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.
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.
Because this makes the most sense to us for three reasons:
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 …
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.
Now change the grip to a Continental one without changing anything else in your body.
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.
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.
When hitting with an advanced serve technique:
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 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 …
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.
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.
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.