The kick serve is something you see the pros do with such ease that we tend to take it for granted a little bit. However, if you walk out onto court and try to replicate the pro’s kick serves, you’re going to find it’s not that easy!
Once you master the kick serve though, it offers some great benefits, particularly at lower levels, where your opponents won’t be used to dealing with it. They say variety is the spice of life, and it certainly helps in tennis, where the more skills you have in your locker, the more ways you have to put your opponent under pressure.
If you’re relatively comfortable with the mechanics of your serve, then putting some extra time into perfecting the kick serve is an excellent idea and with a bit of practice, it’s eminently attainable.
We’ve put together our guide to becoming a Kick Serve Buckaroo with super coach Dave Ireland to help you out, but we thought we’d give you some extra motivation and tips to get started!
What is a Kick Serve?
This video isn’t of the highest quality, but the kick serve from John Isner certainly is and it demonstrates all the things that are good about this technique.
A kick serve is a serve where you brush up and over the back of the ball in order to achieve some important results:
- Good clearance over the net
- The ball dipping down into the box
- Moving laterally of the court
- Bouncing up above the opponent’s shoulders
As you can see, Isner has nailed all these points with his serve, but even if you’re not 7ft tall, the kick serve can have huge benefits for your game.
The kick serve is most commonly used on the second serve, but it’s also useful to mix in on the first serve, and is often used on clay and other surfaces that offer extra bounce.
Like all the other spins, a kick serve is generated by the way the strings interact with the ball during contact. Your aim is to start contact around the inside lower part of the ball and finish over the top of the outside of the ball, generating the spin that will result in spin, but more about how later in the article.
Why Use the Kick Serve?
There are lots of reasons to implement the kick serve, and very few drawbacks. You will notice when you watch the top players on TV that they use it more often than not on second serves, and there’s a good reason for this.
However, the kick serve is also effective on the first serve and can help you take control of the point.
Margin for Error
The kick serve works a lot like a topspin groundstroke in this regard. Because you’re hitting up and over the ball, you create that arc that gives the ball plenty of clearance over the net, but at the same time the dip that allows the ball to drop inside the court.
This is particularly useful on the second serve, where we want to give ourselves the best possible chance of getting the ball in the court in order to avoid giving our opponent’s a free point.
Top players very rarely hit double faults, and one of the reasons is the kick serve gives them the margin of error they need to maximize their chance of getting the ball in the court. Of course, they spend hours and hours practicing their serves as well, but they would find it more difficult if they didn’t have the option of the kick serve.
It’s More Difficult to Attack
If you imagine the perfect ball you’d want to attack it probably looks like a slow, flat second serve. It bounces inside the service line, doesn’t have much lateral movement and sits up nicely to be attacked.
Now picture a kick serve. Sure, it still bounces inside the service line, but it bounces up viciously off the court, getting up towards shoulder height, and it moves laterally as well. This makes it far more difficult to attack, even for players that are used to facing kick serves.
That’s not to mention the countless players at lower levels who are simply bamboozled by the way the kick serve moves off the court.
Starting the point with the serve is a big advantage, but a weak second serve can hand that advantage straight to your opponent. If you can perfect the kick serve, then you’re going to make life much more difficult for your opponent and ensure they’re less likely to successfully attack your second serve.
It can Open Up the Court
Most players are quite adept at opening up the court with the slice serve but this only works on one side of the court. For the right-handers, that’s out wide to the deuce court, for the left-handers, it’s the famous leftie serve wide to the ad court.
With a good kick serve you can open up the other side of the court as well though. For right-handers, the kick allows you to drag your opponent out into the trams on the ad side, and for the lefties, it allows them to kick the ball out wide to the deuce court.
This opens up the space on the other side of the court to attack your next shot into.
People tend to get carried away with power on the serve, but if you’re hitting big flat serves at your opponent, it often just means the ball comes back quicker, with more power on it. When you look at Roger Federer, you realize that placement and the ability to pull your opponent out of court with the serve is just as important as power.
It Gives You Time to Get to the Net
When we think of serve volleyers, we often think of big booming serves, but it’s not necessarily the case. The bigger the serve, the faster it comes back, and this is problematic if you’re trying to get to the net.
The kick serve is a good option for serve volleyers because it can still put the opponent under pressure but crucially, gives them the time they need to get into the net. It’s just another illustration that placement can trump power on the serve, and this plays out a lot in doubles.
Returners Love Predictability
Returning becomes 1,000 times easier when you know what’s coming. If your opponent knows you’re going to hit a flat serve, or a slice serve, then they’re not going to feel too uncomfortable. If you’ve got that third option though, it just puts an extra question mark in their mind.
You’re in charge when you start the point with the serve, so make the most of it by making your opponent guess. Vary the speed, spin, and placement of your serve, and it doesn’t allow your opponent to get into a rhythm.
If it comes down to facing a flat 130mph an hour serve down the middle every time, or a serve that could go anywhere and do anything at 110mph, most people would rather face the fast serve where they know exactly what it’s going to do.
How Do You Hit the Kick Serve?
One of the most important things when it comes to the kick serve in tennis is understanding how you need to address the ball. If you think of the court as a compass, right-handers want to get the ball spinning in a North Easterly direction and lefties a North Westerly direction. The more spin you get, the more you kick you produce.
Spin though is just a result of the trajectory your racket takes, so to get the ball spinning towards the NE compass point, your racket has to start at SE before coming over the top of the ball at NE.
The ball toss is going to have a big say in how effectively you can get your racket moving in the right direction. If you’re a right-hander and you start the ball too far out to your right, and you still try to address the ball towards NE, then it’s going to start too wide and you won’t be able to drag it into play.
It’s much easier to get the kick serve right if the ball is slightly over your head and you can arch into it the ball, so the kick serve toss will often be slightly to the left of where your flat serve toss goes.
This is something you will get a feel for the more you practice, but it’s important to find a balance between arching your back too much and throwing too far to the right where you will end up slicing around the ball to get it into court.
You want the ball to go up, giving it good clearance over the net and then drop down into the service box, therefore, the racket has to go through the same motion. It might sound counterintuitive, given you want to clear the net, but one of the last (and most important) movements is the snap down over the ball at the end of the motion which is known as pronation.
Pronation is generally the one step missing between someone with an intermediate or beginner serve to an advanced serve, as it allows for so much more power and spin.
When we think of pronation, we always think of the master, “Pistol” Pete Sampras, but there’s also a guy called Roger Federer who’s pretty good at it.
Watch where Federer’s racket goes at the last second of contact with the ball, particularly on the second serve he hits. It goes down and to the right, snapping as he finishes the contact with the ball. This is what’s known as pronation and it’s where you unleash all that racket head speed into the ball (for lefties this will be down and to their left).
Often people want to finish the motion by dragging their arms down to the left without snapping the wrist, but this is a very important step and one that makes a big difference on the kick serve.
It takes a good amount of energy and racket head speed to really get the ball kicking off the court, but it’s important that you don’t try and force it. If you get tight and try and force it too much, then you will lose some of that energy you build up throughout the swing, hampering your ability to hit the kick serve.
The other important thing to remember is that many of the strongest muscles in your body are in your legs, so they are a vital part of the serve. All the energy you create needs to start from the floor and build through the body. This allows you to reach up into the ball and get those revolutions that are going to make the ball work.
Tactical Usage of the Kick Serve
We’ve already mentioned some of the advantages of using the kick serve, so how do you implement them into your gameplan?
Targeting the Backhand
Getting the ball to kick up at your opponent can be very effective, but only if you do it right. Kicking it up to your opponent’s forehand is very different from kicking it up to their backhand. The forehand is the main weapon for the vast majority of players, and a lot of people are very adept at playing it up around their shoulders. If you’re kicking it up to people here, then you might be in for some punishment.
However, the backhand is a very different story and many people really struggle to play the ball up high off this side. If you can successfully get the ball to kick up to your opponent’s backhand, you limit their ability to attack, and you might find you get a lot of weak returns.
Remember, kicking the serve to a right-hander is very different to kicking the ball to a leftie. If you’re hitting the slightly easier spots – out wide to the ad and down the T to the deuce, this is going straight into the forehand slot of the leftie.
Serve Plus One
The serve plus one is a great tactic that you see Rafael Nadal use all the time. This is where you think of your serve and the shot that follows it as a package. Your goal with the serve is to set yourself up for the next shot, generally with your forehand.
Returners tend to follow a pattern on return so you can start to plan out your point before a ball has even been hit.
For example, when you play the kick serve out wide to the ad, your opponent will tend to play crosscourt, back with the angle.
You may have opened up the court, but this ball is going to your backhand, which makes it more difficult to take advantage.
This is why you’ve got to be alert to the opportunity of the serve plus one to get the jump and try and get around the backhand to turn it into an attacking forehand. Now you’ve got your forehand and an open court to play into and your odds of winning the point have gone up dramatically.
It Takes Practice
Last point I promise! The kick serve takes practice, and you’ve got to be committed to getting it right. The more time you spend practicing the better it’s going to work out when you get on the match court.
So, keep practicing and let us know how you’re getting on!
Article by: Will