As you work on your tennis serve, you will very likely spend some time improving the drop behind your back where the racquet makes a loopy movement.
This is where the racquet starts to accelerate, and a deep drop usually translates into a powerful serve, while a shallower drop produces a weaker serve or at least a less efficient one.
To tackle the serve drop problem, I suggest dealing with it from two angles – from the mechanical one, meaning correcting your tennis serve technique, and from the mental one as you may have incorrect interpretation of how the serve works.
Just telling the player that he needs to drop the racquet more as it is not deep enough at the moment is simply trying to fix the consequence, which very rarely works in my experience.
The solution is to figure out the causes for a shallow drop and help the player become aware of them as only then can he make any changes in the motion.
There are two main causes for a shallow drop:
1. Mechanical/technical, which means that the player has not developed the motion with any exercises, so he needs to practice the movement starting with simple exercises and progressing to more complex ones.
2. Mental causes, which can be:
– Wanting to hit the ball hard and tensing up in the process, thus not allowing the racquet to drop as the arm is too stiff;
– Having an incorrect mental image of how to direct the ball with the racquet, which means the player imagines a straight line from the racquet through the ball toward the target instead of a more circular motion that creates angular momentum which in turn produces more speed; or
– Wanting to control the serve too much instead of letting go when accelerating the racquet.
If the player is not aware that his mind has incorrect mental images or that he is perhaps controlling the serve too much, then the technique of the serve and especially the drop will not change much despite putting in lots of practice.
Your mind programs the body movement, so we cannot fix the body as if you’re a robot and make it work independently of your mind.
To hit a stroke that has technically correct elements, you will need to have a mental state similar to what a player with a proper stroke technique has.
There is no other way.
So, make sure you examine your beliefs and interpretations of the serve as well as the mental images you have about the tennis serve technique that I explain in the video above or in the second part of this article.
The best way to create a deep drop in the serve is to use certain training aids/tools that help you feel the drop and the fluid movement of the arm throughout the loop that happens behind the back.
1. Ball on the string
The ball on the string is a very simple, homemade tool that works wonders in creating a new muscle memory of the service motion in tennis.
You can swing it with a follow-through on your right side or with a follow-through on your left side.
The key is to swing in a continuous motion without any stops or hitches.
If you do make adjustments, the ball will hit you in the body, and that will tell you immediately that you need to adjust.
2. The Serve Master
The Serve Master is a more “professional” version of the ball on a string, but it serves the same purpose – you swing the weight attached to a rubber string that also stretches out as you swing forward.
That gives you the correct feel of the racquet pulling you as opposed to you pushing the racquet through the ball forcefully.
I highly recommend the Serve Master (affiliate link) if you have troubles with a shallow drop on the serve as it will teach you simply by feel without any need for verbal instruction and consequently too much thinking while doing the serve eventually.
You will just ingrain a movement through repetition, and it will translate into your serve – unless you have an incorrect mental image of the serve, which I will address in the second part of this article.
3. Swinging the racquet with three fingers
Once you have swung the ball on the string or the Serve Master, repeat the same movement with the racquet while holding it with only three fingers.
That prevents you from grabbing the racquet too tightly and helps you feel the weight of the racquet which you need to swing around your body.
The key to a correct serve technique or, better said, correct biomechanics of the serve is the principle of angular momentum rather than linear momentum.
Simply said, you want to swing the racquet in a circular motion rather than steering it in a linear motion.
4. Swing with no ball and with a ball
Progress to swinging the racquet in the same way as above once without the ball and simply continue to the next swing where you will toss and hit the ball.
What you will very likely realize is that the serves are different, and this exercise will help you become more aware of the differences.
Your goal is to perform the serve with the ball in the same way (same fluidity, relaxation, and rhythm) as you do without the ball.
Sometimes it may take a few practice sessions before you can do that, so be patient and stick with the progression of drills in this article.
5. The dangling serve
Another way to feel a good drop and how it feels to accelerate upwards from there is a dangling serve where you “dangle” your arm with the racquet behind your back.
Make sure it’s not stiff or pushing against your back. It just needs to dangle and move freely behind your back.
Now imagine pulling your racquet up and forward and throwing it.
These are the key words: pulling and throwing. Hold the racquet very light and allow the racquet head to overtake your arm in the follow-through.
Eventually hit some balls like that and let them fly over the court. You are just working on getting the correct feel for the drop and the main service move, so don’t worry about where the ball goes.
In fact, the further the ball flies and the more effortless you do achieve that, the more correct is your technique.
6. Serve VERY slowly
Your next challenge is to serve as slowly as possible. You may find it challenging to coordinate and time the toss with a slow serve, but it is possible to do that as I demonstrate in the video.
A slow serve has proven very beneficial to becoming very aware of what goes on behind your back and on the way up toward the ball.
The reason for this slow serve drill is to avoid tension. Because you are not accelerating, you are not tensing your arm, and it is very likely that a deep drop will simply happen automatically.
Therefore, you are creating a new muscle memory, a new path in your mind and with your arm that you will use later when you will want to add more power.
Note that every good server will undoubtedly be able to demonstrate to you a very slow serve. A slow movement with proper technique is the foundation of a more powerful movement that retains good form.
Just ask any martial arts warrior practicing karate, kendo, aikido, or any other style. All of them perform movements in slow motion thousands of times in order to automate proper technique.
As I mentioned above, your mind programs the body, so before we fix the body, we also need to check if the programming is correct.
Think about it – whenever you want to do a new movement that has not been automated, you will run it in your mind first, like a little video playing in your mind, and only then will you move your arms or legs in that way.
So, while you see the serve technique on TV or in a video, you cannot feel what the pro feels and you may misinterpret what you see.
And in my experience working with club players for the last 20 years, the programming is almost never correct. 😉
Here are two main mind puzzles that need to be solved in order to unlock your serve :
1. The desire for control and learning to let go
Control and letting go are the exact opposite end of the spectrum.
Hitting a tennis ball into a service box at a good speed is quite a challenging task, especially if you don’t apply a lot of topspin on the ball and you don’t practice the serve regularly.
Because so many recreational tennis players want to play for points before getting a proper foundation of their serve technique, they are forced to do everything in their power to put the ball in; otherwise, they lose the point.
Therefore, a player will shorten the racquet path to the ball, thus producing a shallow drop, and hit the ball straight at fairly low speed instead of swinging freely through the ball.
With lots of playing like that, the movement becomes automatic and subconscious and is difficult to change.
The “desire for control” manifests itself in two main ways:
a) a shallow drop as the racquet path to the ball is very short and that gives you a feeling of control. A deeper drop makes hitting the ball in the service box much more challenging, and if you play for points mostly, it will feel too risky to do that.
b) a tight arm and a forceful pushing motion since you are trying to control the racquet head angle and the path of the racquet which is in the direction of the service box.
So step 1 is to become aware of the “desire for control” and allow yourself to let go in practice sessions and eventually in practice matches, as that will loosen up your arm and body and allow correct tennis serve technique.
You need to be detached from the outcome and not force it. You need to accept that a certain percentage of the serves will not go in and that’s not because you did something wrong but simply because it’s a difficult task as is, for example, scoring a basket in basketball or hitting a hole in golf.
So, swing freely through the ball and keep adjusting based on where the ball lands while retaining that free swing and the mindset of letting go.
2. The mental image of a linear path of the racquet through the ball instead of a more circular one
A straight line from the racquet toward the target area is easy to imagine, and it makes logical sense.
If you want to thread the ball into that small window above the net that guides the ball in the service box, you better hold the racquet tight and make sure it doesn’t change the angle while you are pushing it forward.
When you do that, you will tense up your arm and prevent it from dropping.
You will also just try to bring the racquet behind the ball and then push it forward; therefore, the drop doesn’t really make sense for your mental image.
A proper tennis serve is done in a more circular manner where you try to accelerate the racquet around a circle in order to create a lot of angular speed.
Therefore, you need as much distance as you can get in order to reach a lot of speed by the time you hit the ball.
And you can find this distance by having a deep drop.
It makes the accuracy of the serve much more challenging; hence, your desire for control may prevent you from swinging that much.
That’s why you need to work on your serve technique a lot without forcing yourself to hit the court.
I suggest you follow the progression of the drills above in part 1 and do them for 10-20 minutes. More than that usually results in mental fatigue, so your efforts to acquire new movements are not that effective.
While you do the technical exercises, also exercise your mind and bring yourself a notch closer from the control end of the spectrum to the letting go part of the spectrum.
Don’t force the drop. It needs to happen simply because you let it. Be patient and enjoy the process!