JAK'S MONTHLY ESSAY SERIES: Achieving Your Personal Best
Why Serving Well is so Difficult in Clubland
Right off I'm betting that many of you - students of the game if you're reading this! - are thinking the toss with your non-dominant hand is the culprit. A close second for sure, and certainly an extremely important element, but no that's not it. Some may consider that learning a serve specific grip to impart spin in order to clear the net with safe margins and bend the ball into that little box is it. Not. Still others may believe it's the synchronization of the racket arm and tossing arm, the hip/shoulder coiling, and the knee bending/leg drive - all those moving parts - into one smooth motion. An absolutely valid thought but, no, not really.
It is, without a doubt, watching the ball effectively at contact, the most difficult skill, yes skill, in the game in general, but especially the most difficult and challenging component in serving well.
Why is that?
The dilemma lies in the fact that serving is basically a throwing motion, albeit with stick in hand. Yet, when throwing any object from our earliest ages – toys, rocks, softballs, snowballs, baseballs, footballs, spitballs (think 4th grade shenanigans), whatever – you would instinctively look directly at the object you were throwing towards. That familiarity represents years of established, unconscious, long term muscle memory to overcome, whether it occurred on a regular basis or intermittently, since it's in direct conflict with the required head up position when serving a tennis ball in order to simultaneously focus one's visual attention.
Attention on what?
The acknowledged serving ideal of "throwing" the racket through the tossed ball – exemplified best by the great Pete Sampras!...check him out on You Tube – is undermined by jerking your head down (from all that previous conditioning) and prematurely looking across the net at the very last micro second, just prior to the racket-on-ball impact, consistently sinking your serving ship. No, everyone's ship. Serving blind!
But keeping your head up while serving is a somewhat awkward task. Just try throwing a tennis ball over the net from a baseline service position with your head up. A clumsy feeling ensues to say the least. Counterintuitive. So, there can be indeed a lot of previous look-where-you-throw conditioning to overcome, that's then also exacerbated when you're anticipating that the ball is being returned in match play.
Ever notice that in pre-match warm-ups – when there's no point to be played, no return to address - you often serve better than in the match?
So, what's the best cue to maximize your eye on the ball, head up through impact? The overly simple long-standing "watch the ball" cue generally doesn't cut it, or strike an effective chord. A far more specific task remains - what is it about the ball that you're watching, or watching for?
Optimal timing is the holy grail.
Over 50 years on-court teaching and coaching the game to thousands of players, at every level, has led me to encourage them, with proven success, to be diligent about striking the ball at what they see is that optimal moment. At times, in the beginning of this doable transition, I'll ask players, after hitting a serve, to be able to tell me what the ball was doing at the moment of contact – going up (hopefully never), coming down a bit from a higher than you can reach apex (ok – like Serena - and by how much…see new home page video), or when it's relatively still, only tossed as high as you can reach comfortable ("apexing" like Federer). Now, without the typically ineffective "watch the ball" command, there's now a purpose related to keeping one's head up, closely tracking the ball, and then be able to time the serve at the perfect for them moment with consistency once that toss-strike timing is identified!
Hall of Fame golfer Jack Nicklaus once said, "If you're putting badly it goes through your whole bag." It follows then that if you're serving badly it goes through your entire game. And it does.
In club tennis a high 1st serve percentage – say 60-70% in - results in both a statistical advantage and a vastly underestimated mental/emotional one as well, even if you're not going to make a dent in a radar gun. If it's only 30-40%, and you're then faced with 2nd serves all too often, the same statistical, mental/emotional advantage then shifts to the receiver.
Learning this new serving cue will go a long way to improving your racket-on-ball timing, your match play management, serve consistency, and your overall performance as well, win or lose.
Copyright© 2017 by Jak Beardsworth Tennis. All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
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