Seasoned tennis players and fans will agree that the service is the most important shot in the game. Rally, consistency, and groundstrokes are also important, but the tennis serve outweighs them all. If you can't serve the ball, the tennis match is over before it begins. Studies show that no matter the surface played on, most points end by the first four shots. Therefore, it's important to use the only ball the opponent has no control over. The tennis serve sets a precedent for the rest of the point, and sometimes the match. In theory, four decent services are enough to win a game with even average shots. Hence a good tennis serve can put you in a winning position, and a bad one can make the rest of your arsenal useless.
The Game of Tennis
If playing an ancient sport of kings and queens is your thing - then tennis is for you. Tracing its origins to 14th century France, the game of tennis has grown and evolved into one of the most popular individual sports in the world. Tennis is played by about 60 million men and women, and its Grand Slam professional tournaments are some of the most highly watched sporting events worldwide.
From its beginnings on grass surfaces in Europe as lawn tennis in the mid-19th century, tennis is now played on a variety of surfaces. These surfaces include clay and hard courts of concrete or asphalt topped with acrylic. The court is 78 feet long and 27 feet wide for singles matches, and 36 feet for doubles matches. Tennis is played with two or four participants, each wielding a tennis racket, typically made of titanium and other artificial fibers. Tennis balls comprise hollow vulcanized rubber with a tightly wound felt coating.
The players (or teams) start on opposite sides of the net. One player is designated the server, and the opposing player is the receiver. The choice to be server or receiver in the first game and the choice of ends can be decided by a coin toss before the warm-up starts. Service alternates each game between the two players (or teams). For each point, the server starts behind the baseline, between the center mark and the sideline. The receiver may start anywhere on their side of the net. When the receiver is ready, the server will serve, although the receiver must play to the pace of the server.
Scoring in tennis is based on the point, game, set, and match. A game consists of a sequence of points played with the same player serving. A game is won by the first player to have won at least four points in total and at least two points more than the opponent. A set comprises a sequence of games played with service alternating between games, ending when the count of games won meets certain criteria. Typically, a player wins a set by winning at least six games and at least two games more than the opponent. A match comprises a sequence of sets, although the number played depends on the participants, with three and five set matches most common.
The end of a game occurs when the player in the lead needs only one more point to win the game. The terminology extends to sets (setpoint), matches (match point), and even championships (championship point). For example, if the player who is serving has a score of 40-love, the player has a triple game point (triple set point, etc.) as the player has three consecutive chances to win the game.
The Importance of the Tennis Serve
Games of tennis are started with the serve. It's the starting shot to start a point. The tennis serve begins by hitting the ball with a racquet so it will fall into the diagonally opposite service box without being stopped by the net. Most players begin a serve by tossing the ball into the air and hitting, although serving underhand is used as well, mostly by beginner players. The ball is in play when it falls on the opposite side.
The tennis serve is one of the more difficult shots for a novice, but once mastered it can be a considerable advantage. Advanced players can hit the serve in many ways and often use it as an offensive weapon to gain an advantage in the point or to win it outright. Because of this, players above beginner level are expected to win most of their service games, and the ability to break an opponent's serve plays a crucial role in a match.
For any tennis serve, the server stands behind the baseline without touching it. For the first point of any game, the server stands to the right of the center point of the baseline and serves diagonally across the net to the left side (from the server's perspective) of the court, into the service box which extends to the service line about midway into the opponent's court. At the second point of the game, the serve is diagonally from the left to the right side of the court, and for each subsequent point of the same game, the positioning is the opposite of that on the previous point.
Simple Tweaks to Improve Your Serve
Recognizing your optimal hitting zone is the first step to having a good tennis serve. With your tennis racquet in hand, reach up to the sky with full extension; this is roughly where you will want to contact the ball when serving. You don’t want to “short arm” the serve contact point when making contact, meaning your arm is bent at the elbow; this will cause decreased power and loss of control.
Having a consistent smooth ball toss is another very important element of the tennis serve. You don’t want to “toss” the ball as much as you want it to lift off your hand with the momentum you’ve generated upward with your arm. It's suggested to hold the ball gently in your fingertips, so the ball moves easily from your grip as you let go when your arm makes an upward motion. You’ll want to keep your tossing arm, and grip as relaxed as possible. It's also advised to keep your tossing elbow straight, not bent. This will help with control and also allow you to let the ball glide up into the air rather than being “tossed.” The end goal is to end up with the same toss time and time again.
Keep your tossing arm extended for as long as possible before making contact. This fundamental is the same as pointing at the ball when hitting an overhead. By keeping your tossing arm extended, it will help keep you in the proper position, with the proper balance until it makes contact. It will also help you generate the proper power needed when the tossing arm moves out of the way.
Many coaches like to call it “scratching your back” with the racquet. Your grip on the racquet should be as if you were holding a live bird in your racquet hand. Holding the racquet with this light amount of pressure will allow the racquet to scratch your back on the way to making contact. The position should be like trying to scratch an itchy spot on your back without contacting your back. Getting in this position before contact will allow your racquet to “slingshot” up into the ball, helping you get more power and control.
If everything goes correctly, you land on the leg of your tossing arm and gently bring your other leg to rest on the court in the ready position. This is not something you should have to think about but will happen naturally if you’ve executed the above steps properly. Your ball toss should be slightly out in front you. Therefore, your finishing position should be just inside the baseline; the momentum of the service motion will naturally move you there.
You can easily practice the tennis serve at targets on the court. Cones or pyramids of stacked tennis balls work well to aim at when practicing your tennis serve. Even during a match, you should not be thinking about the mechanics of your tennis serve, but aiming for a spot on the court you want to hit.
The tennis serve is the most important shot in tennis. The player starts any point with a tennis serve half the time in a game or match. Starting anything off on the right foot is the key to success. Having a finely tuned serve will allow you to start the point with an overwhelming advantage. Conversely, if the player has a weak serve or bad technique, then double faults or slow serves are more common, allowing the opponent to take advantage. Good tennis players devote time to their tennis game and devote the majority to the shot that will impact the outcome of their game the most: the tennis serve.