The Key To Improving Your Top Spin Tennis Serve Technique

Aug 16

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There’s a common mistake that happens when you’re learning the topspin serve in tennis – especially if you first learned the flat serve.

The following video shows you the key difference between a topspin tennis serve and a flat serve, which is quite hard to spot with the naked eye.

You’ll see this difference in serving technique only in slow motion – and, of course, only if you know what to look for.

 

The Difference Between The Flat And Topspin Serves

The most common reason you’re over-rotating into your second serve (topspin) is that you probably learned the flat serve first, which requires you to rotate into the ball.

In your mind, there’s this equation: windup –> rotation –> contact

Your mind/body stored this movement, and it became your habit.

Flat And Topspin Tennis Serve Differences

The difference between the flat and top spin serve in tennis

Now even if you try to brush up on the ball when serving topspin, it’s hard to do because your body and shoulders rotate, and you’re not even aware of that.

That changes the angle of the racquet coming to the ball, and you’re then hitting a mixture of topspin and slice serves (since the racquet comes to the ball from the side).

You don’t really feel good control or as if you are able to control the arc of the serve.

You now need to store a new series of movements: windup –> contact –> rotation

How To Correct The Topspin Serve Technique

Top spin serve tip

Delay the body rotation when serving a top spin

The key to any correction exercise is exaggeration. In order to change from over-rotation to optimal body rotation, you first need to rotate too little.

Serve a topspin serve by not rotating into the court and staying sideways. Hit up on the ball and note the difference in the racquet path and the actual ball flight.

You’ll see that the ball goes in the direction of the strings while your racquet goes in another direction.

The more serves you hit, the better you’ll know and feel how to control the ball by hitting it with topspin.

——————————————————————

VERY IMPORTANT: You should think about technique and repeat the serves only until you FEEL how this technical/mechanical tip improves your topspin and ball control.

You will feel that the strings really brush up on the ball, and you’ll feel a much cleaner hit – plus you’ll have better control of the arc of the ball above the net.

Once you feel that, you simply look for that feel! The technical instruction MUST disappear from your mind and now you only imagine how you want the ball to behave.

You look for that feel of clean brush up on the ball and good ball control.

Your body will then adjust unconsciously in order to help you achieve what you want.

——————————————————————

Eventually you can transition from staying sideways all the time while serving a topspin into a normal serve with only one difference – you’ll now have to delay the rotation.

You need to feel the new sequence of movements: windup –> contact –> rotation

With more repetitions, you’ll make this sequence smoother and smoother.

Again, your focus must not be technical anymore (meaning your conscious mind telling your body what to do) but feel-based.

Do you feel a clean brushing up on the ball? Do you feel comfortable and smooth doing that? Do you see a better control of the arc of the ball above the net?

Only these questions need to be in your mind while you’re working on your topspin tennis serve technique.

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49 comments

  1. This is a really interesting and clear point. I have spent many years (as Tomaz knows) trying to unlearn bad habits that I picked up when I started to hit a kick serve. Specifically, I kept rotating my shoulders to early and so would adjust my toss and entire motion to compensate rather than simply trying to adjust the timing. I wonder, though, whether all really good servers always hit the serve to the side more. My sense is that the more I delay the rotation, the better my serve is in general. So do you think the key here is early rotation in general?

    • Tomaz /

      Hi Arturo,

      In reality when a top server hits a flat serve they are not exactly facing the net – the body is still not rotated fully towards the net because the continental grip and the pronation make the ball go straight forward. But there the rotation is delayed much more on the flat serve than on the spin serve – although they look very similar to the naked eye.

      Here’s one video of Federer where he hits some flat serves and you can see that he is almost facing the net (deuce side) at the moment of contact (see 0:47):

    • Hi Tomaz,
      You make some interesting points. When you mention that you delay turning with the topspin serve, you might want to say that you delay by bending your knees more to help you do that. It is very easy to see that when you demonstrate serving both ways side by side in the video you are clearly bending your knees more for the topspin serve. Thanks for the videos. You do a great job. Jim

      • Tomaz /

        Hi Jim,

        I bend the knees more for the top spin serve because I am looking to generate more upwards force. It doesn’t necessarily affect my rotation – so I still delay the rotation.

        But in the end, there should be no conscious thought of what parts of the body you want to move in a certain way – you simply want to make the ball go as you imagined. Everything else happens naturally.

  2. yossi /

    Great as always. I have question: lots of coaches speak about: “It’s hard to guess where he going to serve the ball”! Does that mean that “he” put the ball/toss at the same place and hit slice or flat or topspin?? Or “he” maybe keeps changing all time the placement of the toss (ball)?

    • Tomaz /

      Yes, Roger Federer is known to have a great serve exactly because he tosses the ball in the same place (except maybe on a wide kick serve) and is then able to serve in all directions with all types of spins.

      • nasar /

        Hi
        I would like to point out a few more things.Federer has one of the best tosses.Neither too high nor too low.He also changes the grip to create a plethora of serves.One of the amazing serves is the down the line serve from the left side of the court.The ball arcs away from the receiver-inside the court!

  3. Donald Schwass /

    As always, fantastic tip. Tomaz, some have said not to pronate, but to have the racket face inward toward yourself as you follow through. Would you say that is a good technique?

    • Tomaz /

      With a topspin serve you pronate after the contact – so yes, it’s a good technique.

  4. Thanks, I’m keen to give it a try. My kick serve lacks spin.

  5. Excellent point Tomaz. I am teaching this to my son who is turning 15 this month and plays tennis at National level, to improve more his execution of his first and second serve.

    And yes, Federer’s serve is so hard to guess becuase he seems to throw the ball almost always at the same spot.

  6. Richard /

    Exceptional Tomaz! Here’s a question for you about serving in general: When you serve and for a less skilled player, your thoughts on what the average thinking would be mentally just before the toss: 1) Do you (they) have a specific spot in the service box clearly in your (their) mind? I know when I serve I just have a general idea and this shot ends up anywhere in the box……….i.e. if I serve an ace out wide or down the line, even though the serve was a perfect serve, I really did not have that particular location visualized consciously ahead of time! Still I wonder here about the unconscious contribution to direction??? I know Federer and any top tour player really has the spot in mind, that is what seems clear. In practice I am learning to put it to a spot, but in a game that kind of forethought can actually put more pressure on the service motion and produce even a fault. Strange perhaps but this is my experience ! Your thoughts amigo!

    Richard

    • Tomaz /

      Havbing a spot in the service box is the right idea but only if you’re not attached to the outcome and you’re not consciously aiming for it. It’s just a target for Self2.

      The errors come when you aim for the target. ;)

      Also, it’s crucial that you know the height you want to serve at just before starting your serve.

      If you don’t know the height and you have a spot in the box in mind, your brain will calculate the path of the ball from the contact point to that spot – and that line actually goes through the net. Hence a lot of errors.

      I personally know where I want to serve but I focus on speed, spin and height when I serve and I don’t really aim for the spot. If you aim, your service motion becomes rigid and it loses the smoothness.

      The biggest problem for all club players (and juniors) when learning the serve is that they are learning the serve technique AND at the same time try to hit the service box.

      Hitting a service box consistently with any decent speed is extremely difficult for a less skilled player.

      So in order for them to hit the box, they push the ball, break down the coordination and fluidity of their motion and they also consciously aim. This all breaks down the service motion.

      You MUST serve freely in order to develop good serve – meaning that when you’re looking to develop good motion you must NOT aim for the service box. The ball should go long on most serves.

      Only that will free your body to really let go and accelerate into the ball fully. With practice you will then develop enough touch and feel and be able to make the ball go down early and into the service box.

      • Richard /

        Tomaz thanks and as per usual, my Slovenian coach is spot on! The one thing that stands out in your response, is the height, as this is never factored in my mind consciously, then again I do not employ the topspin serve in gameplay just yet. The height of the toss and contact point are in my mind, but not any consideration for the “crossing the net” height.

        If the brain calculates the shortest distance as indicated by you, then I would be faulting more that hitting the service box which clearly isn’t the case as no thought variance of height comes into play in either case in my mind ahead of time. So assuming your point as valid my mind again must be compensating unconsciously in some respect.

        Thanks for the topspin/flat serve instructional comparisons again.

        Richard

        • Arturo Hernandez /

          I just wanted to add my 2 cents. Tomaz and I have been corresponding about the serve for a long time now. The key for me is to try and see the full flight of the serve in my head. So rather than trying to see a spot, I see the whole serve. This helped me to some extent by making me realize that hitting a spot is actually really hard to do. The spin on the ball alters the path and so in my mind it become much less linear. As I started to visualize the path more and more, I began to try and hit a region in the service box. What I notice is that the ball lands on different parts of that region. If it lands closer to the returner than it is a good serve. But at times it will land on the line even though I was not trying to hit it somewhere else. I am not sure how to explain it. But slowly, as Tomaz notes, the serve starts to happen by itself. It takes a very long time and lots of practice to get into this “mindless” state. But the biggest impediment for me has been trying to hit a very specific spot and trying to hit aces. But Tomaz’s advice is right on the mark. It takes some time but learning to feel the serve is probably the best advice I have gotten from him.

      • David Law /

        If one would keep the serve motion constant and adjust the grip (rotating left or right on the continental grip), would that make the placement of the ball vary horizontally in the serving box?

        • Tomaz /

          Yes, it would a little bit – because you would hit the ball with a slightly more closed or slightly more open racquet and since you pull across the ball you would also “move” it in a horizontal way.

          Of course, you would also affect the trajectory – it would go slightly higher or slightly lower.

  7. HI,
    I am a little confused with the slice serve, do you hit the ball as it is being thrown up, or do you wait till it comes down to hit it ?
    Thank you,
    eric

    • Tomaz /

      Most players keep the same rhythm on all types of serves so they still serve the slice serve when the ball is going down.

  8. A question about the grip Tomaz. Do you recomend an eastern backhand grip to create more topspin on the kick serve?

    Thanks in advance

    • Tomaz /

      Most players I worked with and me personally use the continental grip. I suggest you test and see if you feel that the eastern backhand grip allows you to hit a better kick serve.

  9. George /

    Nice to read that all articles. Wish you all the best.

  10. Larry Buhrman /

    Hi Tomaz,

    That is the first time I have ever heard any tennis coach mention the difference in the shoulder rotation on flat vs. topspin serves. Congratulations and thank you for that great tip!

    Larry

  11. Kerry /

    Great stuff as always!

    But, I’m a little confused: Why don’t we apply the same idea to topspin ground strokes? In this serving drill, we focus on brushing upward on the ball, with a relatively short dwell time. In the ground stroke drills, we focus an squeezing or massaging the ball, less brushing and more pushing, while moving the racket head on the vector in which we want the ball to go during the dwell time. Why the difference between the serve and ground stroke?

    Kerry

    • Tomaz /

      Good question, Kerry. On groundstrokes we need to change the direction and spin if we hit with topspin. In other words, we need to reverse the spin of the ball.

      Combine that with the force of the incoming ball and the end result is that we need to put more work on the ball. On the serve we’re also able to generate more force with the whole swing so it feels we don’t need to work that much on the ball.

      The timing is also many times easier – so no need to “direct” the ball. We also don’t change direction of the ball as we have to do on groundstrokes which again requires some “effort”.

      Thanks for the question, I didn’t think about this comparison before.

      • Kerry /

        That all makes sense, particularly the large change in direction of the ball and spin on ground strokes versus serves.

        Thanks!

  12. Chavdar /

    Hi Tomaz,

    This is one of the best tips I have found about tennis ever.
    The one preceding it is in the same category.
    Both of them work and I was not only successful applying them on court but managed to teach others.

    What you do is another proof that teaching tennis is an art of itself and should be done by intelligent people like you.

    Best.
    Chavdar

  13. Jim Anderson /

    Great post. I got much better spin when serving with no rotation. But I have two followup questions: (1) Where do you recommend ball toss? Same as for a flat serve, or someplace else? (2) Where do the legs come in? I showed the “no rotation” serve to a coach. He commented that I was “all arm motion”, and needed to get my legs involved to increase speed. Or should I forget about speed on a second “spin” serve?

    • Tomaz /

      Jim, the legs should engage naturally if you think about “sending” force upward. Watch me serve and simply try to copy instead of analyzing and trying to explain with words what exactly happens.

      The toss is inside the court but behind your back slightly or above your head. Videos coming soon…

  14. Andrew /

    This is another great post, Tomaz. I find the way you don’t overuse words but use images and videos instead to be very effective.

    I have a slightly different approach to the critical elements of a topspin serve. To maximize the forward/top pain motion of the ball, I think that what’s ultimately the most important thing is to get the ball spinning around an axis that is as close as possible to horizontal (parallel to the court surface or net tape.) This requires that the main strings of the racquet also be as close as possible to horizontal as the strings approach and brush up the ball. While keeping the hips and shoulders sideways usually helps to achieve this, it is still possible to have one’s body sideways but still have the strings contact the ball at too horizontal an angle. This usually happens because the point at which the strings hit the ball is too late in the path of the racquet through the range of the service motion – when the racquet has passed the upwards stage of its path and is already into its horizontal stage. If this is visualized on a clock face, for a right-hander, the main strings need to contact the ball as the racquet is moving from about 8 o’clock towards 10 o’clock, not as the racquet is moving from 11 towards 1 o’clock.

    Would you consider doing a follow up on the topspin serve that examines this and helps us understand how to develop the correct feel to have the strings hit the ball in the right stage of the racquet path? Thanks.

    • Tomaz /

      Good points, Andrew. I agree that we should aim to spin the ball as close to the horizontal spin axis as possible. Eventually that’s all there is in the mind – there is no awareness of technique or delaying the rotation.

      I explained the progressions for the top spin serve a while ago here:

      http://www.tennismindgame.com/topspin-tennis-serve.html

      • Jim Anderson /

        I have a question/problem (maybe shared by others who read this topic). Although I feel “brushing action”, my topspin serves frequently land short, or don’t clear the net at all. This doesn’t seem possible, but it happens. Any ideas on why? My best guesses are (a) my contact point is too low; (b) my grip is wrong; (c) my toss is off in the horizontal plane; (d) I’m not swinging hard enough. This problem doesn’t occur every time: frequently my topspin serves land deep & have plenty of bounce. Comments please!!!!

        • Tomaz /

          Jim,

          I suggest focusing more on the serves that go in – you want to reinforce that. If some of them go in well, then you simply need more practice.

          Try to capture / store the feel of serves that go in rather than trying to remember the mechanical elements.

  15. Tomaz,

    I just want to write this message in appreciation of everything you have shared with the all of us. I am very grateful for your insights and generosity. There are a growing number of other passionate coaches doing very similar things. But your articles (tennismindgame and feeltennis) have just been extraordinarily helpful. I make progress after reading other coaches’ articles and watching their videos. But I make breakthrough with yours!

    I almost feel like everyone else is still working with pure Newtonian physics while you’re already working at relativistic levels.

    This article tremendously helped me with my kick serve consistency.

    Thank you!
    Tony

    • Tomaz /

      Tony,

      Really appreciate your kind words. Will do my best to keep sharing more tennis ideas…

  16. Tomaz – definitely “feel” is the first progression. It is like natural learning – give an assignment the body mind will figure it out. Through feedback and correction (unless you fail to take the action reported by the feedback).

    My only comment goes back to what we’ve heard since day one. You have to be 6’8″ and 150mph serve to hit down. How hard do you have to hit a ball horizontal or paralel to the ground at what contact height to overcome gravity?

    Or forget it – just keep trying until what you think is sidespin is going over the net and in the service box.

    Hitting perfectly horizontal, spinning on the horizontal axis, is unrealisted since gravity will pull the ball into the net, unless you have enough speed and height to overcome it. So the feel has to be up and across. A mixture of vertical and horizontal spin.

    Varying the degree of vertical spin equals the variety of height over the net and kick off the ground. The more vertical the more height over the net, but less side kick off the ground. The more horizontal the spin, the less clearance over the net, but more side kick off the ground.

    A pure flat serve has the smallest net clearance and virtually no side spin. A pure topspin produces a the highest kick off the ground, but purely vertical ground bounce.

    • Tomaz /

      Ray,

      Analytically your explanation sounds correct but it cannot be “translated” into correct movement that will consistently hit the ball in.

      Only repetition and adjustment based on the results will do that – and of course your feel will keep improving which means that you’ll have more and more control over the serve.

  17. Abbas /

    Hi, Your reply to Donald Schwass that pronation is done after the contact is rather strange. Pronation is largely responsible for power and speed. What purpose does it serve after the contact?

    • Tomaz /

      Abbas,

      Pronation is the rotation of the forearm (and wrist together). If we didn’t pronate we would just hit the ball on the side and it wouldn’t even reach the net.

      When we hit a flat serve, we want the pronation to happen fully – meaning the face of the racquet needs to hit the back side of the ball so that it sends it forward.

      but when we hit a slice serve, the pronation doesn’t happen fully before contact – because we want to hit the ball while the racquet is still hitting the ball on the side (right side for righthanders).

      In other words, the racquet is hitting the ball partly from behind and party from the side. So the pronation happens partly before contact and then simply completes after the contact.

      In terms of how I feel the slice serve, I don’t really feel the pronation when hitting the ball with slice in the same way as I do when hitting flat.

      I simply want to hit the ball more from the side and am not really aware of the pronation.

  18. Ben Jorgensen /

    Tomaz, I was once told to keep my tossing arm up while hitting a top spin serve by a college player but never understood why so I never adopted the technique and continued to struggle. Years later and still struggling your explanation of the same basic theory has done wonders for my serve. I rarely double fault any more and I can now mentally will the ball to either corner of the service box. I love how you explain things in a way I can understand. Thank you.

  19. Hi

    Great information Tomaz

    I have always thought with the top spin type serve. The racket face needs to be moving low-to-high, left-to-right, and forward all at the same time like a 3-dimensional stroke. I guess this it the reason some of the pros can hit this type of serve 144 plus km/h and amateurs struggle with this type of serve. I am thinking a good analogy would be a top spin lob if it were to be compared to a ground stroke.

    What seems to help me some is to make sure my elbow straightens out before the wrist does. I try to keep the wrist relaxed and cocked back until the last possible second. I used to mess this up and try to straighten my elbow and wrist at the same time, which seemed to mess up my serve.

    • Hey Rob,

      Well, it’s dangerous to be so conscious of what the wrist does and what the elbow does and so on. That can mess up your serve.

      The feeling should be that you’re throwing the racquet upwards and forwards – and that will connect all the parts of the arm in the most natural way.

      • OMG u R a genius! i had been confused about the whole elbow n arm thingy like rob. n the minute u said throw the racquet up and forward i just had an aha moment!
        thank u so so much! love ur vids!!

  20. Thank you very much for this video instruction. I have struggled with my serves for years and by following your lesson I have finally at long last fixed my issues. I can get more power on the flat and rotation on the topspin serve.

    An area in which I’m weak is picking up those mid-height (6-8 inches over the net) line drives coming down the middle to my forehand when I’m playing net in the ad court in doubles. I’m a righty and can’t seem to anticipate this ball, it sails by me every time. How can I speed up my reaction time and see this shot sooner? Thanks.

    • Hi Terry,

      The down the middle shot in doubles is quite common since it cuts down the angles for you. So you can expect more of those.

      Watch the opponent carefully but don’t think. Things happen to fast for the conscious mind – so just observe your opponent well before he hits and then of course watch the ball.

      In time you’ll learn to read their strokes – and you’ll react mostly unconsciously before you’ll even realize that you read their shot.

  21. David /

    Hello Tomaz

    Can you provide your ideas on serving top-spin from the deuce court? I find my serve very often end up at corner near the T, but very difficult to reach the corner near the side line (the wide).

    Best wishes.

  22. Tomaz,

    You explain it very well. Great job! I just started using the top spin serve as my 2nd serve
    and my wrist started bothering me so I am eager to find out what I’m not doing correctly. I’m
    thinking I must be too wristy and not using my arm enough. Any thoughts would be greatly
    appreciated. Thanks and keep the vids coming!

    • Hi Becks,

      You may be using your wrist too consciously (too much) around the contact point.

      It should be more like a release than a really “hard” effort. It’s like throwing a stick – or even better, a racquet.ž

      How would you use the wrist then? See if you can actually throw some racquets and see how that feels.

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