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JAK'S MONTHLY ESSAY SERIES: Achieving Your Personal Best

Why Serving Well is so Difficult in Clubland

By Jak Beardsworth

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.

COMMENTS WELCOME: JB1tennis@comcast.net

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Past Essays

  • March 2023 - Classic finish line failure
    [read more]
  • February 2023 - Defending the lob over your net partner – The "Switch"
    [read more]
  • December 2022 - E. I. D. - Extended Impact Duration
    [read more]
  • November 2022 - Movement Enhancement to Stay Better In-Point Connected
    [read more]
  • September 2022 - Advanced Visualization 301
    [read more]
  • August 2022 - Tennis' uniqueness: warming-up the enemy
    [read more]
  • July 2022 - Extracting Double Faults Through Receiving Positions... and more
    [read more]
  • June 2022 - Consider Serve and Volley
    [read more]
  • May 2022 - How the Toss Primes the Serve Relaxation Pump
    [read more]
  • April 2022 - Ball Watching and Science
    [read more]
  • March 2022 - Caving
    [read more]
  • February 2022 - Kenny G and Emmo
    [read more]
  • January 2022 - The Knees
    [read more]

Essay Archives

Click a year to view more essays


  • December 2021 - The Match is with You
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  • November 2021 - The Backup Racket in Your Bag
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  • October 2021 - Every Tennis Player Can and Should Have a Weapon
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  • September 2021 - LEARNING NEW SKILLS: First the Process, Then the Results
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  • August 2021 - The Challenge of Visualizing… For Some
    [read more]
  • July 2021 - Playing with both your feet and your hands
    [read more]
  • June 2021 - Finding the Range
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  • May 2021 - The Focus
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  • April 2021 - About Your Butt Cap
    [read more]
  • March 2021 - The Essential Forehand and Backhand
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  • February 2021 - On Being a Doubles All-Courter
    [read more]
  • January 2021 - Same Grip Volleying Myths
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  • December 2020 - On mechanics and style
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  • November 2020 - THE BIG 3: The Glue That Keeps Your Best Game Together
    [read more]
  • September 2020 - Protocol and Game Tradition Revisited
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  • August 2020 - As Good as Your 2nd Serve
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  • July 2020 - Shot Shaping
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  • June 2020 - Getting a Point in Jeopardy Back to Neutral
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  • May 2020 - A Positive Mind-Set: On and Off the Court in Today's C-19 Reality
    [read more]
  • April 2020 - The Zombie Tennis Creed – Top Ten
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  • March 2020 - A Roadmap Into "The Zone"
    [read more]
  • February 2020 - The service toss: myths and realities
    [read more]
  • January 2020 - Shot Gazing
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  • December 2019 - The Dreaded High Bouncing Moonball Dilemma
    [read more]
  • November 2019 - Chalk Flew: Troublesome Line Calling without Hawkeye in Clubland [read more]
  • October 2019 - In the Spirit of Don't Drink and Drive… Don't Think and Hit [read more]
  • September 2019 - Old School vs New School [read more]
  • August 2019 - Getting the Ball Where You Want It [read more]
  • July 2019 - Taking Points Off…What? [read more]
  • June 2019 - Confidence Is Confidence: Take It Wherever You Can Get It [read more]
  • May 2019 - TENNIS INNOVATION IMPLODES [read more]
  • April 2019 - Defending the Court with Older Bones: A Club Player's Guide to Saying "Nice Shot" Less [read more]
  • March 2019 - Do You Have Doubles Rally Tolerance? [read more]
  • February 2019 - I Knew Jimy Van Alen: A Historical Look Back [read more]
  • January 2019 - The Mind is a Terrible Thing to Waste: Mental Toughness Skills [read more]


  • December 2018 - Less Bling is the Thing [read more]
  • November 2018 - Anatomy of a Doubles Serve Return…from the Inside Out [read more]
  • October 2018 - Older Dogs and New Tricks: Still Improving at Any Age [read more]
  • September 2018 - The All-Important Dynamic of Gripping [read more]
  • August 2018 - The Cinemascope Syndrome: Undermining Your Ball Watching [read more]
  • June 2018 - Serving and Returning Better with a Quiet Eye [read more]
  • May 2018 - The Man Who Breathed for Two [read more]
  • January 2018 - Rituals Anyone? [read more]


  • December 2017 - Why Serving is so Difficult in Clubland [read more]
  • October 2017 - Managing your body and mind in tennis space [read more]
  • August 2017 - Why Bother Breathing to Improve Your Game [read more]
  • May 2017 - The "Maintaining" One's Game as One Ages Fallacy [read more]
  • February 2017 - Punta Gorda Tennis Clubs: Setting the Bar [read more]
  • January 2017 - State of the Club Game: The Growing Death of Sportsmanship [read more]

Check back often for more essays.