There is a common saying in golf — “You drive for show, but you putt for dough” — meaning a pretty drive might look dramatic, but when it comes to actually winning a match, a good short game is more important than a monster shot off the tee. If this were applied to tennis, it would go something like: “You rally for show, but you serve for dough.”
“Serving is by far the most important shot in the whole game of tennis,” says Frank Giampaolo, a tennis coach in Laguna Beach, Calif., and author of the book Championship Tennis. “Most players think an hour lesson should be ground serves for 55 minutes and then serving for five minutes. It should be the opposite. Most people should be serving for 45 minutes and rallying for 15 minutes.”
Giampaolo says the three key components for a serve are location, consistency and power. First, send the serve to the right location, the opponent’s backhand. Next, focus on consistently getting the first serve in at least 60 percent of the time. If you are constantly missing your first serve, that means you are forced to send lollipop shots to your opponent in order to avoid the dreaded double fault. Lastly, use that same 60 percent rule when it comes to power. Trying to crush the ball with every muscle fiber in your body will surely bring down your consistency.
When it comes to the mechanics of a swing, technique can vary wildly from individual to individual. Take footwork and stance, for instance. “We did a study where we looked at 100 professionals, and we saw 100 different stances,” Giampaolo says. “All the top players stand a little bit different.” Here are the basics.
The Coil: With the racket in your right hand and the ball in your left hand, stand with your left toe on the baseline and your left shoulder facing the opponent. (Lefties: Do the opposite here and throughout.) Turn your upper body away from the baseline and wind up in a similar manner to the way a pitcher turns his back to the batter. It’s important to be fully coiled before tossing the ball.
The Toss: Hold the ball lightly with the fingertips of the left hand rather than in the palm. Toss the ball from your shoulder rather than flicking it with your wrist and send it only as high as you can reach with the top of your racket. Toss the ball out in front of you and slightly to the right. “One of the keys of serving consistently is hitting a tossed ball at its apex so it’s not skyrocketing up really fast and, more important, it’s not dropping at the rate of gravity. If you only toss it as high as you can reach, it sits in the hitting window longer than a really high toss,” Giampaolo says.
The Swing: During the coil, your right hand comes behind your body, with your palm turned down, the strings facing the ground and the nose of the racket pointed to the right. “You are going to uncoil the whole kinetic chain: knees, hip, shoulder, upper arm and lower arm,” Giampaolo says. “One of the important things is hand speed. Imagine flicking water off your hand. The faster the racket head moves, the more velocity you will get.”
Coming down from the apex of the swing, your forearm will pronate, or turn out to the side as if you were looking at the face of a wristwatch. The racket should continue to follow through and end near your left hip pocket.
Stay Loose: A fast serve is more about staying loose and relaxed rather than using muscle power. Roger Federer’s serve was clocked at 140 mph, and he is a lanky 6 feet 1 inch tall and 188 pounds. Giampaolo likens it to snapping a wet towel. “You have to be really loosey-goosey and spaghetti-armed, with quick, fast hands,” he says.