When I watch Roger Federer serve, his fluid brilliance is incredibly captivating. Balanced and relaxed start position. Check. Graceful rocking motion. Check. Rapid arm pronation. Check. Explosion at contact. Check. It’s poetry in motion.
If you’d watch me serve a year back, my inconsistency was jarring. My toss would floats up to a different place every time, as if carried by a sudden gust of wind. I would move my right foot as if I’m kick starting a motorbike. As my serve would start to falter, I’d start to toss the ball higher and try hitting it harder, as if that would magically start to work some magic.
And that’s when I discovered set of marvellous YouTube videos that helped me tune my technique.
My serve isn’t terrific yet, but there’s a marked improvement. I’m more fluid and relaxed. The toss is more consistent. I’m able to consistently get a mix of flat, top spin and slice serves in and mix up the placement for some variety.
There’s a few things that I learnt along the way that may help you. I’ve consolidated the videos around these learnings to make this a lot easier for you to follow along.
#1. Don’t Toss the Ball
Counter intuitive as it may seem, one of the main challenges I’d had all along was that I was tossing the ball in the air. Inadvertently, I was using my wrist or elbow which ended up making the ball move around.
The key lessons to learn here are:
- Don’t bend the elbow on the toss
- Keep your wrist relaxed
- Remember that when you release the ball you must not impart any additional momentum to it - the ball release is just an extension of the upward movement of your arm.
One great tip that helped me was to switch how I held the ball. Earlier, I used to hold the ball with my finger tips. I struggled with this, since I invariably imparted some momentum or spin with my fingers or wrist. Instead, I switched to a new toss grip which locked my wrist. I started to hold the ball the way I’d hold an ice cream cone.
#1-b. The Ice Cream Cone Release
The idea is simple. Relax your wrist, and hold the ball between your curled forefinger and thumb, just like you’d hold an ice cream cone. As your arm extends upwards, the release is a natural extension of the moment. The cone grip avoids adding momentum across the forward/backward axis since your wrist is locked. For an example, watch the video below of Roger Federer tossing the ball.
#2. Relax Your Wrist
Most of the other strokes - the forehand, backhand and volleys require that our wrist be firm. And it turns out, there’s a perfectly logical explanation for this. In those cases, the ball is already in motion, and keeping our wrist loose makes it harder for us to control the racquet face at the point of contact. The serve is the one stroke where the player has total control (well, once you’ve got a handle on the toss) over the ball position at the point of contact.
Relaxing your wrist causes the racquet head to gain additional rotation momentum as it heads towards the point of contact. This rotational momentum is what helps generate slight top spin, which keeps a flat serve inside the court.
Wait, did I just say a flat serve involves top spin? Yes, I did. The fact is, a tennis player needs to be 7-8 feet tall to hit a flat serve into the court. All flat serves involve a bit of spin to keep them in.
Ever heard someone ask you to ‘hit down on the ball’? Well, now you know the physics behind what they were asking you to do. They are right in that this is different from a top spin serve (more on that later), but there’s a certain amount of spin needed to work the magic.
And that, my friend, is one of the little implicit secrets of the serve.
#3. Don’t Hit Through The Ball - Throw Your Racquet At It
I’d heard this several times before, but I just found it really hard to execute. For the longest time, I’d swing at the ball the same way I would with my forehand or backhand. The racquet face would be open so that I could ensure that I middled the ball in the sweet spot.
There’s a hard learning for many of us to accept. It’s that we tend to over think many of these things. So I’ll need you to just suspect any analysis in your mind and just hear out what I’ll advice on next.
- Quit trying to hit through the ball.
- Throw your racquet at the ball, just like you are throwing a hammer for someone to catch.
- Keep your wrist relaxed throughout and do not consciously rotate the racquet face.
- This is really important, and but it’s hard to get right initially.
- You may hit a few balls over the fence, but don’t let that dissuade you.
- Keep in mind that you are likely trying to unlearn what you’ve been doing for a while.
- The natural pronation of your wrist will take care of rotating the racquet face in time to meet the ball with the racquet face facing the court.
- Initially, just focus on the biomechanics and rhythm of the movement, and ignore where the ball actually lands. You can work on that easily later once you’ve got the mechanics going.
What you’ll soon notice is that you’ll start to see much better racquet head speed on your serves, and movement will be more effortless. In fact, if you observe the videos of Sampras serving closely enough, you’ll see how his wrist drops all the way pronated outwards after his ‘snap’.
Hope these are useful to you. Please chime in via the comments, or let me know on Twitter