Cure What Ails You, Part Two
Fixes for Common Problems:
The Serve

 I'd come to tennis from baseball and had a outfielder's arm, and that certainly helped with the serve, given that it's based on the throwing motion.  But there's a lot of other stuff going on during the serve.  For starters, the swing is done in an overhand throwing motion, as opposed to the three-quarter release that is natural to most people.  And then there's that little issue of the toss, that silly three-foot throw that just can't behave and go to the right place consistently.  Without that consistency, each serve feels like a unique event.  Coach Joe taught me the serve in slow, painstaking steps.  I spent a good deal of time against the fence, tossing until I could make the ball go up in a straight line.  Of course, away from the fence, it was anybody's guess where I'd toss the ball.  What I really couldn't master was swinging up, over my head.  I wanted to push the ball over.  I pointed out the I got it in that way.  Coach Joe replied, "My grandmother could get it in that way."  I hesitated.  "She's dead, isn't she?"  He nodded, "You take my point."  I knew I was in trouble when he opened the trunk of his car where he kept his tennis balls and pulled out a kitchen chair.  "This oughta fix ya," he grinned. 

Following are the common problems that I encounter with students' serves at all levels of play, and of course, the fixes.

CONTACT at the TOP of the FRAME
Eyes, eyes, eyes.  If you're miss hitting the serve at the top of the frame, you're looking down too soon to witness your impending, glorious ace.  Clunk.  Because the peeking glance on the serve is downward, the racquet drops as your eyes do, and you hit the top of the frame.  It's rare to miss hit a serve any other place.  It can be caused by overhitting and resultant anxiety, or it can come from feeling that you need to look down quickly to ready yourself for the return, or from serve-and-volley, feeling like you need to hurry toward the service line and your first volley.  But, as with any eye contact problem, it means you're looking off the ball too early.

You guessed it--you need to keep your eyes up on the contact spot even after the ball is gone.  If you keep your eyes on the contact point long enough, after you hit it, you won't see the ball on your side of the net.  You'll pick it up just as it's hitting your opponent's court, hopefully in the service box.  But that means that you have plenty of time to get ready for the return.  Your opponent has yet to hit the ball, and it's yet to travel the full length of the court to get to you.  Think of the ball like a clock face, with 12 o'clock at the top.  Try to actually witness your racquet snap over this portion of the ball.

Looking down too early is a primary cause of faults into the net.  In fact, one measure of poor eye contact on the serve is whether you see your shots go into the net; if you do, you've glanced down too soon.  Not only does your racquet head drop at contact when you look down prematurely, but your follow through is abbreviated.  The end of the shot simply collapses toward the court. 

Misuse of your left arm can cause a fault into the net.  If you feel like your contact is clean, indicating that you've watched the ball well, and you miss into the net, check to make sure that your tossing arm isn't coming down across the front of your body at the end of the serve.  If it is, this impedes the movement of your racquet shoulder and follow through toward the net, and cuts in half the full 180 degree rotation available to your shoulders. 

  Your tossing hand should do what it does on any throw, pull behind you to accelerate and help complete the rotation of your right shoulder toward the target, in this case, the service box.  Or, think of what your arms do when swimming.  If your left arm is ahead (the tossing arm), it pulls down under water just as your right arms moves forward.  The same is true on the serve.  Hold your tossing arm up until it's time to swing up at the ball, then pull the tossing arm behind you to help generate pace and encourage the rotation of your racquet shoulder.  (Note:  If you're one of the few folks that jumps and leaves the ground to hit the serve, disregard this.  Such folks, landing on their front foot, should have their tossing hands resolve across their bodies.  However, if you're a typical recreational player and keep your front foot anchored, stepping through with your back foot on the serve, your tossing arm needs to go behind you to encourage a full range of motion.)

Low tosses can also cause faults into the net.  The left hand is reponsible for the ball's height.  If you let go too early, the toss is low and usually too far in front of you.  Even the best intentions won't allow a high enough reach at contact.  Sometimes low tosses are caused by a focus problem, keeping your eyes toward the net during the toss, where you would have looked prior to the toss to ascertain your opponent's readiness. 

  Before you toss, your glance needs to go straight up, chin to the sky, so that your tossing hand extends fully upward.  If you look up at your contact spot prior to the toss, you'll lead your tossing hand to its full extension.  But sometimes, low tosses are caused by a shortcut taken by the right arm.  The tossing motion should find your arms in a Y, both arms symmetrically high at the ball's release.  But the racquet arm often is in a hurry, and as soon as it reaches shoulder height, it drops into the "back scratch" position, in effect, taking a shortcut.  Because the right arm is prematurely ready to hit, the toss accommodates it by getting lower and lower.  This can be tricky to cure because the right arm is behind you, out of sight.  Do shadow serves (without hitting the ball), looking backward toward your right arm.  See what it feels like to go all the way up, mirroring the tossing arm, and then after the ball would be released, take your racquet down your back.  Then hit an actual serve, trying to feel the movement of your right arm behind you.  Keep trading shadow serves and real serves until you get the sense of it. 

Pushy (low contact) serves also cause faults into the net.  This is often caused by the target of the service box.  It leads players to think that the service motion should go forward toward the court rather than up to the sky.  The most counter-intuitive thing about the service motion is that you reach up to hit down.  I aleady mentioned that Coach Joe sat me in a chair to teach this, making a short kid even shorter!  The only way I could get the ball over the net was by reaching way up.  To warm up, Coach Joe also had me bounce serves over the net.  The only way I could do this was by making high contact, bouncing the ball early on my side of the court.  Otherwise, it went into the net. 

Fix  Go to a fence and stand so that your ready position for serve finds the racquet touching the fence.  Do a shadow motion without tossing the ball.  Reach up and touch the fence with the racquet as high as you can reach.  Feel how vertical your racquet arm is; feel how your eyes are focused straight up, over your head.  That's your contact point--way, way up there.

Faults that go long are complicated, but the bottom line is that you're hitting the ball's back rather than its top, too low. 

Tosses behind you will make the serve sail long.  The weight shift is responsible for making the toss go in front of the body.  If it fails and the toss goes behind the body, a player is forced to hit the ball's back and it will go long.  There are a couple reasons players don't make this shift.  Most common is that players start their weight on their front leg, incorrectly.  If your shift is backward, from your front leg to the rear, the toss, poor thing, has no choice but to go behind you.  Out the serve goes.  Another reason shifts fail is what I call the Hoochy Coo, a dance-like tip of the shoulders and hips.  Most players like to start the serve with their hands high, about chin level.  That means the hands have to drop before they ascend for the toss.  If a player starts his shift too early as his hands are dropping, dipping his front shoulder in the process, the weight gets on the front leg too soon.  Then, as he tosses, the weight shifts back to the rear leg and his shoulders tip to the rear.  It's a sexy shimmy, but the Hoochy Coo is a guarantee of a backward toss.  As well, some players don't make any shift at all.  The shift begins an intentional loss of balance toward the net, and some players feel more in control if they keep their legs straight and stand upright.  But you want to lose your balance.  Arthur Ashe described the serve as a "controlled crash," and both terms are apt.  The fall should be under control because it's always the same fall caused by the same forward toss.  But it is, most certainly, a crash, because that's where power comes from.

Fix  Make sure your weight begins on your back leg.  Drop your hands slowly, keeping your legs quiet with no shift as your hands drop.  Imagine a piece of elastic between your left wrist and your left leg.  As your hand rises to make the toss, the legs shift forward, moving the weight from the rear leg to the front.  The weight should fully arrive just as the ball leaves your hand, not before.  And no Hoochy Coo!

Low tosses, if struck with good pace, also cause faults that go long, more accurately, line drives that sizzle low over the net and land just past the service line.  The causes for low tosses have already been discussed, and usually they cause the ball to go into the net.  But if you hit the ball's back which a low toss obligates, and hit it hard enough, it's going to sail.

Fix  See the fix for pushy serves above.  Same deal, here.  You can't reach high unless you toss high.

Bad eye contact can also cause serves to go long.  If you feel like you're falling forward during the serve, evidence of a forward toss (a placement that should permit contact with the ball's top), and you're still hitting long, it can be that you're looking down to soon.  Normally bad eye contact causes miss hits at the top of the frame and faults into the net, but another repercussion is that an early downward glance can lower the upward trajectory of the swing.  You push even if you're not a pusher, and there's no way you want to hang out with that crowd.

Fix  Please.  We've already talked about this.  Keep your eyes up until after contact.  See the racquet snap over the ball's top.

Also known as The Yips!  Sometimes our tosses just go wacky, way high, way over our tossing shoulder, way behind us, way, way wrong.  The pressure of competition can make us tense and cause this, but more often than not, it's because we associate the toss with a throw rather than a lift.  A throw of any kind accelerates toward the release point.  If you flip the toss this way, with a jerk of your wrist and elbow at the release point, that ball is going into orbit.  Coach Joe wanted me to think of the toss as if I were lifting a glass to put it on a shelf above my head.  Lift anything above your head and there's no acceleration; it's just a smooth extension upward utilizing only your shoulder joint, not your wrist or elbow.  If you let your tossing hand move from your thigh to its full upward reach, you can lift your arm as slowly as you'd like and the toss will be high enough, and consistent.  My student, Brenda, had the yips bad.  But we had the good fortune of a lesson spot that followed my lunch.  A napkin inspired me!  I took one to her lesson and had her toss it instead of the ball.  To elevate it, she couldn't accelerate.  And she had to keep her palm perfectly flat at the release point.  I felt like such a good teacher, but it was all due to putting too much mustard on my sandwich.

Fix  Place the ball on the very tips of your fingers, not toward your palm.  Toss slowly upward.  At the release point, open your fingers and try to keep your palm up to the sky.  Remember, only your shoulder moves your arm; the wrist and elbow aren't involved in the toss.  If this doesn't work, find a private place, lock the door, and practice tossing a napkin.

Serves are signature strokes; everyone does it a little differently, some outright strangely. But overwhelmingly, my experience is that bad serves are caused by bad tosses.  A good toss has three qualities:  height, forwardness, and direction to your right.  Most errant tosses are too low or too far behind the player.  The height of your toss is controlled by your tossing hand.  Let go too early and the toss squirts in front of you, low.  Usually, you're in the net with the fault.  The forwardness of your toss is a function of your weight shift.  If the shift isn't done correctly, the tosses tend to go behind you, and your serves sail past the box. 

If you miss your first serve, don't imagine that the tennis gods will be kind on your second.  They won't.  A good many double faults are duplicate faults.  Adjust your toss accordingly to give your second serve a chance.  And practice!

Keith Shein

Next Tip
Cure What Ails You, Part 3
Fixes for Common Problems:
The Net Game