When starting with tennis most begin with simple groundstrokes, practicing both their forehand and backhand. With this beginning one begins to learn other aspects of the game from netplay to the rules. With these all in their backpocket the early tennis learner often struggles with what most consider the hardest part of the game to learn, the serve.
One cannot start a point and thus even hope to play a game, set or match of tennis without starting the point with a serve. I have been playing tennis for 8 years, since my first year of Highschool and also struggled with this aspect. I later developed it into what I consider one of my greatest weapons on the court. Using this learned experience and the knowledge I have gained while helping others learn while participating as an assistant coach I have compiled this guide to help newer players start with good technique through explanation, tips and select photos.
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Step 1: Before You Begin: Serving Rules
Before beginning to serve it helps to know the rules, if you are familiar with them already feel free to skip ahead.
The smaller boxes in the front of each side are known as service boxes, your goal when serving is to direct the ball there, but you cannot stand anywhere that you please. The line at the very back of the court is known as the base line. You must serve from behind this line on the side opposite of the box you are aiming at. If your foot touches or crosses this line at any point before the ball has hit your racquet and left is a fault.
When serving in a game one gets two chances to serve per point. Missing the box or serving improperly will result in a fault, meaning you lose a chance. After two faults you lose the point and must serve to the other box.
Start serving in a game from the right hand side. When serving the ball must pass over the net and into the box on the opposite side. So in the case of serving from the right hand side (deuce) one must hit it into the box on the left side on the opponent’s side of the court. Likewise if you are serving from the left hand side (ad) you must hit it over the net into your opponent’s right hand service box. If you ball clips the top of the net and goes in, or if a ball rolls onto the court during the serve this is known as a let(short for let serve for any trivia buffs). In this case the server will redo the serve, keeping any previous faults. For full official rules feel free to follow the link here or to check rulings at the USTA.
Step 2: Before You Begin: Good Weather
Though this should be apparent, choose a day where weather won’t be a limiting factor to learn how to serve. While you should learn to eventually handle other factors while serving, you’re just beginning to learn the motions and should give yourself the best environment possible. A windy day will make it hard to learn how to toss the ball and also direct it. Other factors, aside from precipitation, don’t matter as much. If you struggle with sunlight serving in a location where you will not be looking into the sun is also a plus. As for temperature or cloudiness pick a day that you’re comfortable in above all else, some might enjoy sunlight while others feel better with overcast.
Step 3: The Grip
Like all strokes in tennis grip plays a large role in how the ball is hit. The suggested grip is continental(bevel 0 shown above) though one can hold the racquet rotated slightly left or right, depending on comfortability. With this neutral grip it is easiest to come down on the ball from above, which is exactly what a serve is. If you have difficulty achieve the grip pictured above imagine how you would hold the racquet if you were to use it to hammer in a nail.
Step 4: The Beginner's Stance
Start by standing behind the baseline. From here put one leg forward with your foot pointing into the court and the other behind with the foot parallel to baseline. This is important to help you aim into the court and will be your base for both tossing the ball and early swings.
Step 5: The Toss
The serve is special because it is the only swing in the point where the player has complete control. While others rely on your opponent's return including speed and placement, with the toss you have the luxury of starting the the point on your terms, for this reason we are discussing this before the swing, though the two go hand in hand.
To figure out where to toss the ball it helps to visualize where you should be aiming. Standing on the baseline reach your arm straight above your head extending the racquet head. Make note spatially with where the center of your racquet face is, this is where your toss should end up.
From here set your racquet down and take hold of the ball. A good toss is straight up, as it is consistent (you’ll vary this under bad weather conditions). Keep that mental note of where you’re racquet was and focus on it. Begin with your arm somewhere between fully extended and tight inside of your body. You want enough room to feel comfortable and it is easiest to throw straight up when your arm is not fully extended. From here begin tossing the ball upwards until it is hitting that spot and going either straight or slightly behind you. Once you can consistently throw the ball where you are aiming you can move on, this might take a while but it is a fundamental step that when it becomes second nature makes progressing to further steps easier.
Step 6: Swinging
Now that you are able to get the ball in a good spot for the next step you’ll need to pick up your racquet. With the swing it is important to meet the ball and direct it downward. Begin in stance and start with the racket behind your head. Swing forward a few times to get a feel of how to begin. Your arm should reach its full length at where toss will go, then flow downwards.
From here toss the ball and hit it. Get into the swing of things and examine how the ball flows.
To help bring the ball down practice pronating your wrist. On contact begin pronation by bending your wrist down and finish as you also finish your swing. This motion will bring the ball down, adding more curve to the serve and helping to get the ball in.
What you have learned is a flat serve, this should be enough to start serving recreationally. If you wish to learn how to hit different types of serves and add more power and technique to your swing read onwards.
Step 7: Bonus Imparting Spin
With the ability to hit the ball in we’ll discuss a more advanced technique. For taller players it is easy to hit a strong serve while flat, as they can come down and direct it. For shorter players or even those just interested in varying their serve putting spin on the ball can help direct it into the court.
Top spin is useful for pulling the ball into the court. Think of applying topspin by brushing the ball upwards. To do this will a serve motion your arm to curve from behind the ball and curve over. This will require you to throw the ball further back. In doing so you add more arc to the ball, bouncing it higher when it hits the ground and improving accuracy. This is a safer second serve when you have to count on it going on and can’t afford another fault.
The toss isn’t much different. The important part is how your face comes across. This one might take a bit longer to figure out but in short it is hitting the ball while curing your racket around the outside of the ball. For aiming you’ll find you’ll need to aim more towards the outside of the court(depending if you’re left or right handed) in order
Step 8: Bonus Adding Power
The power in a serve doesn’t only come from the ball but mostly from one’s leg and core muscles. This section will help you put your weight into the ball adding strength by pushing oneself off of your feet joined together into the ball.
You will start with your legs open. From there you will transition the leg behind you mid toss forward where you will bend your legs slightly and position your torso up. This is known as the power position and is often iconically seen on tennis trophies. Next push off with both of your feet exploding into the ball. Lastly use your stomach and shoulders to direct the ball downwards and into the court. After as you finish move your backfoot into the court, this should feel natural. This motion will add more angle and power to the ball and can be used for flat, topspin and slice serves.
Step 9: Bonus Recovery
Now that you’re doing all of these motions remember the whole purpose of the serve, to start a point. Having all the power and technique in the world will not mean much unless you are able to hit the ball if they return your serve. For this reason I will detail how you feet should move as you finish your serve so that you may return the ball.
Progress naturally with your weight. After landing on your foot transition your weight forward sliding the other foot next to it. A quick reset with a small hop (a split step) will help you regain your balance. From here you can move forward or back as you read your opponents return.