How To Hit Reliable Second Serves Under Pressure

Sep 11

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…

1. I have no thoughts about that missed first serve.

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.

missed first serve

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.

2. I make sure I take enough time for my second serve by performing my ritual.

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.

serve 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…

3. I decide on the type of second serve.

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.

decide on the type of second serve

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.

4. I orient myself in relation to the target and visualize the trajectory of the serve.

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.

visualizing the serve trajectory

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.

5. I focus on the process of executing a good second serve and not on the outcome.

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.

focus on process of serving

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.

trajectory of topspin 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.

6. I execute the second serve decisively.

The usual mindset of players is to be cautious, and that will never make you a good server.

serve decisevely

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.

  1. Accept missing your first serve if it happens, and immediately put it behind you. You can’t change the past.
  2. Always perform your ritual before the second serve, making sure you’re not rushing.
  3. While performing the ritual, decide on the type of second serve, and stick to that decision.
  4. Visualize the trajectory of your serve, making sure that you’re aware of the height above the net.
  5. Do not play against your opponent by thinking what outcome you want to achieve with your serve, but focus only on the proper execution of your second serve. Your attention should be only on hitting the ball with topspin, and sending it into the trajectory that you imagined.
  6. Always hit the second serves decisively.

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.

The above “How To Serve Under Pressure” video / article is just one of more than 40 videos that are included in the Second Serve Mastery video course that:

  • teaches you how to develop topspin serve technique
  • teaches you how to develop slice serve technique
  • shows you advanced drills that develop both of these serves to a higher level

tennis spin serve course

Click on the image to LEARN MORE

You will also learn how to practice your second serves under pressure with a series of drills that progressively become more challenging.

After all, the most painful way to lose a point in a tennis match is when you double fault on a break point, set point or even match point and simply give your opponent a free point.

Therefore you must not only learn the topspin / kick and slice serve techniques but you must also learn how to serve reliably under pressure.

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(7) comments

Robert September 13, 2016

It was startling to me to realize upon reading this that while I serve to targets in the box, even at my best I was not visualizing trajectory to the target. I was using those bounces in my ritual to clear my mind completely before beginning my motion. Suffice to say I signed up for the training before I came back to watch the video. Thanks for all that you do, Tomaz!

    Tomaz September 13, 2016

    What really works for me, Robert, it that I know the height above the net at which I want to serve. That’s because when we look at the service box we see it THROUGH the net.

    Our brain then usually draws a straight line from our contact point to the target area in the service box and that straight line is going through the net!

    That’s why you must serve more in the DIRECTION of your chosen target at a certain HEIGHT that you also visualize.

    Then you’ll hit much fewer serves in the net and many more in the service box.

      Robert October 1, 2016

      Yes, I see. That is helping a lot!

Dan September 30, 2016

Hi Tomaz,

I’ve been a part time tennis coach for over 30 years, pretty much reiterating what the well known coaches of the time like yourself are preaching. However, 8 years ago a friend talked me into playing ITF tournaments.

Never having played tournaments before, the problems that you attempt to solve for most of your recreational tennis followers, are magnified in tournament scenarios so I’m very appreciative of the problems players are having when facing the execution of a second serve.

In my opinion your recommendations for solving second serve issues are too overwhelming to resonate with most recreational players in a second serve situation. However, I do agree with following your suggestions for the first serve scenario when there’s more time and less pressure to deal with.

I’m rated at a 4.5 level and ranked 9th in Canada in the Over 70 category and with 8 years of ITF tournament play “under my belt”, my recommendation is to use my first serve as a dress rehearsal for my second serve. In other words, repeat exactly the ritual just executed on the first with one adjustment to correct what went wrong on the first serve.

The way I see it, if the second serve has a totally different ritual content than the first serve, you’re putting yourself through another first serve scenario which adds even more pressure to the situation. At the recreational level I’ve found simple adjustments to typical first serve errors.

The 2nd serve adjustment for a first serve that:
– hits around the net tape is to keep the tossing hand up a split second longer
– hits just past the service line is to loosen the grip
– hits just left or right of the service box is to reposition your feet accordingly
– hits anywhere else than one of the above is to focus more on the intended first serve target

If a double fault occurs repeat the above for the next first serve.

I think even at the 4.5 level of play, opponents won’t pick up on this tactic, so there’s no need to have different approaches for first and second serves.

    Tomaz September 30, 2016

    Hi Dan,

    Thanks for sharing.

    Just to clarify, I don’t remember saying that there are different approaches for first or second serves. The ritual can be exactly the same.

    You could have a different mindset though – I personally have no expectations of hitting the first serve in, I see it as a lottery. The less I try to control it, the more often it goes in.

    Secondly, I can’t see how exhaling, deciding on the serve, visualizing the trajectory and executing is overwhelming. We do that on every single shot when we play tennis from the baseline or at the net with much less time at our disposal and yet we still manage it.

    Here we can just take more time to do each of those things.

    Playing tennis is nothing else than making decisions, visualizing how we want the ball to go and executing that. There’s nothing overwhelming in that.

    And thirdly, I would never recommend to anyone to focus on their body corrections like keeping a tossing hand up higher for a split second or shuffling your feet because all these are conscious corrections and they are always too “rough” or too “approximate” for the minute adjustments needed to correct our previous miss.

    The corrections should much much simpler and based on intention simply visualizing what you want.

    – If you hit in the net, aim higher
    – if you hit long, visualize the ball coming down earlier at a steeper angle
    – if the ball goes left, aim more to the right (and vice versa)

    When you do that then your conscious mind simply chooses a trajectory and your subconscious mind adjusts your body movements accordingly.

kam. mafi March 4, 2017

hello Tomaz,
it was a very useful video regarding second serve mastery as well as the following article explaining it. i decided hitting only second serve for a while upon your recommendation .
best regards,

    Tomaz March 5, 2017

    Thanks for the feedback, Kam.

    Yes, stick to the second serve for a while, it should become much more reliable.

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