In tennis, the server puts the ball into play by hitting it from behind the service line into the diagonally opposite service box. The serve, or service, can be hit underhand or overhand. The vast majority of players use the overhand shot. There are several ways to vary an overhand serve by imparting topspin, sidespin, or a combination of the two.
The overhand serve involves throwing the ball up in the air to a height of 10 or 15 feet. Make sure you throw the ball straight up and don’t spin or twirl it with your fingers, as this will make it harder to play an accurate shot. Extend the arm and hand straight up in the air. Most players will bend their knees at this point. Some of the top players don’t throw the ball up high and don’t bend their knees much, yet generate immense power. Andy Roddick and Roscoe Tanner are good examples.
Turn the body so that the serving shoulder and arm are pointing towards the back of the court. As the ball reaches its highest point, raise the serving arm upwards until it is around head height. Then bring the arm forward quickly in an action similar to that of throwing a ball overarm. At the same time extend the legs and jump forward into the court just before the racket connects with the ball to gain maximum height and power. Don’t jump too early as you will lose power. Hitting from an extra height and getting slightly closer to the net will increase your chances of getting a fast serve into the service box.
If you are not satisfied with your ball toss, you can pull out of the shot without being called for a fault. You can toss again as many times as you need to, which is handy on a windy day, or if you just cannot get your rhythm right.
You must serve from behind the line, not on it. If your foot touches the line at any stage before you hit the ball, you may be called for a foot fault. It is easy to inadvertently touch the line as you twist your body during the ball toss or to drag your foot over the line as you jump forward just before hitting the ball.
The serve is arguably one of the more difficult shots in tennis, often being one of the last shots to be mastered. In grade and age competitions, many players are content just to pretty much lob the ball into play to maximize the chances of it landing in the service box, rather than to go for too much power and keep hitting the ball into the net or sending it too long. As a player progresses through the ranks, they will learn to hit the ball flatter and harder. The priority becomes serving a shot that will be difficult to return, or even hitting a service winner, rather than just trying to get the ball into play. It is always a proud moment to hit that first ace. Even at the lower levels of competition and in social play, try and serve the first ball reasonably hard as you will, of course, get a second chance if you miss. Serve the second ball a little slower to increase the chances of it going in.
The underhand serve is more useful than it is given credit for. It is useful if an injury prevents a player from serving overhand, and can be served flat and low. It won’t bounce up as much, limiting the opportunity of the opponent hitting a winning return. It is ineffective at advanced levels as it lacks the power of an overhand serve. Nevertheless, there are two instances of players using a soft underhand serve with underspin in top competition and catching their opponent off guard. Michael Chang and Martini Hingis did this at the French Open. The underhand serve is regarded as unethical at this level though.
At the more advanced levels, a player normally needs to do more with their serve than simply giving the ball a good whack over the net. The various types of overhand serves have their advantages and disadvantages in different circumstances and players learn when to use particular service types. Hitting different types of serves is usually a most beneficial tactic as it keeps the opponent guessing.
The flat serve is the first one to master. It is hit with a continental grip, which is like holding a hammer when about to hit a nail. The ball is hit flat rather than with spin. It will sail through the air fast and straight. The margin for error is relatively small, so these serves are best hit down the middle of the court where the net is lowest.
A topspin serve is best executed with a continental grip or eastern grip. The eastern grip is where the racket is rotated slightly clockwise compared with the continental grip. To serve with topspin, you need to run the racket upwards over the ball at point of contact so that the ball will rotate forwards as it travels through the air. You should aim to hit the ball just as hard as you would a flat serve, but it won’t travel through the air as quickly because it is spinning. You can hit the ball higher over the net with this serve, as the spin will make it dive into the service box. Thus there is a greater margin for error with a topspin serve. For this reason, it is popular as a second serve. You don’t lean as far forward to hit a topspin serve. The top players may even lean backwards a little with this shot. It is an effective serve to play to the opponent’s backhand as the ball will bounce high and players usually have more difficulty hitting a high return on their backhand side.
A slice serve is where the ball is hit with sidespin. For a right-handed player, you brush the racket face in a rightwards direction against the ball to make this shot. This will set the ball spinning in an anti-clockwise direction if viewed from above the court. It will draw the opponent wide. It is a handy shot to play with the wind on a windy day as it can take the opponent out of court. The ball will curve leftwards through the air and go further away after it bounces. Again, a continental or eastern grip is used. Because it does not dip like a topspin serve, there is less margin for error and is therefore usually used as a first serve. These actions, and the movement of the ball, will be reversed for left-handed players.
In between the topspin and slice serves is the topspin-slice serve. This is achieved by brushing the racket face across the ball upwards and to the right, or towards one or two o’clock, for a right-handed server. The ball will dip and also curve to the left in flight, bounce reasonably high, and continue to move left. As a left-hander, John McEnroe was a master of this serve, having the ability to take his opponent way out of court when serving from the left-hand side.
A variation of this serve is the kick serve or American twist serve. The way to initiate this serve is to throw the ball up behind and to the left, and brush the ball towards one or two o’clock. This will give the ball more topspin than sidespin. The ball will dip quite sharply and, instead of continuing to the left after it bounces, it will move to the right. An eastern or continental grip is used for this serve. The high, awkward bounce makes it a useful second serve.
All of the serves that involve slice can be reversed by brushing the ball leftward at contact. It will usually be harder to generate as much power with these reverse serves, but they may still be useful in certain circumstances, for example, to serve a ball wide from the left-hand side of the court or simply to keep the opponent guessing.
In summary, the basic tennis serve is similar to the action of throwing a ball overarm. Practice the ball toss. Then try and hit the ball consistently into the service box, gradually increasing your speed. After that, experiment with the different types of serve in order to add variation and potency to your game. Use the flat serve and the slice serve mainly as first serves and the topspin serve and its variations mainly as second serves.