The Single Biggest Reason That Makes The Serve So Difficult

Apr 29

Have you ever wondered why the serve in tennis is so difficult?

When you compare the forehands and backhands of recreational tennis players with the pros’ technique, there isn’t a huge difference, but when it comes to serves, the difference is very obvious.

While there are many reasons why the serve technique and actual speeds differ so much, there is one key reason why the correct advanced serve technique is so difficult to acquire for recreational tennis players.

The Beginner-Serve Technique That Makes Sense

When you started your tennis journey and needed to serve your first serve in your life, you surely didn’t hold a continental grip, position sideways, coil your body and pronate through contact.

No, you probably just held the racquet with a forehand grip, turned toward the court and swung directly toward the target.

a beginner tennis serve

This serve technique makes the most sense even to beginners

Why?

Because this makes the most sense to us for three reasons:

  1. The forehand grip aligns our palm with the strings, which is the most natural way to feel the orientation of the racquet face and control it.
  2. Orienting toward the court/target helps us see it and aim at it.
  3. Swinging toward the target using our whole arm helps us direct the ball quite accurately toward the target.

This beginner-serve technique makes the most sense, and basically, even a total beginner in tennis can control the ball’s direction quite well with fairly high consistency.

But then something happens …

As you progress in your tennis journey, you realize that proper tennis serve technique doesn’t look like that and that there are various new elements you need to learn.

Now you need to use a Continental grip, positioning more sideways, swinging up toward the ball, pronating and so on.

As you work on these elements, it may seem like you’re progressing, but you surely feel and realize that something is not right.

The pros easily serve 200 km/h (135 mph) and yet you can’t even break 160 km/h (100 mph), even though you’re using all of your muscles.

Here’s why …

How Continental Grip Changes Everything

There’s an easy way to realize how using a Continental grip changes the three most logical things about serving that I mentioned above.

Position yourself in the “beginner” serve orientation, with the forehand grip, and place the racquet at the point of contact.

forehand grip for serving

Face the court / target and hold a forehand grip…

Now change the grip to a Continental one without changing anything else in your body.

continental grip for serve

… changing to Continental grip messes up everything that made sense before!

The Continental grip is a 90-degree change of the racquet-head orientation to the previous forehand grip.

This changes everything!

Now the strings point 90 degrees away from the target, and you can’t just twist your forearm to make the strings face the target. Even if you do, it feels very awkward and strains your arm.

If you now want to point the racquet face toward the target, YOU need to change your orientation by 90 degrees.

correct serving orientation

This is a slight exaggeration but it’s the key for changing your mental image about how the serve works

Everything you considered common sense about the serve is now thrown out the window.

The serve is no longer like you thought it was anymore, and that’s the key reason why the correct advanced serve technique that the pros use is so difficult for you to implement.

You don’t realize that all of the common-sense logic you used with the beginner serve (grip aligned with strings, orienting toward the target and swinging toward the target) does NOT APPLY anymore.

And because you very likely still use the common sense without even realizing – since it’s so logical — your serve doesn’t really function well because you can’t use a NEW technique with an OLD approach.

 

club level serving

You very likely revert to common sense serving orientation and swing direction even though you work on your serve

When hitting with an advanced serve technique:

  1. Don’t face the court at contact, which means you WON’T SEE the target.
  2. Don’t swing toward the target with your arm, but swing at an angle in relation to it.

Since we don’t swing toward the target with our arm, the “new” serve technique then uses a different set of movements to generate power, and the key movement is pronation.

It’s not just pronation; it’s mostly an internal rotation of the upper arm initiated in the shoulder and continued with the forearm, but for the sake of simplicity, we can just call it pronation.

To better show you how much power can be generated ONLY from pronation, I can demonstrate a few serves in which I never orient toward the court, nor swing my arm toward the court, but simply use pronation to hit the ball.

the serve pronation

I can hit the ball quite hard only with pronation without any other movement (no leg drive, no body rotation, …)

The problem you face is that you most likely have not trained your arm with pronation drills to develop explosive power through that movement, and you actually can’t generate much power yet with it.

When I try to hit the ball with my left arm using the pronation movement correctly, I can’t generate any power.

And guess what I would do if I had to start playing for points immediately with my left arm and I tried to serve as hard as I could?

I would surely engage all of my body and use my whole arm as my bigger shoulder muscle would surely help me add a few km/h to the serve, compared with using only the pronation movement.

And after a few thousand serves like that, the incorrect movement would be ingrained in my brain, and it would be very hard to change.

And that’s where you find yourself now very likely …

How to Develop Correct Serve Technique for the Long Term

The first step is to realize that all of the common sense about serving that worked for you for so long does not apply anymore.

If you compare the body orientation at the moment of contact between club-level players and the pros, you can see one key difference that is best shown if we compare the head and arm alignment from the side-view perspective.

difference in serve technique

Note the head / arm relationship from this side angle…

Club players’ heads are always “behind” their arms, which means they already have turned almost completely toward the court, whereas pros’ heads are “in front” of their arms, which means they have not rotated their bodies fully toward the court as they make contact with the ball.

In other words, the club-level players still use the “common-sense beginner-serve” approach, which is orienting toward the target and swinging toward the target (which makes the most sense), but the pros typically have a 45-degree body orientation in relation to the target, and they don’t swing with their arms toward the target, but they use the pronation to drive the racquet toward the target more with their forearms.

Although club players do try to improve their serves through lessons and online instruction, they still eventually use the most logical way to direct the ball toward the service box, which actually hurts their consistency, accuracy, and power because the body and arm are not in a comfortable position at contact if they hold a Continental grip (which they all try to do).

The key to a better serve, then, is to realize that if you’re using a Continental grip, you’ll need to forget common sense and work on correct body orientation and pronation drills until they become second nature to you.

You will find it difficult to let go of the desire to control your serves by looking toward your target because that helps you aim.

If you don’t let go of that, you’ll keep orienting toward the target and therefore weaken your serve, as holding a Continental grip does not make it easy for you to direct the ball forward if you’re also facing forward.

You will also find it difficult to generate much power through pronation if you don’t regularly practice pronation exercises that will strengthen your arm and develop more explosiveness in your forearm.

And if you don’t feel power through that movement, you’ll revert back to swinging from your shoulder and forgo the correct serving technique that you wanted to develop in the first place.

While you may think that as an adult, you can take shortcuts and just learn intellectually how the serve works, then use it the same day on the court, I have to tell you that that’s not the case.

The correct advanced serve technique is not easy to develop, and as we coaches work with kids, we spend months and even years working on various pronation exercises, having them throw racquets, balls, and other training aids to develop the right movements that eventually allow them to hit serves with power and control using a Continental grip and correct serve technique.

throwing a racquet for biomechanics

Actually throwing a tennis racquet is one of the best drills to develop good serving biomechanics

The goal of this article is to show you that even though you may think you’re improving your serve by following online tennis instruction and practicing on your own with a basket of balls, you need to realize that the most logical and common-sense approach to serving does not apply anymore from the moment you decided to use a Continental grip.

Continental grip changes everything you thought made sense when serving, and it will show you its potential only if you also incorporate the advanced serving approach, which requires you to orient at a 45-degree angle — not seeing where the target is, not swinging toward the target — but using a pronation movement to accelerate the racquet head, which eventually creates much more power than a serve based on a forehand grip.

In terms of physics and feel, the beginner serve is based on using your muscles to push the ball with the arm as hard as possible toward the target, whereas an advanced serve is based on the transfer of momentum, in which we want to be relaxed and swing our arms very loosely, using a whip effect that creates much higher racquet-head speed with way less effort.

I hope I didn’t scare you too much 😉 with this article, but if you want to know the reality of improving your serve, and you’re willing to work on it in the long term, then you need to know where you may possibly go wrong in your approach and how to get back on the right track.

You can find plenty of totally free articles here on feeltennis.net that will start your journey on developing solid fundamentals of correct advanced serve technique, but for those who want to eliminate all weaknesses from their serves and are willing to invest more time to make their serve a weapon, look into the ServeUnlocked video course, in which I share all of my knowledge on how to develop a powerful and effortless serve that you can rely on.

Leave a Comment:

(47) comments

Ken April 29, 2016

First…!

Ok, prolly not – but how brilliant, and how lucky are we…!

Thank you Tomaz…!

And to everyone who reads – you’ll find my very supportive comments of Tomaz all through out the but that does not diminish his insightfulnesss.

Listen – he’s so full of tips; reallly – pay for ‘Serve Unlocked’ and learn ‘the power of the fall’…

I love the abandonment that is *required* to hit a great serve…

Thanks as always Tomaz…!

Reply
    Tomaz April 30, 2016

    Thanks for the kind feedback, Ken, really appreciate it!

    Reply
Jon C April 29, 2016

Tomaz, does the sideways orientation explain how the pros always land on their front foot on the serve? I always land on my back (right) foot unless I try not to.
Or is the landing on the front foot purposeful – as a break to generate speed from the torso or shoulders?

Thanks,

Jon

Reply
    Marty Black April 30, 2016

    An excellent presentation! I played in HS, College and USTA leagues (40+ years) at the 4.5 level and this is one of the best videos on the serve I have ever seen. Really nice work!!!

    Reply
    Tomaz April 30, 2016

    Hi Jon,

    We land on the left foot because we rotate into the serve in the air and because we toss the ball into the court.

    If you land on your back foot you likely toss too much over you or even behind you.

    Only Boris Becker landed on his right foot (as a righty) from all the top servers – and he made it work too.

    Reply
      kai May 2, 2016

      Tomaz,

      I generally agree with you but in this case I differ.

      Opposite foot landing only gained popularity with the baseline style that was came in with Connors et al. Prior serve doctrine was same foot step through (when SNV was default style). In Boris’s era, Stich an other snvers were same footers. Pete et al continued the trend and Mac was the first opposite foot SNV, an anomaly …but he was about something else on serve.  

      Modern does not equal better and past does not equal poorer. The most efficient servers in history, legends in fact, Tilden, Budge, Laver, Pancho, Kramer, Perry et al served step through.  Check out their smooth power and balance below. I have seen the Ozzie legends and it is impressive in deed. In the time of limited racket tech, players used EVERYTHING to maximize efficiency. 16 oz rackets make you have good technique since they cannot be armed. More like swinging a broadsword than a modern hi tech toothpick.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9QL1sglyouU

      Reply
        Tomaz May 2, 2016

        Thanks for sharing, Kai.

        Unfortunately, you’re wrong.

        The servers you show to me are still transferring weight in the same way as modern day players except that they were NOT ALLOWED to have both feet off the ground. The rule changed in 1961. After that players started to leave the ground quite soon…

        The baseline style has nothing to do with it, it’s about the rule change and how quickly players adapted to that. Those who have been serving for years before the rule change just stuck with the same serve (foot) technique…

        So again, the weight transfer of Gerald Patterson in the clip or Donald Budge is the same as the modern pros because they leave the back foot behind as the upper body is going forward.

        They push off the front foot (left) and they FIRST “land” back on the front foot “left” before adding the step with the back foot. (righthanders)

        Every modern pro ALSO steps through with their back foot AFTER they have landed on the front foot. It’s exactly the same process. The step over foot with the back leg fools you because it happens way after contact.

        Again, every pro nowadays does that too since the momentum throws them into the court.

        Boris Becker on the other hand started to move his back foot forward AT THE SAME TIME as he was going forward with his upper body.

        The modern tennis methods are so sophisticated and based on so much science / biomechanics and measurements that it is impossible that they are wrong in terms of weight transfer and which leg goes first forward when serving.

        Reply
Arnold April 30, 2016

Excellent lesson. I like that you take it step by step by step, it’s the only way it makes sense.

Reply
Mark April 30, 2016

Best breakdown of pronation technique I have ever seen. Powerful stuff.
Thanks,
Mark

Reply
George of Adelaide April 30, 2016

Hello Thomas. Yes, you are perfectly correct and I have had the benefit of your “Serve Unlocked” manifesto. Yet, I may venture to suggest that the most “under-emphasised” element for all beginners and intermediate or social players is what I may call “unlock yor body” issue. From ankle, to knees, to hips and torso a total “looseness” is vital for any of the actual “instructed” movements to have any chance of actually be attempted. Although this requirement is applicable to all strokes I suggest that the serve, being basically a deeply “un-natural” contortion demands, absolutely, that the body becomes fully unlocked for the correct action to be performed.

Reply
    Tomaz April 30, 2016

    Very good point, George, thanks for sharing.

    The total “looseness” is of course being opposed by our desire for control and the fear of missing the serve and hence rarely develops with players who mostly play for points (under pressure) and don’t spent time working on their serve in non-competitive situation where they could finally relax and feel how much effortless power their body can actually generate if they only let it.

    Reply
Richard R April 30, 2016

Simply the very best training available anywhere on the Internet. Tomaz, thanks so very much. I have been teaching for years and I have still learned so much from your videos.

Reply
Roberto April 30, 2016

I would dare to state that there’s no coach in the world who offers such a unique and exceptional view of tennis. Tomaz dives right into the learner’s difficulties by approaching them from a holistic perspective, not just raw mechanics and logic. If I lived in Slovenia, I would hire him right away! Thanks Tomas so much!

Regards from Spain.

Reply
    Tomaz April 30, 2016

    Thank you, Roberto. I think there are many good coaches out there but they are held back by the time involved to do all this (as they coach full time), by technological barrier and some also by language barrier.

    Keep in touch!

    Reply
Joel Loo April 30, 2016

Hi Tomaz,

This is Joel from Singapore.

This serve lesson is brilliant .

I foresee I will use your explanations to teach my students on the tennis serve.

The pronation is indeed a difficult challenge for most players and you managed to break it down into very simple ideas.

Thanks for sharing to the tennis community.

Reply
    Tomaz April 30, 2016

    Thanks for the feedback, Joel!

    Keep in touch…

    Reply
Gönül April 30, 2016

Hı Tomaz
Süper explanation about serve continental technique ( included why and how)…I’m really fascinated.Thanks a lot and take care:)

Greetings from Turkey.

Reply
Kevin Foehrkolb April 30, 2016

Great insight and instruction on the serve. Too much to give away for free; this should be part of a pay course! I hope my competitors don’t see it!

I hope you have a new course coming out soon – on the forehand maybe?

Thanks Tomaz and all the best to you in your coaching career, Kevin

Reply
    Tomaz April 30, 2016

    Much appreciated, Kevin.

    Topspin and slice serve course in the works, coming up soon!

    Reply
luiz April 30, 2016

Thanks!!!

Reply
Jerry April 30, 2016

Brilliantly described and wonderfully illustrated! I’m trying to find your exercises to strengthen the pronation movement but haven’t been able to. Can you send a link?
jerry

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Patrick April 30, 2016

Tomaz, Without a doubt, the very best explanation of the serve and the transition from begining (push) server to advanced (pronate) server. Personally, I am thankful for your continuing excellence in teaching. Pat

Reply
Vic d'Obrenan April 30, 2016

Excellent lesson Tomaz. Love your teaching. Greetings from Canada!

Reply
    Vic d'Obrenan May 3, 2016

    I went out and practiced that lesson today. Thank you, thank you thank you thank you!!!!!!! What a great lesson. This is the most helpful lesson I have ever had on my serve. I’ll be signing up for more of your lesson Tomasz

    Reply
      Tomaz May 3, 2016

      Awesome, Vic, thanks for the feedback! More lessons on the way…

      Reply
Danny April 30, 2016

Hi Tomaz, another excellent video from you on the serve. I thought your 7 steps to correct serve was your best ever, but this one tops them all. You made it crystal clear on the pronation technique and the big difference between club players serves and that of the pros. I wonder if you can come up with a single handed backhand video similar to the serve on how to generate power. Your beginner videos that I purchased years ago helped me hit a consistent one handed but it lacks power. Once again, Thank you so much for your tips.

Reply
    Tomaz May 2, 2016

    Thanks, Danny.

    Yes, I’ll eventually post videos on the forehand and backhand with the fundamentals of technique and biomechanics, just give me some time, there’s a lot to cover in tennis…

    Reply
Tony Senewiratne May 1, 2016

Thank for a very helpful and detailed explanation of the serve with the pronation technique

Reply
pascal voufo May 1, 2016

Thank You so much Mr. Tomaz. Great drill for the serve: throwing the racket is actually a very nice technique to master. You are doing a great job.

Reply
serge Hoellinger May 1, 2016

un grand merci pour ces explications qui sont les plus claires et les mieux illustrées que je n’ai jamais vues.
j’avais une bonne compréhension de la préparation du service et de la pronation mais pas de l’explication du lien entre ces deux phases.
En fait j’applique intuitivement cette technique mais sans comprendre les raisons du placement perpendiculaire par rapport à la ligne de fond de court.
je découvre aussi que la tête doit être à l’avant du bras pronateur au moment de l’impact de la balle.

Reply
Joel Sease May 1, 2016

Yet another ridiculously good video! Great ideas with clear, concise, translatable presentation. Very impressive. Thanks once again Tomaz!

Reply
JOHN May 1, 2016

Hi Tomaz ,

Excellent material, as always, and you break it down also in text and pictures above as well as in video format, which is also very helpful. Great job!

Reply
Max May 2, 2016

This is a fantastic breakdown of the arm and wrist motion on the serve. I have spent a lot of time perfecting my serve, but this video shows you how to really isolate the arm and wrist snap so effectively. Makes things really simple. This video helped me to add even more pop, spin, and consistency to my service motion. Thanks!!

Reply
    Tomaz May 2, 2016

    Glad to hear that, Max. Thanks for sharing.

    Reply
Andrew May 3, 2016

Hi Tomaz,

Count me also among those who think your videos are the best online tennis instruction in the world today. Seriously.

My question is about the difference in the relative positions of the head and hitting arm in pros vs. club/rec players. As you say:

“Club players’ heads are always “behind” their arms, which means they already have turned almost completely toward the court, whereas pros’ heads are “in front” of their arms, which means they have not rotated their bodies fully toward the court as they make contact with the ball.”

“In other words, the club-level players still use the “common-sense beginner-serve” approach, which is orienting toward the target and swinging toward the target (which makes the most sense), but the pros typically have a 45-degree body orientation in relation to the target, and they don’t swing with their arms toward the target, but they use the pronation to drive the racquet toward the target more with their forearms.”

Is this a function of the pros’ better (correct) technique in keeping their orientation more sideways? Or are the pros able to do this because they are younger, more flexible and stronger, so that they can get their head and upper body in front of the ball at contact but still complete the pronation movement with their hitting arm? In other words, should rec players consciously be trying to achieve this position because it is the correct form, or is it something that we can hope for only after tremendous strength and flexibility training?

Thanks.

Reply
    Tomaz May 3, 2016

    Thanks a lot, Andrew.

    The pros are not rotated fully because they decelerate the body just before contact in order to create a transfer of momentum to the arm which – because of its much less mass than body then has to accelerate.

    I do that too that’s why I can explain it.

    Recreational tennis players never decelerate their body hence they keep turning and “pushing” with force into the ball.

    Can you spot body deceleration in this clip?

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=InYd8IrFnkU

    The best explanation on the transfer of momentum I found is in this baseball video (the principles of acceleration are the same regardless of sport):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OBi5xdinK-0

    The author mentions the same problems in baseball:”…players tend to spin / rotate through the hit instead of decelerating the body…”

    It’s the same in tennis – players tend to rotate their body through the contact instead learning how to decelerate it as that will produce more racquet head speed.

    It’s just that it’s counterintuitive for serving in tennis and yet not for throwing for example. Ego plays a part there too…

    Rec players should do a lot of throwing exercises because we naturally decelerate the body when we do that. I’d say 90% of the players will throw the ball or the racquet using body deceleration.

    Also, if you ask players to just swing with the racquet to create a “swoosh” sound, they will almost all decelerate the body unconsciously in order to accelerate the racquet.

    But when the ball is in the air and they intend to serve it, they revert back to forceful pushing. 😉

    That’s why I am making such videos in order to show that the serve doesn’t work like our common sense tells us.

    Deceleration of your body in order to create maximum racquet head speed does not make sense to most players… (unless they played sports like volleyball, handball or baseball for many years and ingrained that into they mind / body)

    Reply
Félix May 3, 2016

What about the non dominant arm? There are also differences between pros an recreational players. Don’t you think?

Reply
    Tomaz May 4, 2016

    Sure, Felix, the biggest difference in non-dominant is that with rec players it’s not really vertical at the peak of the toss and with pros it is.

    But that’s because rec players don’t orient so much upwards as the pros do since they are not swinging upwards but forward and down.

    Reply
Kalani May 6, 2016

If anyone wants to learn how to serve, they need to stop question this man. I just went through 5 years of unlearning bad habits on my forehand and backhand without playing a single match. I had purchased your videos to teach my son the game and immediately I knew I had 20+yrs a bad muscle memory to undue….

So without hitting a serve for 7yrs, I watched the videos to unlock my serve, took some notes, went to the courts. 20 MINUTES later, I was blasting my serves.(the correct way),
…..several short practice sessions later. and I’m easily hit 130mph+ (in the box). No problem. With no effort. My game is now light years away from my 4.5 past rating.

Stop wasting your time. LEARN TO LET GO and most importantly;
Learn tennis the right way with Tomaz Mencinger. Its too costly not to.

By the way there are actually a couple of pros who could use your help.

Sorry Tomaz, I still can’t find anything bad to say.

Reply
    Tomaz May 6, 2016

    Thank you very much for the support, Kalani.

    Reply
Martin May 6, 2016

Thank you very much for your amazing posts!
I always thought that pronation was primarily a wrist based action.
I encountered the following YouTube video which seemed to help me a lot. Do you agree with it?
https://youtu.be/TicF41TcrIQ

Also, would you be able discuss the timing of the jump during the serve in a future video? I think that a lot of rec players including me tend to jump to early (thinking that the jump needs to occur first and then the swing). At what point in the swing would you recommend to jump?

Reply
    Tomaz May 6, 2016

    Hi Martin,

    Gene talks about shoulder twist and I mention upper arm rotation and other moves. I personally don’t think it’s so important to name different body parts and what exactly they do but it’s more important to just do what I show.

    When you try to imitate exactly what I do then the right body parts will do the right thing.

    As for the jump, I’ll keep that in mind…

    In short, we don’t jump at all. We simply leave the ground because we drive up towards the ball pushing off the ground which helps us swing with even more energy up towards the ball.

    I’ll see if I can explain it clearly in one of the future videos…

    Reply
      Martin May 10, 2016

      Thanks for getting back Tomaz!

      I have another question regarding your power move on the serve.

      When turning the shoulders during the serve (i.e. when transitioning from the backward swing to the upward swing), how do you mentally initiate the shoulder turn?
      What I mean is, when you see right handed pros serving, you see that they pull in their left arm during their serve. Do they use the left arm to initiate the power move (i.e. shoulder turn)?

      So when you serve and are about to perform the power move, do you mentally think of turning your shoulder or do you pull in your left arm, which in turn initiates the shoulder turn?

      Thanks again for your help!

      Reply
        Tomaz May 10, 2016

        I don’t think of the left arm separately, I feel my shoulder connection from left to right shoulder like a rigid stick and I rotate it.

        What do you think of when you want to throw a ball far away? Do you think of the left arm?

        I don’t think so, you only want to generate arm speed. Mind and body do the rest…

        Reply
Johnny May 6, 2016

Another great lesson, Tomaz. Another thing that has helped me is to think about topspin on the serve – it would be very hard to add topspin to a beginner level service action with a western grip. The tennis court imposes a constraint of having to clear the net while keeping the ball in court, and this problem is more obvious in the serve where the service line is closer to the net. The beginner method requires very precise timing of the ball to do this since you’re hitting the ball flat – too early and it’s into the net and too late and it’s out. As a result most people have to softly tap the second serve. Topspin solves this problem but it’s not immediately obvious how to apply topspin to a ball above your head and that’s what a proper serve can do.

Reply
    Tomaz May 6, 2016

    You’re right, Johnny, It’s almost impossible to hit a top spin serve with a forehand grip.

    I actually like to teach a slice serve to beginners as that also helps them avoid the waiter’s serve – or at least minimizes it.

    Reply
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