Andy Murray’s expression in this photo (like he’s about to yell an expletive or kill someone) pretty much sums up the way I’ve felt about my serve for the past two years. Until recently, my serve has been a source of considerable frustration, anger and fear: I’ve double faulted too many times in critical matches, poofed over too many pathetic second serves to the delight of too many opponents, and basically felt nauseous too many times I’ve stepped up to the service line anticipating failure.
Enough is enough. I’ve resolved to confront my inner beast and get to work on turning this situation around. After all, as coaches have been telling me since I started playing, the serve is the one thing– the ONE THING!– that we tennis players have total control over during matches.
So I’m setting a public goal here and now to transform my serve over the next months (by April 2013) from a weakness into a weapon. Top priority: a great flat and slice serve. Second priority: a consistent kick serve.
In the process, I’ll risk considerable embarrassment by sharing videos of the good, bad and the ugly along the way in the hopes that they help any of you dealing with similar challenges. Exhibit A: A video shot during a lesson a couple months ago working on my flat serve. Note (among other things) the too-slow racquet speed, weak wrist snap, too-tight shoulders and upper body, failure to keep left arm up long enough, incorrect body position and recovery after contact, sloppy flootwork (at the time, I was unsure whether I was a “platform” or “pinpoint” stance server, but have since decided to stick with the platform stance)… In other words: lots to work on!!
Here’s what I’m doing to tackle this challenge:
First, I’m forcing myself to incorporate serve more into lessons and practice sessions. It’s been so easy to just go out and “hit” with people — it feels so good and has been so much more fun for me. But now if I’m working with a pro or hitter, I spend at least 50% of the time either working on serve or playing points requiring a serve. (My experience with most clinics and camps is that the serve is really under-emphasized).
Second, I’m forcing myself to play more matches. I’ve been procrastinating on this front, continuing to tell myself “let me just get my serve a little more consistent before I play matches again.” The only way to confront this beast is to work on serve during pressure situations too.
Third, I’m going to continue to work hard on my “mental game”, drawing heavily on my two favorite tennis psychology books and using the great mantra taught to me by my pro Saif Syed: “I’ll take that mistake.” The serve is where my mind is really good at working against me. I’m determined to turn that around.
Finally, I’ve invested in some online serve courses from instructors I trust:
- Jeff Salzenstein’s Tennis Serve Secrets course
- Ian Westermann/ Essential Tennis free serve course + Ian’s new “Serve Mechanic” course, which addresses 6 top technique mistakes recreational players make on serves. I got access to the Serve Mechanic course as a bonus for purchasing Will Hamilton/ Fuzzy Yellow Balls’ Singles Playbook through Ian’s site.
I look forward to keeping you posted on this journey. In the meantime, here’s the current list of top lessons I’ve learned so far.
KEY LESSONS I’VE LEARNED THAT I’M TRYING TO PRACTICE AND MAKE AUTOMATIC
(Note: I’m keeping a running, constantly updated list for serve and other aspects of my game on the page “Reminders to Self“)
- Use Jeff Greenwald’s “B, P, R” routine (Breath, placement, relaxed arm). (1) Take a deep breath as I walk to the line to establish my presence and decide on type of serve and placement; (2) Imagine the ball traveling toward my target; (3) Scan and release excess tension from my shoulders and arm.
- Visualize a winning trophy position
- Instead of thinking “toss,” think of a “place” of the ball. Ball should not be spinning if “place” is correct.
- Keep the L arm UP and watch the ball carefully as you “place” it (think “ATP pose”)
- Never hit a bad toss- break that habit!
- Rhythm is key. Think “Place…DropReach (fast)!” so that the racket head accelerates
- On takeback of racket, keep elbow closer to body with R arm RELAXED and elbow bent.
- Slight lag in working arm upon toss
- Allow the racquet head to drop completely prior to impact: To do that, be sure shoulder and elbow are relaxed and not doing anything to restrict range of motion
- Hit UP with fully extended arm at point of impact
- “Admire” the ball (i.e. really watch it) and keep the head up during impact!
- Toss more in front, not to side
- Don’t shuffle the feet! If you need to move around, the toss is bad and you shouldn’t hit it.
- Finish movement with momentum INTO THE COURT
* Photo credits: I took these photos of Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic during their 2012 US Open final match.