Correcting the Waiter’s Serve – The Complete Guide

Jun 12

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 Disadvantages of the Waiter’s Serve

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.

Waiter's serve technique

The “Waiter’s serve” example: the racquet face is open to the sky

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.

4 Reasons Why The Waiter’s Serve Happens

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.

Service motion in tennis

At this angle your would hit yourself in the head if you continued the service motion…

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.

Drills To Correct The Waiter’s Serve

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.

Serve with leading on the edge

Lead with the edge throughout the full service motion

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.

serve racquet drop direction

Drop the racquet between the thumb and index finger

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

Correct the waiter's serve

“Thread” the racquet between your back and 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 serve technique.

Leave a Comment:

(30) comments

Jeff June 12, 2014

Thank you so much. I have this problem and couldnt always correct it. You have given me the tools to fix it.

Arthur Quinby June 12, 2014

U once said ” at the moment when the strings meet the ball,what type of spin do u want?”

So on a flat serve and using the pronation concept what spin do I want?



    Tomaz June 12, 2014

    You don’t want any spin, Arthur, but in reality some always happens as the racquet always travels slightly across the ball.

Patrick June 12, 2014

Tomaz, The best treatment on this subject I am aware of. The video and the script with photographs is the optimal teaching technique. Thank you for your attention to these details.

Best, Patrick

Jack Bandel June 12, 2014

Great stuff as always Tomaz! Was I your inspiration for this? 🙂
I am (was hopefully) a great example of this dreaded problem, but with your help I am already on the path to improvement.

    Tomaz June 13, 2014

    You’re welcome, Jack. This is a common problem that’s why I am so familiar with it. Let me know how the drills work for you…

Eddie June 13, 2014


You’ve really done you homework on this and it make alot of since
to me…Thanks for this lesson and I’ll try my best to make it work
for me…Keep up the good work…


Philip Leong-Sit June 13, 2014

Thank-you, Tomaz, for this video. I really like your style of instruction. And your “serve unlocked” course has really improved my serve. But it is still a work in progress.

You might not have an answer to this, but I notice that Roger Federer’s motion is unique in that his racquet does NOT drop behind his back on edge. Instead, it drops more to his SIDE. As a result, the depth of his racquet drop is not as ‘deep’ as his colleagues, but somehow he hits the corners of the box more effectively than anybody else on tour. Do you notice that uniqueness in the motion?

More specifically, before Roger is ready to pull the racquet up to the ball, I notice his buttcap is pointing directly to the ball. Whereas with the other players, their buttcaps usually point directly up to the sky… I think that is a result of HOW his racquet drops. Do you agree? I hope you understand my description.

    Tomaz June 13, 2014

    Hi Philip, I didn’t notice this specific issue with Federer mainly because every player has some personal style in the serve.

    Perhaps you just study Federer more and not Gilles Simon 😉 for example to see the little details.

    Everyone uses their body slightly differently to achieve roughly the same effect – namely to “throw” the racquet through the ball…

    Mark Scott November 29, 2014

    At last, someone else who has noticed the difference in the Federer serve! When I stopped trying to put the racket behind my head and did it more like Fed the whole on edge and pronation thing came together and really improved my serve. It seems a far simpler way to do it. However, I would like to get more racket drop so am in the process of trying to work that out…

      Mark Scott December 1, 2014

      I just looked at two slo mo videos of Sampras’ serve and he does the same as Fed, not putting the racket behind his head just before the racket drop. Yet two of the greatest serves in history not just for placement but also power.

young hoon park June 13, 2014

Many thanks to you. It’s a very practical and useful.

aleksandr June 13, 2014

томас спасибо за советы .я тренер из россии всегда с интересом смотрю ваш сайт

tomi June 13, 2014

from those ‘tennis strategy’ days onward your articles have been the best there is.

with this topic in mind i’d really like to hear your opinion on the following: during an itf workshop two coaches introduced the serve teaching system consisting of several stages, the first being the waiter tray. i understand that the modern teaching & gba wants kids to rally & play ‘real’ points as early as possible but i was wondering then how on earth they were going to correct the wrong ‘muscle memory’ later on?

Jeff McCalmon June 13, 2014


THANK YOU ! Once again this is GREAT. the drill should also help me get more of a racquet drop.

Jim June 13, 2014

Tomaz, thanks for the tennis waiter tip. As a long time tennis serving waiter, I believe my new found success will be attributed to practice and your explanation. I particularly liked the part where the racquet drops between the thumb an index finger. It seems to me that your shoulder over shoulder tip in a past article would tend to help with the proper on edge serving mechanics. Do you agree?

    Tomaz June 14, 2014

    Yes, Jim, with the waiter tray serve the tendency is to level the shoulders as soon as possible so that’t why this habit is also transferred to a more advanced serve if the player is changing from a forehand grip to a continental grip. So yes, shoulder over shoulder should help eliminating more bad habits from the old serve technique.

Julie June 13, 2014

Tomaz, Great video on the “waiter tray” serve. I was one of those recreational player who started out serving with the forehand grip. Eventually, I got really good at this flat serve that produced a tricky leftie spin on the ad court. But I knew I had to change my to advance my serve. You’re absolutely right. It is one of the hardest muscle memories to change. It took almost two years to fully change to a continental grip and learn to pronate by throwing your racquet. It’s a work in progress, but getting there. Funny thing is I see all the USTA-rated 3.5 to 4.0 female players still using the “waiter tray” serve.

    Tomaz June 14, 2014

    Thanks for sharing, Julie. Thumbs up, where there’s a will, there’s a way.

PB June 14, 2014

Thank you for a most comprehensive treatment of the serve. I have been following your other instructions on serving and found this one to be a great consolidation. I think people new to your approach may find this video rather overwhelming, so I suggest that you add a reminder that readers should also look at your instructions on how to develop a feel for the topspin and slice serves as these can really help people to finally understand what these serves actually feel like. Or perhaps your next lesson on pronation will cover this. Can’t wait!
Thank you again and best regards

    Tomaz June 14, 2014

    Thanks a lot, PB; I will keep your suggestions in mind.

David June 14, 2014

Great video! Great tips from a great coach. Keep it up.

Ben June 14, 2014

Hi Tomaz,

Great, great lesson! I’ve been trying it and getting some success, but it’s tricky to pull off consistently.

I think I noticed a slight flub in your explanation in :
Drill 1. Leading with the edge (no ball)

b) you say at contact pronate and lead with the bottom edge. Shouldn’t the pronating then cause you to lead with the top edge after contact and follow through?

    Tomaz June 15, 2014

    Correct, Ben, lead with the top edge. Thanks!

Geoff June 17, 2014

Excellent video and explanation. Super important to address the unconscious and muscle memory reasons for not pronating – knowing one should pronate does not fix it! I think adding to this the plastic bag drill with the three loops will help a lot, as well. I keep a rubber ball in a sock in my tennis bag and start the warmup of my serve with that to get the rhythm and loose flowing feeling in my muscles before I try to hit a serve. But even with that I know I tend to open up the racket face too soon and lose all that good momentum at contact. These new drills will help a lot, I am sure. Thanks

Larry Buhrman June 19, 2014

Hi Tomaz,

Great coaching as always!


Larry Buhrman

Paul A Kenn, Jr. June 20, 2014

Tomaz, like I said on U-Tube… you’re a genius, thanks so much, these are things that even 3 teachers didn’t show me. Paul

Hemant June 26, 2014

This is great explanation Tomaz.

Is there any adjustment needed in racket path for top spin serve v/s flat serve?

Hermine August 18, 2014

Thank you very much Tomaz for all this very detailed and clear explanations! I feel that i finally found an answer to why my serves are soo bad and i couldn’t understand why. Thanks to you, i have a brand new perspective and i’m very happy about that!
May all the instructors be like you!!

Matt June 1, 2015

Thanks, this is extremely helpful, in just a couple of days it has made my serve much more consistent, it has also taken a lot of the stress off of my shoulder.

Add Your Reply

Leave a Comment: