How To Improve A Tennis Serve By Changing The Mental Image

Sep 29

Fay asked me to help her improve her tennis serve and the following is my analysis and suggestions on how to change her mental image of the serve technique and what drills to use.

Fay, I believe your serve technique can be improved with a few tennis tips and not necessarily by a massive amount of repetition and complex mechanical instruction.

Correct Mental Image On The Serve

1. The first thing you need to do is to imagine the serve differently – that is to hit up and not forward.

At the moment, you imagine getting the racquet behind the ball so that you can guide it in a straight line toward the target.

Improve the serve by changing the mental image

The difference in the mental image CAUSES the difference in the serve technique

This idea makes sense logically, but with the serve, things happen so fast that we don’t really consciously guide the ball toward the target.

This idea, I believe, causes you to use your arm fully and not really the forearm and the wrist.

The correct mental image is that you need to generate racquet speed first and do that mostly upwards.

That’s why I bend my knees and start building the energy from my legs. That’s also why my elbow is bent and pointing up – since I intent to »hit« upwards first.

Once the racquet builds speed/energy, it will simply make a half-circle because my elbow and my wrist work as joints, and the racquet rotates around them.

I look for a whip effect rather than linear force – which is what I believe you’re looking for.

So, the goal is not to hit toward the court, but rather to generate racquet head speed upwards.

This should help you imagine hitting upwards, and therefore, you’ll look to get energy from the ground and loosen your elbow.

The best drill to get the feel for that is the one I showed, which is simply to dangle your racquet behind your back and then imagine throwing it upwards.

A slightly more advanced way is to use the drill for fast serves.

You won’t need many repetitions of these drills before you feel a very relaxed arm and your elbow will be loose and down.

2. The second key mental image you need to change is to hit across the ball and direct the ball with the strings.

At the moment, your image is to direct the ball with the arm toward the target, and your technique reflects that.

You’re approaching the ball from behind, and that causes strain in your shoulder because it’s not biomechnically correct.

The position of the elbow in a tennis serve

When elbow is not bent the long “lever” causes a lot of strain in the shoulder

This strain also robs you of power and fluidity of the serve – and yet you still manage to hit the serve quite smoothly!

To get the feel for hitting across the ball without worrying about directing it with the arm, you’ll need to use the slice serve drill where you toss the ball lower and hit it with slice.

That will give you more feel and understanding that you don’t need to follow the ball with the racquet toward the desired target.

The ball goes where the strings point (mostly), even when the racquet path is different.

That final direction of the ball is determined by the pronation of the forearm because the arm actually moves diagonally related to the target at the moment of impact.

The pronation in a tennis serve

The pronation of the forearm directs the ball towards the target at the last moment.


To summarize, the key points are:

1. Correct mental image – hit upwards to generate racquet head speed.

Drills that will help you improve the feel of serving upwards are the »dangling racquet« drill explained in the video and the drill for improving the speed of the serve.

2. Correct mental image – hit across the ball to the right with the arm – and then pronate to direct the ball toward the court.

The drill to get that feel is the slice serve feel drill.

Leave a Comment:

(16) comments

Ian Campbell September 29, 2012

Would love to see you teach serve with someone who does not have a “natural throw” ie they struggle to throw a ball!

    Tomaz September 29, 2012

    Hey Ian,

    I would try and use throwing of the ball, throwing of the racquet, the dangling racquet drill, etc. – tp help them feel the “throw”. There are also some good training aids for the serve that I will describe in one of the future posts.

Arturo Hernandez September 29, 2012

I thought I would add my 2 cents since I have spent countless hours working on my serve and have gotten so much advice from Tomaz. There are many different parts to the serve and it is VERY hard to coordinate them all without a lot of practice. My sense from looking at your serve is in line with Tomaz’s view. Basically, you see it as an act of facing the court. So you use a circular rotational motion to hit it. In working on my serve and talking to a lot people about it, I realized that turning into the court is a common problem. It happens on the serve because people hit around the ball more than they hit up.

Okay so how to fix it. I have tried the mental image thing. It does work to a certain extent but I find it a bit difficult to use exclusively. What helped the most was actually serving from the racket drop.

Tomaz has a great drill where he simply has a person dangle the racket behind them and try to serve. I have spent many practice sessions simply serving from the drop and tried to loosen my arm up as much as possible. I even used it in practice matches.

When you serve from the racket drop, you have to serve up. There is no other way. In fact, I often found the ball went too far to my left when I served from the drop. So I began to delay this turn a bit so that my serve could go more to my right and into my opponent’s backhand.

There is a tendency for adults to want fast progress. Progress will come in fits and starts. There will be periods where there is little improvement followed by periods of great improvement. This is very normal. The important thing is to rebuild it very slowly.

This takes time and a lot of repetition. So be patient. But you can improve your serve by visualizing it in a different way and then using drills to reinforce these images.

    Tomaz September 29, 2012

    Thanks for sharing, Arturo. Very good points…

Khaled Hegazy September 29, 2012

Thank you for your nice messages, you are really a good coach and i always enjoy seeing, feeling your useful tennis information,

Steve Sarvate September 29, 2012

Another wonderful video. Tomaz, you are a great coach. Thanks very much.

Iain September 30, 2012

excellent analysis.

Bryan October 1, 2012

All very good points and for anyone who has really tried to improve or coach improvement in the serve these points make a lot of sense.

Ignacio A. October 1, 2012

Loved this one tomaz, keep the good work coming. i would love to hear your oppion on how to tame the toss on the serve.

    Tomaz October 1, 2012

    Thanks, Ignacio. So you’d like to know how to have a more consistent toss in the same spot? I’ll keep this topic in mind for the future…

    narendra Prabhu K April 12, 2015

    Dear Tomaz
    Thank you very much for the video; i followed exactly what you told and am able to get the serve well, my happiness today is indescribable . The speed ball gets amazed me , I also applied your advice on seeing the ball to my advantage thanks very much, Your teaching style is unique
    Bangalore India

Nasar October 5, 2012

Sometime back I had written about conceiving in the mind. Watching great players keenly and trying to imitate them helps as one is able to conceive it in the mind. The same goes for the serve. If the conception is wrong the stroke making too would be wrong and vice versa.

ron "maynard" lieder November 16, 2012

i’ve seen this instructor’s other videos on ground stokes, volleys and of course serving… he is one of the best teachers i’ve had the pleasure using all his tips for my own game. I can tell you that playing tennis now is so much more fun using those same tips, and i have no problem staying on the court with 5.0 players. i’m 67 , just had a birthday on veterans day, and i can tell you it’s not to late to learn the good stuff. thanks again for making me a better player and teacher! have a nice day.

    clark kent January 18, 2015

    Ron if you get this, please reply. I have been trying to track you down. You helped me a long time ago and I would like to reconnect to thank you. Hope to hear from you.


Simon May 6, 2013

Amazing instructions! Really helpful, thank you so much for sharing all this valuable information for free with us! It helps a lot in terms of understanding what is going on and therefore self correcting the serving motion.

KP December 13, 2013

Really amazed , being trying for 32 years to understand the how’s and why’s so simply explained. Now the working out. Thanks a heap

Add Your Reply

Leave a Comment: