You may have heard of the idea that we hit up on the serve or that we swing up on the ball when serving.
But that’s a little bit confusing, isn’t it? If we hit up(wards), then the ball will go up, right?
No, not really.
There are 2 ways we “hit up” on the ball: swinging up towards the ball and literally hitting the ball up. We’re also going to look at the confusion with the pronation that is often the cause for incorrect serves and consequently for the idea of serving down.
Try this and observe your racquet’s angles: swing upwards towards the sky and simply complete your serve.
You will see that, yes, at a certain point of your swing, the racquet is pointing upwards. If you made contact with the ball at that moment, the ball would really go upwards.
But you can also see that, even though you swung upwards, your racquet kept changing its orientation – meaning its angle – and, at a certain moment in that swing, it was actually pointing down!
If you made contact at that split moment, the ball would go downwards – even though you were swinging upwards.
So it is the racquet’s angle at contact that directs the ball down and not the direction of your swing.
You might create the main force in your swing in a certain direction, but since your arm is attached at your shoulder it will continue to go in a circular path.
If you hit the ball in the correct contact point, then the ball will go down.
The major mistake you may have been making is trying to direct the ball down by changing the racquet angle with your hand.
You might also have been confused by ideas about pronation and how players end their serves with the elbow up and the racquet head down, which suggests that this is how they direct the ball down.
That’s not true, and you will see the explanation for this in the second part of this article.
Now why do we have to swing upwards – what is the purpose of that?
There are 3 reasons for swinging upwards:
a) To generate racquet head speed
In order to generate lots of racquet head speed, we need the racquet to travel some distance.
If we think very logically and say that we need to hit the ball down, then we’re going to be very slow in the first part of the swing because we feel it’s not yet time to accelerate the racquet.
We think that we need to bring it behind the ball, perhaps even slightly above the ball, and then start accelerating towards the target.
But then our path of accelerating would be so short that we wouldn’t be able to generate much speed.
Most recreational players serve with a “high elbow” or a very low racquet head drop, which simply tells me that they are thinking like I explained above.
They use common sense, and they simply want to hit the ball down, so they are trying to get the racquet above and behind the ball and then use force to send it downwards.
And because they keep trying to direct the ball down with their racquet head and by pointing the racquet downwards, they can achieve that in one way only – by tossing the ball above them and not inside the court.
Only then can they hit the ball downwards and not hit all serves in the net. If they tossed the ball inside the court and at the same time pointed the racquet downwards, they would hit every ball in the net.
Through repetition, they have realized that problem, and now they see that their approach works only when their toss is above their head or perhaps above the baseline.
b) To counter gravity
When we hit the ball when serving, most of us hit the ball when it’s falling down.
If we simply swung horizontally, the ball would end up in the net since gravity constantly pulls it down and there’s always a downwards force on the ball.
So, we counter some of the gravity on the ball by hitting upwards.
c) Impart spin
Even when we hit flat serves, we do impart some spin on the ball. We do that by brushing up on the ball, and that helps us better control the trajectory of the ball and more easily bring it down in the service box.
In summary of this first part, I hope you by now realize that we shouldn’t hit the ball down by changing the racquet angle with our hand (or by “pronating”). Instead, our body is tilted at the point of contact which automatically makes our racquet point downwards even though we don’t feel that in our hand.
What you’re going to see in part 2 is even more interesting. We literally can hit the ball upwards and still make it go down.
To show you what I mean by literally hitting the ball up, I’ll use images from a slow motion video of Milos Raonic’s serve.
I’d like you to notice these specific details:
a) Hand position at contact and one frame later
The fact of the matter is this: the ball’s direction is determined at contact, and everything that happens after contact, meaning after the ball is gone, no longer affects the ball’s flight.
If you now look at Milos’ hand alignment in relation to his forearm, you will see that it is in fact open and NOT in a “closed” position which to us indicates sending the ball down.
What’s even more interesting is that one frame after contact, he still hasn’t reached complete alignment with his forearm; therefore, his hand is still “open”!
So, to him, it feels like he is literally serving up as he is hitting the ball with his hand still open at contact.
The reason why the ball then goes down is because HE IS TILTED.
His whole body is at an angle because he tossed the ball inside the court, and therefore his arm and his racquet have also changed angles.
So even though Milos’ hand is “open”, the racquet face is actually pointing slightly down of course, it’s just that he is not directing the ball down by “closing” the hand down on the ball but actually leaning into the court and aligning the racquet face slightly down with his body!
To better illustrate how Milos’ hand “feels”, I’ve rotated the video to the position where Milos’ body is upright (vertical).
So, if he wasn’t leaning into the court and he tossed the ball right above his head – and if he didn’t change his swing – then his serve would literally fly up!
That is how is arm “feels” at contact. It feels like he is serving up.
So, not only is he swinging up towards the ball, but he is literally hitting the ball up.
Again, the reason why the ball doesn’t go up is that Milos (and all other pros!) is at an angle when he is making contact.
This angle then counters the “open” racquet face and in fact makes the ball travel downwards at a certain angle towards the opposite service box.
b) Clearing up the “pronation confusion”
Pronation is a process and not a certain position of the arm. It is the turning of the forearm inwards.
What we coaches like to refer to sometimes as “pronation” is the position where the elbow stays up high and the racquet is pointing downwards.
But that, in fact, is an internal rotation of the upper arm.
The “pronation” process merely aligns the racquet head more squarely onto the ball, and it contributes very little to the power of the serve.
Most power actually comes from internal rotation of the upper arm.
But let’s for now skip the proper naming of all elements of the serve and simply look at a certain position where the elbow stays up and the racquet head points down.
At first glance, it may seem that since we are accelerating the racquet head down with that movement – namely keeping the elbow up and moving the racquet head down – it is then through this movement that we hit the ball down.
But, as you can see in the video and in the still images here, the hand and therefore the racquet reach the position of pointing down way AFTER the ball has left the racquet.
Therefore we do NOT direct the ball downwards by pushing the racquet down and keeping the elbow up.
This is simply a CONSEQUENCE of accelerating the racquet head correctly THROUGH the ball using the forearm and elbow as the pivot point rather than using the whole arm and the shoulder as the pivot point.
Now that you have the theory in place and you realize that the serve is even more mysterious than you thought, how does one go about learning to hit up on the serve when actually being on the court?
Even though the theory now shows you the reasons why the ball will go down even though you swing up, you will still probably have trouble TRUSTING the idea of swinging up on the ball because it will FEEL as if the ball will actually go up.
I recommend these 4 steps to develop this proper serve swing:
1. Swing upwards (no ball) and the note racquet’s angles
In this first drill, you’ll just swing upwards with no ball, as if you’re trying to throw the racquet up.
You’ll note that, if you smoothly let your racquet continue through your swing, there will be a point in the swing when the racquet points downwards.
That just helps you logically understand that it is possible to hit downwards even though you swing up.
Swinging up simply means using the upwards part of the racquet’s path to accelerate is as much as possible. Your racquet is then going to carry this speed for the rest of your swing even when it starts to point downwards.
2. Serve the ball horizontally towards the opposite back fence
You’ve probably been trying to serve down for some time by using your wrist and directing the ball down with it, so the first step is simply unlearning that.
And you can do that by first serving the ball horizontally.
That will develop a more fluid swing through the ball and “serve” as the foundation of the next progressions.
I recommend you serve at least 50 balls from the baseline aiming your serve parallel to the ground or even making it go slightly up and looking to hit the back fence.
3. Maintain the same horizontal swing but toss the ball inside the court
For step 3, you’ll maintain that same swing and toss the ball more inside the court.
This helps you realize that, even though it feels like you’re going to hit the ball straight, it will actually go on a downwards trajectory because your whole body will now be at angle when you make contact. As a result, your racquet will also be angled slightly down even though you will NOT feel that in your hand.
I recommend you still include a few horizontal serves here and there where you toss more above you again to see how it’s the ball’s position at contact that determines the trajectory and not your swing, which should remain the same.
4. Swing up and toss the ball in the court
Now you’ll have to take that leap of faith and actually swing up towards the ball as you will toss it inside the court.
If the ball is well inside the court, there is almost no way you can hit it up as it would be very awkward for your hand to achieve that.
If you swing up and let your swing continue very naturally – and the ball is inside the court, which means you’re at an angle (and so is your racquet) – the ball will go on a downward path.
Then it’s simply a matter of repetition and refining that swing to hit much better tennis serves.
With lots of serves hit that way, you’ll learn to trust this upward swing and use it much better to generate the racquet head speed.
This will not only increase the speed of your serves but also the consistency because you won’t be breaking down your wrist at contact anymore, which makes many serves end up in the net.
Hopefully that solved the riddle of how we can swing up on the serve and actually make the ball go down in the service box!