Sunday, January 20, 2008

"A Tip for the Server."

Your pulse quickens. Your hands are shaking. Sweat is dripping down your forehead. "Will I make this? I've missed before. What if I miss the ball completely? Even if I make it my opponent will smash the ball by me." And then you realize you are worrying about your serve. The only shot you control completely yourself. This is supposed to be an advantage. It hasn't always been this way.

In tennis's early years one was allowed unlimited chances to enter a ball into play. The shot was difficult to hit with much force or accuracy, and the receiver definitely had the edge. Deeming it discourteous for either person to start at an advantage, the nobles who played the game had a servant toss the ball into play, hence the term "service." As equipment improved and serving became more advantageous, this "courtesy" tennis ended, and the number of serves plummeted to the bare minimum. Almost. Legend has it that "one of the early kings who played tennis could not serve well, and that one day he made a rule that two serves should be allowed. No one dared to object at the time... thus, the rule stood unchallenged, and became part of the game."1 For ages many have clamored to limit the server to one. They argue that the server is already at an advantage made greater by allowing two chances. This has been tried before, but two serves are still the rule of the land.

Learning to enjoy serving instead of fearing it makes a tremendous difference. Again, you create the serve. Strong serving can cover up a mediocre ground game, while poor service renders flawless strokes useless. Success on the court hinges on the serve. Remember every point begins with a serve, and often that is the only stroke hit during a point (ever watch a men'sWimbledon final?) But still most of us spend 30 minutes or more of our practice time hitting groundstrokes, maybe 20 on our net game, and serve a few minutes before picking up balls. Reversing this trend is a big step in the right direction. Serving well comes only with lots of practice. Serve over half the time somedays. Starting points with a good serve gives you that many more opportunities to use your other strokes in a match.

When practicing the service how can you make the most of that time? The service box is pretty big (larger than my apartment!)2, just getting the ball in the box is little measure of your ability to serve. Practice aiming at targets to better evaluate your progress. Varying the serve in the box(speeds and spins as well) creates a larger advantage for the server. Allowed two serves, we often throw away the first. You are only as good as the serve you get in consistently. Booming firsts are great but useless if a meek second serve is all that goes in the court. Practice as though you only have one. Develop a second serve that never misses. Knowing that you have a reliable second serve waiting in the wings, makes you that much more relaxed to go for a first serve.

Finally, a consistent toss can be developed in the privacy of your home. Also, proper serving motion is like throwing a baseball high into the air. Get outside with family or pet and loft some balls with this upward motion. This may all take time, but your match play will see a great deal of improvement. You control your destiny every time you step up to the line. This is a good thing. Serving is not going to go away and hoping it will won't help your game. And that would truly be a disservice. - Nick (Fall 1997)

1 Whitman, Malcolm D. "Tennis Origins and Mysteries" 1932:86-87.
2 My apartment ~224 sq ft, one service box 283.5 sq ft.

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