Photo Lesson: How to Hit the Basic Serve

01
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Grip, Stance, and Toss Hold

Basic Serve Grip, Stance, and Toss Hold
(C)2007 Jeff Cooper licensed to About.com, Inc.

The basic serve shown here is a complete tennis serve with all of the same elements that a top pro would use, except for intentional spin. Some players naturally hit spin if they learn the basic serve with a Continental grip, but many players find it easier to learn with an Eastern forehand grip, in which case they're more likely to hit the ball flat (without spin). At any given speed, flat serves don't have as much clearance over the net as do serves hit with some topspin, and a Continental grip encourages important habits like full extension and natural pronation; therefore, it's worth trying hard to use the Continental grip first. If you take to it well, you'll be hitting a mixture of topspin and sidespin (slice) pretty soon, and you'll be well on your way to an advanced serve. If you find the Continental grip unbearably awkward, though, it's okay to start with the Eastern grip and then shift to Continental once you've gotten the other elements of the serve working well. In learning how to serve, Continental versus Eastern is less important than many other factors we're about to discuss.

These are the most important points to observe in this photo:

  • Left foot points more or less toward the right net post.
  • Right foot parallel to the baseline.
  • Ball held in fingertips.
02
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Start of Toss and Wind-Up

Start of Toss and Wind-Up
(C)2007 Jeff Cooper licensed to About.com, Inc.

A wind-up is not necessary when you first learn to serve, but it's worth trying, because you'll eventually want one, and some players serve more smoothly and comfortably with a wind-up right away. If the wind-up makes it hard for you to remember other, more important parts of the serve, like bending your elbow or meeting the ball high, it's not worth that cost while you're first learning, and you will eventually find it easy to add later on. To serve without a wind-up, you'll start with your elbow up and racquet down as shown in the sixth photo of this lesson, but don't skip ahead to that photo yet, because you'll need some of the other elements explained between here and there.

Start your toss with the ball just in front of the space between your legs; this will allow you to use a straight-line toss path that does not require your toss release to be timed nearly as perfectly as if you start the ball farther forward, which creates a curved toss path that requires releasing the ball at exactly the right moment to avoid tossing it too far forward or back. The easiest way to develop a reliable toss is to imagine a straight line from your starting point to the point where you want to hit the ball and slide the ball up along that line. In this photo, the tossing arm has started forward and upward as the racquet arm has started back.

03
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Racquet Moving Back; Ball Moving Up

Racquet Moving Back; Ball Moving Up
(C)2007 Jeff Cooper licensed to About.com, Inc.
  • Racquet goes back as the ball goes up.
  • Weight gradually shifting onto back foot.
04
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Middle of Wind-Up; Ball Released

Middle of Wind-Up; Ball Released
(C)2007 Jeff Cooper licensed to About.com, Inc.
The higher your left hand is when you release the ball, the shorter the ball's flight to reach the point where you'll hit it, so the less time it has to go off course. Ideally, you would release the ball with your left arm reaching as high as it can, but most players find this too awkward. If you release the ball above the height of your head, you're doing well.

When you let the ball go, try to spread your fingers away from it all at once, like a flower suddenly opening its petals. This, plus keeping your wrist from moving, will help prevent the release from altering the ball's direction.

At this point in your wind-up, your hitting arm will have finished swinging backward and be well on its way up to where you will bend it to begin the striking motion.

05
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Loading Up the Muscles

Loading Up the Muscles
(C)2007 Jeff Cooper licensed to About.com, Inc.
When told that they should bend their knees as part of the serve motion, many players do it right away--as they start to toss. It's always a little funny to see someone putting all of those big muscles to work just to toss a two-ounce ball a few feet.

Of course, you do want to bend your knees when you serve, but the correct time is when you're getting ready to deliver some major force with your racquet. As you're letting the ball go, start bending both your knees, and as your arm reaches a horizontal position in your wind-up, start bending your elbow. You are now using your body something like a spring that you're compressing. That stored energy will be released into the ball when your arm and legs straighten with your swing. As your serve becomes more advanced, you will bend your knees more, and your legs will contribute more power, but a moderate knee bend, as shown here, is plenty for getting started.

06
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Elbow Up, Racquet Down

Elbow Up, Racquet Down
(C)2007 Jeff Cooper licensed to About.com, Inc.
This is one of the two most important positions to remember about the serve. (We'll see the other shortly.) Having your elbow fully bent, with the racquet hanging down behind you from a relaxed wrist, is the key to getting maximum power on your serve with the least effort and the least strain on your arm. Players who don't learn a proper elbow bend never get the full power they should, and they often suffer shoulder injuries.

Notice that the legs have largely straightened already. The energy they contribute is the start of a kinetic chain (a linked sequence of energy transfers) that will eventually end up whipping the wrist upward and forward to create the racquet-head speed that delivers power to the ball. You don't need to think about making all of these body parts work together; if you just remember "elbow up, racquet down" and keep your whole arm nice and relaxed, the kinetic chain will take care of itself.

07
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Wrist Ready to Whip

Wrist Ready to Whip
(C)2007 Jeff Cooper licensed to About.com, Inc.

An instant after the legs finish straightening, the elbow has nearly straightened as well, and the energy from the legs and the larger parts of the arm is now being transferred toward the wrist, which is still laid back at a 90-degree angle to the forearm. A tiny fraction of a second from now, all of that energy will whip the wrist forward, creating the kind of racquet-head speed that delivers a satisfying thump onto the ball.

One of the most popular misconceptions in tennis is the idea that you should deliberately "snap your wrist" on the serve. Trying to snap your wrist, rather than letting it whip forward naturally as a result of all of the energy you have built up from the larger parts of your body, can put your wrist motion out of sync with all those major forces and thereby damage both your serve and your arm. If you keep your wrist relaxed, it will do what it's supposed to without any deliberate effort on your part.

At this point in the serve swing, the racquet is headed toward the ball "edge-first," but a moment later (in the next photo), the forearm will have pronated so that the strings are facing much more forward. Let pronation happen naturally by keeping your arm relaxed and reaching up to full extension.

If you have tossed the ball slightly in front of yourself, as shown here, your weight will naturally transfer forward, too. Notice that the right foot is barely touching the ground at this point. As you develop a more advanced serve where you use your legs more, your legs will drive upward with enough force to lift both feet off the ground completely, but that's not something to strive for until you have a strong spin serve working quite well.

One other source of energy about to be delivered to the ball comes from the turning of the body from sideways at the start of the wind-up to now facing the net.

08
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Point of Contact

Point of Contact
(C)2007 Jeff Cooper licensed to About.com, Inc.
This is the second of those two most important positions to remember. By far the most crucial factor in successful serving for most players is meeting the ball in the right spot. For a fairly flat serve like the one shown here, the ideal point of contact is at full upward extension, roughly a foot farther forward than your head, and roughly a foot to the right of your head.

Try to see your racquet strike the ball and keep looking at the point of contact for a split second afterward.

Most beginning servers (and many players who have been serving for years) meet the ball much too low. If you have trouble meeting the ball at full extension, practice tossing it to the right spot with or without a wind-up (whichever you do when you serve), and then freezing your racquet right where it meets the ball. This will help you realize where you're actually meeting the ball, and once you start meeting the ball at the right spot, it will help you remember that fully extended feeling.

09
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Early Follow-Through

Early Follow-Through
(C)2007 Jeff Cooper licensed to About.com, Inc.
As you begin your follow-through, you might feel as if you're about to whack yourself in the legs, but your racquet should bypass your legs safely on your left side, either naturally or with a little training from practicing the follow-through without the ball a couple of times. Once you've struck the ball, your right foot will want to come forward into the court, and it's okay to let it. As long as you've already hit the ball, you can step on and over the baseline as much as you wish.
10
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End of Follow-Through

End of Follow-Through
(C)2006 Jeff Cooper licensed to About.com, Inc.
  • Racquet finishes on left side.
  • Forward lean during serve results in right foot landing well inside baseline.