If you’ve ever watched John Isner play, then you’re sure to have noticed just how important the serve can be. Essentially, if you break a guy like Isner, you’re pretty likely to go on and win the set. We might not play at the same level as Isner, but whatever level we play at, it’s likely we will come across someone who’s extremely hard to break. In these situations, it’s easy to focus all our attention on returning and neglect the fact that we still need to hold our own serve.
One of the reasons players like Federer do so well against big servers is because they are so adept at looking after their own serve. When he plays against the likes of John Isner, Federer runs through his own service games so fast, that before Isner knows it, he’s back fighting to hold his serve again. If you’re able to focus on holding your serve without being put under too much pressure, then you transfer all that pressure onto your opponent, and all of a sudden, they might find it a lot harder to hold serve.
Holding your serve with the ease of Federer is easier said than done though. It’s pretty safe to say that none of us have the incredible natural talent that Federer possesses. Nor for that matter do we have his flawless technique, so what can we do to better take care of our serves?
Unfortunately, there’s no magic answer to this question. No single thing you will do is going to change your service games from 10-minute slogs to a 40-second walk in the park. There are, however, a number of things you can do that together might just help you put the pressure back on your opponent and make your service games that little bit easier.
Making technical changes to your serve is something that can take a long time, but making slight tactical and mental changes can bring you immediate results. Some of these ideas might seem very simple, but they are often overlooked or forgotten. When I get into high-pressure situations, I know I have a tendency to completely forget about some of these tactics and I often pay the price.
There are lots of different tactics you can use to help you win your serve, but for now, I have just included three of the ideas I find are the most important for holding your serve more often.
Win the First Point of the Game
According to the Tennis Abstract Blog, a player who wins 60% of points on serve will hold serve around 74% of the time. When that player loses the first point on serve, his or her chance of winning the game drops to 58%. Win the first point of the game, and a server who wins 60% of their service points has an 84% chance of winning the game.
This is fairly self-evident. The problem is, it’s easy to approach the first point in the wrong way. Rather than approaching the first point as a means to get yourself into the game, you need to approach it with the same kind of intensity you’d approach a game point. If you can win that first point of your service game 70% of the time, then the statistics say you’re going to end up holding serve a lot!
Make Your First Serve
So, we know that the first point of your service game is vitally important, but how do we go about making sure we win that first point? The answer is once again self-evident. You make your first serve. In their 2008 paper “Applying Match Statistics to Increase Serving Performance,” Barnet, Meyer and Pollard show that first serve percentages make a massive difference.
On the men’s tour, they found that when players made their first serve, they went on to win the point 71% of the time compared to just 51% when they were forced to hit a second serve. The difference between first and second serve points won is just as huge on the women’s tour. When the women got their first serve in, they went on to win the point 63% of the time versus 45% on the second serve.
While we may not play at Tour level, these statistics are still likely to mirror what happens in our own games. We don’t have the same standard of serve as pro players, but our opponents also don’t possess tour level returns, so things balance out.
This means that you can give yourself a 15-20% better chance of winning the first point of the game, just by getting your first serve in. This is a massive, massive difference. Obviously, we aim to get our first serve in every time we hit it, so it’s not as easy as just deciding to put the serve in, but there are tactics you can use to increase your first serve percentage on the first point.
Hit Your Best Serve
I don’t want to sound like a cracked record, but again, the answer is very simple. Hit your most consistent serve on the first point. For many people, their most consistent serve will be out wide. You have a bigger space to aim the ball into, which means most people will find it a little easier to hit this serve, but if your most consistent serve is down the T or at the body then go for that.
If you want to you can take a little bit of pace off, but you don’t want to be dropping your speeds too much for every first point of the game – the first serve wins more points for a reason. As we will talk about later, varying the speed of your first serve is a great way to win free points, but make sure you’re not hitting slow first serves too often just because it’s the first point of the game.
Be Mentally Prepared
The first point of the game is just as important as any other point; you must make sure you are as ready as you would be to defend a set point. If that means taking a little bit of extra time before the point, then do it, forget what has passed in the previous game, and approach the first point with a clear mind.
The statistics show a clear path to winning more of our service games. Making a first serve greatly increases your chances of winning the point and winning the first point of the game greatly increases your chance of winning the game. It follows that making a first serve on the first point of the game can make a massive difference to your game.
Vary your Serve
The worst part about returning is when you have absolutely no clue where the serve is going to go. Most of the time you can settle into a rhythm as a returner, but sometimes you come up against a server who never lets you settle.
As a returner, this is my nightmare. You can often pick patterns of where the server is going. For me, people tend to serve most serves to my backhand side, especially on big points. This quite suits me as my backhand return is actually very strong and it means I can lean slightly towards the backhand side and rely on my quick hands when they do go into my forehand side. Occasionally, though, I come up against a guy who just seems to have no pattern at all, and invariably, I don’t have much fun.
The great thing about this is you have the opportunity to be that guy who’s serve no one can pick, and it’s not hard. All you have to do is add a bit of variety to your serve. Too often this aspect of serving is overlooked, but it’s an easy fix and it can make a big difference to your results.
There are three ways you can add variety to your serve and they each can have an equal effect. The first is location. On both sides, you have the option to hit out wide, down the T and to the body, but most people heavily favor one location, and many completely neglect the body serve. The body serve is an effective serve in its own right, but by neglecting to hit it, your opponent only has to guess between two options, forehand or backhand.
It’s likely you have a favorite serve or a particular serve that works well against your opponent, but if you continually hit it, the effectiveness of that serve will go down. The key is to keep your opponent guessing and to never allow them to settle.
I recently played a doubles match where my partner’s serve was getting owned. I told him every serve he hit was exactly the same speed which meant our opponents had settled into an easy rhythm. He proceeded to hit the next serve about 4 mph faster than the last one and moan about my advice when it supposedly didn’t work.
Changing your serve speed up is not about a tiny increase of 4 mph though, it’s about a big change. For instance, if you’re hitting at 120mph then throw the odd one in at 105mph. If you hit your first serve at 90mph then try to muscle one at 105mph. The point is you can’t allow your opponent to see the same serve speed every time. This makes it easy to keep the same sized swing on return and swing through the ball with the same timing every time.
When you throw in a changeup, it can be very hard to see coming. It’s hard to tell how fast the ball is coming at you and it can really put your opponent off their rhythm. People often forget to vary where they hit their serve, but how hard they hit their serve is something few people seem to consider.
The third weapon in the server’s arsenal is spin. Again, you have three options: flat, topspin, and slice. The latter two are much more difficult to master, as hitting the slice and topspin serves take a lot of practice. However, if you are able to hit them, they can make a massive difference.
Just like it can be hard to judge how fast a serve is coming at you, it can be difficult to tell what kind of spin it has. A good server can make a slice and topspin serve look very similar, but they behave in very different ways when they hit the court. If someone is constantly hitting a topspin serve to you it’s easy to get used to it and return it effectively, but if you don’t know what spin you’re looking at from one point to the next, it’s almost impossible to settle into a rhythm.
Variety really is the spice of life. There are so many things you can do with your serve, so don’t limit yourself. Mix in different speeds, spins and serve locations to keep your opponent guessing and you breezing through your service games.
One thing that is very noticeable when you watch Federer breezing through his service games is the way in which he speeds through them. This might not work for every player, but it is something that is worth experimenting with.
Most people like to spend the same amount of time between each point, giving themselves time to reset for the next point, but sometimes it can be advantageous just to change the rhythm up and put your opponent under some extra pressure.
Federer does this to great effect, and you know when he ups the pace it generally results in a very quick service game. Not only does Federer have an unbelievable serve, but by varying his speed of play, he never allows his opponent to settle into a rhythm. At times, he’s like a runaway train, and opponents quickly find themselves blown away.
Holding onto your serve is a cornerstone of tennis and failure to do so will generally result in plenty of loses. If you are finding that every service game is an absolute battle and you are hanging on by a thread, this puts the pressure squarely on your shoulders, and eventually, you are likely to get broken.
If you find yourself struggling to hold onto your serve, there are some easy steps that you can make to increase your chances of holding and in turn take more victories on the tennis court. Most of these can be done without making any technical changes.
A first step is recognizing the importance of the first point of your service game. Winning the first point of a game massively increases your chances of winning the game, so you have to approach this point with a great mindset. Be mentally prepared for the first point of a game and maximize your chances of winning it by hitting your most consistent first serve.
Once you’ve got the first point of the game in the bag your chances of holding on to serve are increased, but there are still more steps you can take to ensure you roll through your service games.
One such step is to constantly keep your opponent guessing by varying your serve. Returning serve gets 10x harder when you have no idea where the ball is going, how fast it’s coming and what spin it’s got. Use this to your advantage and keep your opponent on their toes and you will find yourself winning a lot more free points on your serve.
Life becomes much easier when you start winning your service games with ease and these techniques can help make your service games much easier. It might not be possible to make technical changes to your game quickly, but by making small tactical tweaks you can make a huge difference to your results in a very short space of time.
By thinking about the game in more detail you can make a big impact on your results, and the serve is no different. Small changes can have a big effect and you might find yourself breezing through your service games with these tips.
Got any great tips for the serve? Let us know.
Review by: Will