whoever wins the rally also gets one point. Using tie break scoring is good for this game.
Serve challenge - Starting with the slice serve out wide the challenge is to hit the ball progressively closer to the T. The catch is that your serve must land closer to the T than the last serve. If the ball goes out or is closer to the tramline than the previous serve you fail. See how many serves you can hit in a row to the right of the previous serve (Assuming the player is right handed and serving to the deuce court).
The most important thing is you have fun with it and get out there on the court. If you're the type of player who struggles to direct the ball or doesn't try to direct it other than towards the service box then make sure you try this out!