The so-called waiter’s serve is a common error in tennis technique, and it’s usually not easy to correct.
The name comes from the very open racquet face in the backswing which resembles a waiter carrying a tray.
The video below shows you 5 reasons why the waiter’s serve happens in the first place and the drills to correct it.
The waiter’s serve prevents good acceleration into the ball because there is no pronation just before contact, which is the main source of power in the serve.
It also makes it very difficult, if not impossible, to hit effective topspin and slice serves because the racquet is not coming toward the ball on the edge.
The waiter’s serve appears in two forms:
1. The player uses a forehand grip, which automatically makes the racquet face open in the backswing.
He may attempt to make the other parts of the serve correct by having a more sideways stance, loading the legs, pre-stretching the body, etc. – but the forehand grip will always cause the opening of the racquet face.
Therefore, the grip has to be changed to continental before doing any corrective exercises.
2. The player uses the correct continental grip but still opens the racquet face in the backswing.
This usually happens after the player has changed the grip from the forehand grip to continental but doesn’t trust the pronation and opens the face very early »just to be sure« that he will hit the ball on the strings.
There are a few reasons why the player opens the racquet face too early in his serve motion:
1. Wanting to be certain that the racquet will hit the ball on the strings
As you can see, this is a mental cause, not a technical one; that’s why it’s not easy to correct. It’s not easy to convince the player that the pronation will take care of opening the racquet face at the right time.
2. Not trusting the pronation
This is basically the twin brother of cause #1. The player wants to open the racquet face and be certain that he will hit the ball because he doesn’t trust the pronation will do it for him.
The key for correcting this is working a lot on pronation exercises which will train the player’s forearm to move quickly through pronation and achieve the desired effect of changing the racquet’s angle in the last split second.
3. Fear of hitting yourself in the head
There is this subconscious fear that if you keep the racquet “on the edge” through the backswing, you will hit yourself in the head with the racquet.
Usually the player is not aware of this fear until I ask him if this is the case.
So, subconsciously the player opens the racquet face to avoid hitting himself in the head.
That also happens because the player is not opening up the shoulders enough to make space for the racquet behind the head because he is used to orienting toward the court too much.
4. Forehand grip muscle memory and orienting too quickly toward the court
Most beginners will start serving with the forehand grip because it is easy and it makes it easy to control the ball.
Unfortunately, even a lot of coaches start teaching beginners the serve with the forehand grip, not realizing how challenging it will be to change the muscle memory of that movement into the more advanced serve with the continental grip.
Once you’ve been serving for a while with the forehand grip, your arm and especially your forearm have learned to move in a certain way, which is difficult to change for the more advanced serve.
The waiter’s serve happens almost automatically if you orient toward the court too early in the service motion.
Again, this is usually muscle memory from serving with the forehand grip initially or simply out of a desire to face the target because we feel more in control then.
But feeling like we are in control does not mean that we will actually have more control because as soon as we turn toward the court, we cannot hit the ball with the topspin or slice well.
Because the waiter’s serve is based on early opening of the racquet face and because that happens behind your head, meaning you’re not able to observe it while serving, it’s not easy to correct.
The subconscious and your muscle memory “fire” the early opening of the racquet face when your attention is on the ball you just tossed; therefore, you’re not really aware when and how it happens.
That’s why you have to do many drills to “reprogram” your arm’s movement, especially the pronation.
1. Leading with the edge (no ball)
a) The first drill helps you feel what it means to lead with the edge. Lead with the bottom edge into the backswing, then with the top edge into the loop behind your back, then with the bottom edge out of the loop toward the imaginary ball, and then follow-through on your right side (for right-handers), again leading with the bottom edge and starting another cycle.
b) Repeat the same movement, but this time pronate at the contact, then lead with the bottom edge, and follow-through on your left. Repeat the cycle.
c) Repeat the same exercises, but hold the racquet with 3 fingers only. See if you can let it go more and allow it to move more freely while still maintaining the “edge” technique.
2. Drop the racquet between the thumb and the index finger
Try dropping the racquet between the thumb and index finger, and almost let it go so you feel what a real drop means. Eventually, hold it with only these two fingers.
See and feel the difference between the waiter’s serve, where the hand opens and flexes back, and the correct drop, where the hand doesn’t flex but stays “on the edge” and the racquet drops in the direction between the thumb and the index finger.
3. Stay sideways longer – serve topspin to the ad court
One of the residual muscle memories from the forehand grip serve is also orienting toward the court too early, which automatically makes the racquet open up.
The best way to correct that is to serve topspin or slice to the ad court, which makes you stay sideways more easily so that you can get used to approaching the ball on the edge.
Eventually you will add more and more pronation and stop orienting toward the court early – and, at the same time, correct the waiter’s serve.
4. Serve the ball with the edge
Because the waiter’s serve opens the racquet face too early, we need to fight it by doing the opposite first. In this drill, you need to keep the racquet on the edge throughout the serve and attempt to hit the ball with the edge.
You may be tempted to slow down the racquet too much because you’ll badly want to try and hit the ball, but that’s not the main point of the drill.
It is only to reprogram your forearm so when you’re approaching the ball it doesn’t open too quickly.
5. Approach the ball on the edge and “change your mind”
Once you’ve served 20-30 balls with the edge, change your mind at the last moment and pronate to hit it with the strings. Try to do it as late as possible.
Your muscle memory will want to kick in very early in the swing and open the racquet face, so be prepared for some resistance. 😉
6. Serve near the fence
Position yourself 2 feet from the fence and perform the service motion. If you open the racquet face too early, you will hit the fence at the “entrance” into the loop.
That will immediately tell you the position of your hand.
You will also hit the fence if you turn forward too early as the racquet will open again.
So, just by practicing your serve 2 feet from the fence, you are installing the correct tennis serve technique into your subconscious.
Based on my experience, the waiter’s serve technique in tennis is a very stubborn one to deal with. It requires a lot of reprogramming and a lot of repetition.
You may find that, without the ball in the air, you can perform the serve perfectly, but once the ball is up, your subconscious fires the early opening of the racquet face and you’re back to square 1.
The main reason, in my experience, is that you don’t trust the pronation, so you want to make sure you’ll hit the ball on the strings.
First, put performing the correct technique BEFORE putting the ball in the court for a period of time.
Your primary goal is to correct the waiter’s serve, so swing with the edge at the ball and let the ball fly wherever it wants to go.
You’ll probably hit a slice serve, and that’s great – that’s step 1 in really dealing with the waiter’s serve.
Second, perform some pronation exercises every session, which will program the timing and the technique of the movement of the forearm into your subconscious.
Once you feel the effect of the pronation and you know it happens correctly, you won’t worry about hitting the ball on the strings and you’ll be able to serve with the correct tennis serve technique.