Top Spin Tennis Serve And Pronation – How To Master It

May 15

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In order to hit fast tennis serves, the hitting arm must move in the optimal biomechanical way. That’s how the muscles inside the body and eventually in the arm will produce the most force with the least amount of effort.

In order to achieve that, the edge of the racquet and therefore the edge of the hand must approach the ball for as long as possible until the pronation takes place.

If the pronation happens too early – meaning the racquet face is opening too early – then some of the energy will be lost and there will also be a loss of control because the forearm and the hand will be under strain.

The following is a very good feel-based exercise that encourages the correct mental image to achieve this effect of delaying the pronation, resulting in a very clean hit of the ball on the serve.

 

The Cause Of Problems – Why Do Players Open The Racquet Face Early?

There are three main reasons players open the racquet face early:

1. They think logically, and they do things that make sense.

Difference between the club and pro serve

Club player: strings face the ball, Pro player: edge faces the ball

It’s obvious to anyone that, in order to send the ball somewhere with the racquet, the face of the racquet must get behind the ball as the ball typically leaves the racquet in the direction of where the strings are pointing.

Because this is so obvious, players position the face of the racquet behind the ball.

It’s really hard to imagine approaching the ball with the edge with only a few hundredths of a second to open the racquet face and hit the ball – but that’s what happens in a real quality serve.

2. They learn the flat serve first.

If you learn the flat serve first, you immediately start programming your forearm to pronate early.

You’ll have difficulties learning spin and slice serves.

3.The outcome is much more important to them than the mastery of the stroke.

Most club players play points way too early in their development. When they do, they need to put the ball in when serving.

So, they can control the ball only at low speeds, and they “push” it or “steer” it and therefore open the racquet face early.

Again, they are creating a bad habit that’s hard to correct.

A similar thing happens with juniors where the result is more important than the development of technique.

Serve technique is a very complex set of movements that don’t really make sense until you feel what effect they produce.

 

Just look at Roger Federer’s serve technique with a slice serve. (the first serve in this clip is the slice serve out wide to the deuce side.)

You’ll see two very strange movements that don’t make sense at all to a “regular” tennis player or a junior who is not spending hours and hours analyzing tennis serve technique in slow motion.

The first one is what this article is all about – and that’s approaching the ball with the racquet’s edge until the last second.

Serve with the edge

Roger Federer still approaches the ball with the edge just before contact.

And the second one is pronation outward immediately after the contact where you would expect the racquet to continue curving inward with the forward edge.

Slice serve pronation

The path of the racquet and the pronation don’t really make sense – until you master them…

But, as you can see, the path of the racquet changes immediately after the contact – in fact, the ball is going out wide to the left and Roger’s arm is going wide to the right!

Arm and ball serve direction

Roger is serving to the left but he is still facing to the right! Would you do that using common sense?

That’s not something that we have in our experience and most likely not something you’ll do by yourself unless you study slow motion videos of top servers in tennis.

How To Learn A Tennis Serve From Scratch

I always start teaching a tennis serve from the left side of the court aiming toward the ad side, and I always start teaching the slice / spin serve first.

That way, I achieve very early the approach to the ball with the edge, and I don’t have problems later with the “waiter’s serve“.

Top spin serve pronation

I teach spin / slice serve first from the ad side

Serving to the ad side helps because the ball’s path is not so different to the racquet’s path, whereas if you serve to the deuce side , the angle between these two paths is much bigger therefore they tend to orient too early towards the court to feel more in control – but in the process don’t hit the ball cleanly.

Practicing the serve to the ad side also helps the player learn – mostly unaware – not to orient too early towards the court, to hit the ball with some rotation (even flat serves of top pros have tons of rpms), to align sideways related to the direction of where they want to serve, and to have a very comfortable swing path that allows for effortless acceleration of the racquet.

Once those things are in place, it’s not that difficult to work on a more flat serve when needed.

(All videos and images were taken from the FuzzyYellowBalls Youtube channel – thanks, Will.)

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50 comments

  1. Excellent teaching and overview, actually the best I’ve seen

    • Luis Vazquez /

      Very clear…. it changed my serve!!!!!
      if you have more courses, let me know!!!
      I congratulate you!!.
      (from Mexico)

  2. Tunde /

    Can we laterally conclude that increasing the angle between the racquet path and ball path provided every other motion is in sycn can really control the amount of slice and direction of the serve? I can now figure out why its easier serving to the add court out wide because the racquet path and ball path is almost parallel. If I do this on the deuce court, even with a fast hard serve, it goes to the comfort zone of the right handed player and not really out wide that will make him move.

    • Tomaz /

      Hi Tunde,

      Once you feel the basics of how to apply the slice on the serve, you simply need to practice a lot and use targets. If the ball is not going wide enough, make it go there. Make the ball go even more wide.

      I can’t explain to you what to do because in reality the difference is microscopic when it comes to describing the contact of the racquet and the ball. So just keep serving and adjust…

  3. Lee /

    I have tried it out and it’s not bad but I can’t really get the feeling when I do a full swing and toss. Is there any way to further help me get the feel?

    • Tomaz /

      Hi Lee,

      You need to do it step-by-step. So first do many repetitions from the position I showed – at least 50.

      Then start from the trophy position and do at least 30 repetitions and stand around 3/4 distance to the net.

      Then try some full serves but approach the ball nicely. Don’t look for power yet.

      Then do this at least twice a week – your arm needs some repetitions before it “gets it”. ;)

      • Lee /

        Okay! Thanks! Hope to gain more tips from you! :D

        • Hi, I seem to only get it when my toss is at the “correct” place. Is there any ways to improvise in the toss?

  4. poida /

    is the pronation the same on slice and tospin Serves? how do you learn and tossing master the feel differences?

    • Don Schwass /

      Hi Tomaz. This tip is really helping. One thing I find is that as I concentrate on the execution rather than the result (hitting the stings half way throught the racket face rather than where I want the serve to land, allows a free wheeling type of follow through. The one tip I also have learned is to release all tension on the pronation, not scripting the way it happens. Just “feel” the scraping of the ball and let all else follow. Great to hear from you again. Don

      • Tomaz /

        Very important tip there, Don:”… release all tension on the pronation, not scripting the way it happens.” Thanks.

    • Tomaz /

      The pronation in serve and slice serve happens more after the contact while with the flat serve it happens before the contact. Just practice the above drill for a while and you’ll find the right timing of pronation.

  5. Georgia /

    You always have technically sound and invaluable stroke tips. Thx. Georgia

  6. Fernando /

    Hello Tomaz,
    Thank you for your excellent articles! Your way of teaching is the best in my opinion. I am trying to improve my tennis technique and to achieve this the feedback is essential, from my body and from video recording myself. Your feeling based learning system is the way to go.
    I would like to hear from you about the supination. Paying attention to details in the videos you included in the article, it is possible to see that right before contact. I mean, the movement of the racquet is from “neutral” to “supination-pronation”, not from “neutral” to “pronation”. I remember you in another video demonstrating that with a “big” supination before the pronation.
    I think that pendulum-like movement of the racquet begins at the “racquet drop” position, goes through the supination and ends with the pronation that amplifies the racquet head acceleration, is this correct?
    Please tell us the exercises we can do to maximize the “snap” of the racquet.

    • Tomaz /

      Hello Fernando, many thanks for your kind words.

      As for supination I am not sure where I showed that but I guarantee you that there is no thought about supination when we serve.

      It might happen because the arm is loose and it follow the body but we don’t “do it” consciously. The hand feels very neutral and simply holds the racquet so it feels like a whip.

      We also don’t really “do” the pronation – it happens because we hold a continental grip and if we didn’t pronate we would hit the ball with the edge of the racquet. So in a way the pronation has to happen and it happens because we want to hit the ball with the strings.

      So what’s in the mind is what we want to do with the strings to the ball. What you see and analyze is actually what happens. It is a consequence not a cause.

      I’ll keep in mind the snap / pronation exercises and will tape them shortly.

      • Supination on the serve, prior to pronation, is an interesting subject to me. I think Roddick did this as his racquet really did kick out to the right in his racquet drop. I remember Marcelo Rios turned his hand inward(extreme supination) so much in his abbreviated serve motion that it looked like he was starting his hand action to contact with the back of his hand. This type of action could lead to a more violent pronation at contact. Would love to hear your thoughts on this Tomaz.

  7. Ahmed /

    Thanks Tomaz,

    Your feeling drills are the best. I used your forhand drill and helped me a lot, and expect the same with pronation drill.

    You said : (even flat serves of top pros have tons of rpms). Can you please tell us what type of spin flat serve has?
    Thanks,
    Ahmed.

    • Tomaz /

      Hi Ahmed,

      If you look at the video at the beginning of this article where Tsonga is serving (at around 0:42), you’ll see a flat serve down the T.

      His next serve is a top spin serve down the T.

      But even with the first serve you’ll see racquet brushing the ball and not hitting it completely square. I would say it’s mostly a slice rotation, there’s only a minute movement of the racquet head upwards.

      Note how the racquet mostly moves from left to right across the ball…

  8. Annamaria /

    Many, many thanks for an excellent lesson of serve! Seven years I have practised the serve and have never really learned how to do it. I have also had many teachers – thanks for them – but with your tips I think I have found it. I can`t tell you, how happy I am!

    • Tomaz /

      Thanks for this great feedback, Annamaria, stay in touch!

  9. Claudio /

    Tomaz, you’re a genius. I’ve tested this technique last night on the court and… it worked excellently!. Thank you very much for sharing it. My second service used to be very poor and weak, but it has now become a weapon. Thanks again

  10. Jim Anderson /

    Good post, Tomaz. But (as usual) I have two questions:

    #1. Apart from “feel”, is this exercise designed to improve spin or to improve serve speed? How will I know if I’m successful?

    #2. Where does serving grip come in? Surely the racquet edge, contact, etc. are very different if one is using (say) a western backhand grip, continental grip, etc.

    • Tomaz /

      Good questions, Jim.

      #1. The exercise will give you better control of the ball. You will have better control of the arc – in other words, the ball will go more the way you want it to go. ;)

      #2. I assume a continental grip for all serves. The above idea can be applied to a more backhand oriented serve grip too.

      It will prevent too early pronation, that’s the main idea – and help you hit the ball cleaner therefore have more control and consistency.

  11. Mike /

    I am amazed at how simple and effective your advise was. Thank you.

  12. Rissa /

    I have been using slice serve for 3 yrs. and not satisfied with the result until today after reading and viewing your “Top spin tennis serve and pronation” I can’t wait to go back to tennis court. I’ve tried it and was so happy after more than 30 balls attempt I GOT IT ! I love it and I am so excited to practice more. Thank you so much!

  13. David /

    Tomaz, I am interesting to know: 1) Can we do the same for 10 year old children? 2) if we take out ‘outcome’ from our mind, how long does it take to learn? 3) what would you recommend on serve before them master the techniques you introduced; especially during inter club competition?

  14. Lubos L /

    The best instruction how to do spin serve on the internet! (I checked maybe 50 others)
    I was struggling with my pronation and now I know how to do it correctly with power and w/o framing!

  15. Lucas /

    I was trying a long time to understand the pronation, and your explanation was the first one that clarified me the reason.
    Thank you Tomaz.
    Now, with less doubts, I will dedicate to improve my technique

    Congratulations for the competence and quality

  16. thomas /

    I think that having the student hit ball with edge of racquet will promote pronation

  17. Hi Tomaz, thanks a lot for this instruction!
    But I have a question:
    In my mind , for flat serve, I should firstly pronate and then contact the ball, but for slice serve, I should brush the right part of ball(3 o’clock) and then pronate.
    Sometimes I want a flat serve but the result is slice serve, and sometimes I want a slice serve, but the result is flat serve.
    I felt frustrated at this condition.

    Do you have some suggestion?
    Thanks again!

    • Hi Rui,

      I suggest you practice separately a flat serve and hit at least 30-50 serves. Then practice a slice serve separately and hit 30-50 serves.

      Perhaps you are trying to alternate between each type of serve before you have really stabilized your technique for each serve.

      The difference is small and the racquet moves very fast so you need lots of repetition to “lock” each serve into your muscle memory.

  18. Charlie /

    Hi, you’re so right , I’ve just spent a month hitting thousands of serves after doing your unlock course. There is no short cuts, after a while I just feel that I am on auto pilot and you just do it and whatever serve you want you just do it.

    “Just adjust” is where it’s at, don’t over analyse, just adjust! Cheers, Charlie

  19. Hi Tomaz. Your explanation of pronation and the drills to achieve it are excellent. I have learned something useful in all of your videos that I have seen. Thank you. Congratulations on your high standard of work.

  20. Hi Thomas

    Thanks for a very clear instruction. Just 1 question: what is the rotational direction on the ball? (I would imagine that we are looking for a rotation from 7 o’clock to 1 o’clock).

    Regards

    • Hi Tony,

      Yes, from 7 to 1 is a good direction to keep in mind especially when serving to the ad side (for right-handers). On the deuce side try to go from 6 to 12 – even though it’s almost impossible to achieve in reality, it will guide you in the right direction.

  21. Hi Tomaz,

    Your teachings is really easy to understand It amazed me on how you come up with a detailed information about the feel on how the ball will strike to your racket and combined with the pronation technique.

    I learned a lot of informations about your videos. It really described it all just by looking at your website “feeltennis”.

    Thank you for sharing this to us.

  22. Jimmy OuYang /

    Greetings from Taiwan,
    Hi Tomaz! Excellent video presentations and tips on the topspin serve. Best tennis instructions I can find anywhere. And the best thing is that I can topspin my serve now after so many struggling lessons. Well done. Congrats,
    Jimmy

  23. Herbert /

    Hi Tomaz,

    I enjoy watching your videos & learn a lot from them. One thing I would suggest to others is to video themselves when they practice the serve then watch the videos in slow motion. I do that most times when I practice on my own & it’s amazing how easily I see the errors in the videos which helps me to make adjustments. This has allowed me to take my serve from scratch to where it is now, but I have 3 problems that I have a hard time solving.
    1. I frame the ball too often on my 2nd (topspin) serves.
    2. I can feel the brush effect on my 2nd (topspin) serves, but a lot of them go in the net.
    3. My tosses for both flat & topspin serves are inconsistent.
    I look forward to practicing your drills later today, but how should I correct each of the 3 problems I mentioned?
    You might not know how much your instructions are helping others, but you’re doing a great job for persons like myself who cannot afford private lessons. I really appreciate this; keep up the good work.

    • Tomaz /

      I fully agree Herbert, that videoing yourself for any shot is very beneficial.

      Ok, to your questions:

      1. Framing the ball means not seeing it. You may be pulling your eyes / head too early away from the ball.
      2. Aim higher. Really, that’s all there is to do.
      3. You must KNOW where you want the toss to end. Do not think about your technique on how to toss but only where you want the ball to be. Also LOOK UP in that space / area before you start the tossing motion or just as you start it.

  24. I first noticed you on the net when I saw the video on the ball toss for the different serves. A lot of videos/sites talk about only one type of serve at a time and mention stuff like pronation for the flat serve. I find your videos helpful when you talk about the different serves together. Now I have a visual on the spin serves that pronation really happens much later then the flat serve. I must be doing this naturally but it is still good to have a visualization. Finally, I think hitting flat serves too often is counter productive to winning.

    • Tomaz /

      Spot on, Kev. Flat serves are too risky so it’s good to pus some spin on the ball when you serve.

      • Watching these guys in slow motion helped me alot yesterday when I was serving. I think the big thing is they start swinging on edge then open to hit across the ball and don’t turn wrist over until the ball is well off the strings. Thinking like that helped me with placement, power, etc. With hockey wrist shot I think more like the one drill you showed above- really turn the wrist over when puck is nearing end of blade.

  25. Tomaz, with the use of slow-motion and still photos this was THE best demonstration of service pronation, without exception.

    Although I learned to pronate naturally, intellectually the whole concept seems counter-intuitive. Assuming a right handed player, to achieve a right-to-left ball rotation one would suspect the lead edge of the raquet would also travel in a slice motion from right to left. BUT with pronation this is not what happens. Plus pronation clearly does more than square the raquet face to the ball. It actually causes the trailing edge of the raquet to become the leading edge. This movement would ostensibly put right-to-left spin on the ball. So, can you understand why I am having difficulty with the mental imagery – raquet going right to left and the ball spin and ball direction going left to right? Thanks again. Cheers from Pompano Beach, Florida.

    • Thanks for the feedback, Larry.

      The pronation and top spin seem counterintuitive until you try and feel it. If you’re a right hander, make a fist with your left hand as if to make a ball and then hit and brush your fist with a “serve top spin” action of your right hand and pronate afterwards.

      You’ll see that the pronation you see (the trailing edge now leading) happens way after the contact. The feel I have on my fist is that I push it forward with my right hand and at the same time spin it.

      If you were to lead with the original leading edge, there would be way less “push” or force forward. You’d spin it but not give much power…

      • Hi Tomaz,

        Re: “You’ll see that the pronation you see (the trailing edge now leading) happens way AFTER the contact. ” (caps are my emphasis!

        I reviewed the videos and the still photos. The pronation certainly starts BEFORE contact. So I’m still befuddled how to do both – spin and pronate in one movement.

        I have a full fluid motion and lead with the edge of the frame. I know I must pronate otherwise I would frame the serve, which I occasionally do if the pronation is late. BUT — when I emphasize the forceful pronation the serve is flat and goes out to the right – no top spin or right to left spin. When I hit the kick serve or slice serve it goes just as you said – very little power since the ball slides across the strings. Maybe the path of my racquet is not moving from left to right enough?
        (sorry for being such a crappy student.) :-(

        • Hi Larry,

          Let’s tackle this from two angles:

          1. Perhaps a better word would be the the pronation “completes” after contact when hitting a top spin serve.

          Yes, obviously the racquet needs to start turning towards the ball on the way otherwise you would just brush it with no forward force.

          2. The reason why I say that there is no pronation before contact is because I feel it that way.

          The racquet starts to pronate perhaps 1-2 frames (in slo-mo) before contact. That takes 0.05 to 0.1 seconds.

          You cannot consciously DO anything in that time period, it is too fast for our conscious mind!

          Watching slow motion videos and then trying to replicate what you see is a death trap. It will mess up your technique and fluidity.

          Start by serving from the mid-court towards the ad side first.

          Hit a spin / slice serve where you go from 8 to 2 or 7 to 1 on an imaginary clock on the ball.

          If the ball spins, you’re fine.

          Now make it go further and still keep it spinning.

          You must have no conscious idea of pronation. It’s too fast.

          You only want to make the ball go further first.

          If you can, step back to the baseline and do the same.

          Can you make it land in the service box?

          Good. Now try to keep and spin and make it go faster while at the same time being very COMFORTABLE.

          Now do that for some time. Progress is slow but it is there. Don’t look for the final “product”, only look for progress – which means you can do the top spin serve and goes nice with not much effort.

          That will motivate you to keep working on it and developing feel for it.

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