I’m sure you know the difference between practicing the second serve on your own and serving in an actual tennis match against an opponent.
Likewise, I’m sure you’ve realized that your topspin or slice serve is not going as well as it did in practice.
As you are aware, nothing has changed in the court. It has exactly the same measurements. Your technique has not changed either, so everything is the same except your mindset.
In order for me to explain to you what goes on in my mind, and what I recommend you practice, I’m going to walk you through my thought process and my mindset as I play a few points in a tennis match.
So, I’ve just missed my first serve, and I’m about to serve my second serve. Here’s what’s going on in my mind…
I don’t regret missing it or think about how great it would have been if I had hit it. I don’t dwell on the past.
I immediately accept that I missed the first serve, knowing that the probability of hitting a first serve is somewhere around fifty percent, perhaps a little bit higher on good days and possibly quite lower on bad days.
Many players rush into their second serve because of the anxiety they feel when it comes to competition.
You’re just about to start another little battle with your opponent – meaning playing another point – and that can make you anxious. Being anxious makes you rush.
You must learn to discipline yourself, and always follow the same ritual.
A ritual is a series of actions that you always perform. By following them exactly in the same way every time, you train yourself to use exactly the same amount of time for preparation of your second serve.
In doing so, you’re training yourself to focus on the task at hand, in exactly the same manner, which helps you recreate your second serves in the same manner, and therefore hit them with very high consistency.
My ritual consists of one deep breath and an exhale, which in a way helps me clear my mind.
I also like to loosen up my arm a little bit before the serve, and I usually tap the ball three times on the ground. While I’m doing that, I will…
Depending on the score, my opponent’s strengths and weaknesses, how well I’m serving today, the wind, the sun, and other factors, I will choose a certain type of second serve.
I may go for a safer one more in the center of the service box, or I might go for a more accurate one closer to the edges of the service box.
I make that decision very quickly, probably in two seconds. I also never doubt my decision, nor do I change my mind.
Why? Because I’ve done that in the past, and it usually resulted in a poor serve or a double fault.
You must stick to your initial decision, and you must hit your second serve decisively.
Once I finish my third tap, I take one more look at the target area, which helps me orient myself and have a clear direction of the serve in my mind.
That’s because, once I toss the ball up and execute the serve, I won’t see the court, so I need to have a good orientation of where I am in relation to the target area.
Once the ball is up in the air, I imagine imparting a lot of spin on it with the strings of my racket, and I imagine sending the ball into a trajectory that will eventually end up in the target area.
It takes time for you to start trusting the idea that hitting up on the ball will eventually bring the ball down in the court, but that’s how a topspin serve really works.
Now we’re coming to the most important part of the second serve, which is the mindset.
The most common problem that causes you to feel so much pressure is that you are trying to achieve a certain outcome with your serve.
You may try not to miss, you may try to hit to the backhand of your opponent, you may want to pull your opponent out of the court, and so on.
And because somewhere in your mind you know that you can’t control this outcome with 100% certainty, you feel anxiety because another part of your mind really wants it to happen.
In order not to feel this anxiety and pressure, you need to focus on the process of executing your second serve.
I focus on the execution, as I mentioned before. Namely, I want to impart lots of spin on the ball and send it in a certain trajectory toward a certain target.
I can control only the outgoing angle from my racket, the direction, and the amount of spin I impart. I know that, if I execute the serve well, it will very likely result in a good serve.
I know that the outcome I’m looking for will likely happen, if I devote all my attention to the execution of the second serve.
Another way of putting it is this: when I’m serving a second serve, I am not yet playing my opponent; I am only executing the serve exactly the same way as I do in practice.
I have no thoughts about my opponent and what he might do. Why? Because I can’t control that.
What he does is his decision. He may take risks and attack my second serve, but that’s his call, not mine.
I need to ensure that I hit a good second serve, and that will make his task more difficult. So, I focus only on my part when I’m serving, since my opponent has no influence on the serve.
When, for example, we rally later, my opponent will totally determine my next situation, because he creates it. If he hits to my backhand side, I need to play from that side.
I might choose to run around and hit a forehand, but I still need to hit a certain ball from a certain position that was determined by my opponent.
But that’s not the case with my serve.
My opponent has no influence on my serve, unless I allow that with my mindset, so make sure you don’t do that.
While you should have a target in your mind which is typically the weaker side of your opponent, you should put the actual outcome in the back of your mind and completely focus on the execution of your serve.
As I said before, when I serve, I don’t yet play my opponent because he has no influence on my serve. It’s only me, the ball, and the target area.
I focus completely on sending the ball in m imagined trajectory, which has a certain height above the net, and that goes toward a certain target zone.
Only when I complete my serve do I actually start playing my opponent. From then on, he will make me move around the court and force me to make very quick decisions on what to do with each shot.
The usual mindset of players is to be cautious, and that will never make you a good server.
Never think what you don’t want – meaning making a double fault – and always think what you do want, which is to hit a good second serve.
So, let’s summarize all this in a few key points.
If your second serve is not reliable yet and you always doubt if you’re going to make it, I recommend serving a second serve for a couple of months continuously.
If you play matches, don’t serve any flat first serves, but just keep hitting topspin serves. In time, you will stabilize it to a point where it’s going to be very reliable.
Then you can come back to hitting your flat first serves again. Trust me, you won’t forget how to hit them.