Everyone who tosses the little fuzzy ball in the air wants to look like Andy Roddick, consistently serving aces at about 140 miles per hour.
Some of us quickly put that dream aside and are more likely to do a little happy dance when we land any first attempt in the service box, even it it didn’t quite have the speed of a pro… or a junior circuit ball boy.
Sometimes we’re so happy to get that first serve in, we forget to position ourselves for the return; content to imagine how Andy would say, “Attaboy!”
So what if we told you that reading this article will get you one step closer to serving like a champ? Whether you believe us or not, you should read on because we know how to improve your serve.
The secret is in your racket drop. No, we’re not talking about those moments when we flail at the ball and then have to retrieve our racket.
We’re talking about your tennis serve racquet drop, the moment after your trophy pose when the ball is in the air and your racquet winds up behind you for a second on its way to service glory.
Drop and Give Me 140 (mph)
Tennis instructors tend to explain how the serve is really one easy motion when it is done right. Then they proceed to break it down into six, seven or eight steps.
If nothing else, tennis instructors have a sense of humor.
The drop is by far the most important step of a broken-down tennis serve. When done properly, it not only provides the momentum you need to hit the ball faster, it will improve every other aspect of your serve.
Keep reading and we’ll explain how that works.
It Sounds Risky
Some of you may think you have mastered your serve because the majority of your first shots are landing in the service box.
That’s great if you are worried solely about starting points, a mistake many inexperienced players make. Getting the ball in is good, but getting the ball in with authority is what makes you great.
You have to be willing to miss some serves, sometimes gloriously so, to ultimately look like a pro from the service line.
Everybody’s First Mistake
When we talk about the best servers, like Roddick or Sampras or Karlovic, their service speed is usually what come to mind.
Speed does not mean power. Power does not mean speed. Yet most people try to obtain more speed in a tennis serve by trying to provide more muscle power when they hit the ball.
The problem is that speed comes from momentum and motion more than sheer power. If you are muscling up in search of raw power, you are slowing momentum and limiting speed.
Learning from History
The best visual we can give you for momentum versus power is the old fashioned catapult. Early catapults relied simply on a slingshot mechanism. Pull back, create tension, and release to fling large rocks or Robin Hood over a tennis net.
Later, catapults were greatly improved by introducing momentum to the equation. The catapults still achieved their power from the stretch, but by swinging the rock backwards before flinging it forward, speed and distance were tremendously improved without more power.
The racquet drop provides that same backwards flow and added momentum to your serve. It eliminates the need to provide more power.
No Back-Scratching Allowed
Many instructors say that you should think of the racquet drop as a time to “scratch your back” with the tennis racquet. This is not a very good idea since stopping to scratch or making any contact with your body will slow the momentum of your racquet.
If you must have some kind of visual to help guide you through your serve, think about throwing your racquet at the ball. There is no concern about point of contact or aim. Simply throw the racquet forward.
At least one tennis guru suggests that the best way to practice your tennis serve racquet drop is to stand in a field and literally throw your racquet, using the overhead service motion.
This is to give you the feel of the racquet flying through the hitting zone without care as to where the contact point winds up. Feeling the trajectory and desired momentum is the goal.
Going Through the Motion
As you start your racquet drop, keep in mind that you want to generate as much forward momentum as possible. That means there is no stopping, flexing, scratching, or thinking allowed.
Remember how the modern catapult pulled the rock straight back before changing directions and flinging it forward? In the same way, you want your swinging arm to be lined up for a straight change of direction.
Sometimes people concentrate on the “drop” part. To get lower, they cheat on the angle of their arm, achieving more of a sidearm or three-quarters delivery. Both of these put more stress on the elbow and slow racquet momentum.
Your elbow should be close to your head and pointing forward at some point during your drop. That’s not important, however, because you will not think about it during serve.
You are simply throwing the racquet at the ball. (Don’t really let it go. You will need it later.) When your elbow is in position, it will automatically start moving your racquet forward.
That’s right. No thinking needed. For now, you can think about it a little.
When you throw a ball, do you stop at some point to think about whether it is time to move forward? Of course not. It is a natural progression that your brain triggers once your arm is properly “wound up”.
Now What Do You Do? ?
At this point, your arm will start forward to “throw” the racquet at the ball. You should do everything in your power to maintain or accelerate forward momentum through the point of contact.
So do nothing. Well, do what your body tells you is best. During a tennis serve racquet drop, over 600 of your muscles and tendons will have to be carefully coordinated to create the desired result.
How do you control 600 muscles and tendons? You don’t. You simply keep your eye on the ball and let your brain manage everything else. Your job is to relax and go with the flow, so to speak.
Here’s the Best Part!
Your brain isn’t just coordinating your arm. You will find that your legs and feet get into the action, too. With your eye on the ball, your body will elevate and start moving forward with the swing.
On impact, you will find yourself leaning forward a bit, with your arm fully extended. Your wrist should be loose enough to allow it to snap forward at the highest point of the serve, providing the final boost of racquet momentum before ball contact.
Speaking of momentum, the wrist-snap will help propel your body forward, naturally taking that big step forward as you follow through. That is another thing you should no longer have to think about, thanks to the effectiveness of your racquet drop technique.
So Where Was That Contact Point Again?
Stop worrying about contact points! As we pointed out earlier, you have to be willing to make some glorious misses to master this technique. Flail away.
With time and attention to where your ball is landing, your brain will eventually coordinate your hands and eyes to learn the timing that will result in a good serve.
Some of that adjustment will be conscious, such as realizing you need to turn a bit more or stand a bit closer to the center line. Other adjustments may involve teeny-tiny little body parts that you won’t notice.
But it will feel right. It will feel natural. It will feel awesome.
Of course, there is some effort on your part
You can’t put it all on your brain like some cosmic, transcendental phenomenon. There are some drills and exercises that can help you find your natural service rhythm.
We already mentioned throwing your tennis racquet like a ball. This really does help give you the feel for a loosely-swung racquet.
If you are hesitant to throw your racquet around, there are other drills you can use to help your brain perfect your racquet drop.
Ball on a String
There are some commercially available products that simulate a ball on a string, but you can make one yourself, too.
The drill here is to hold the string end and make a throwing motion like you would throw a ball. With the actual ball attached to the other end of the string, you are using the same principal as the modern catapult.
Theoretically, the ball will travel backwards until the slack on the string is gone. At this point, the ball will begin to move forward, but in a circular motion similar to what we would like the tennis racquet to do.
If your delivery is anything less than straight, the ball will wind up hitting your body somewhere. It should be able to move forward unimpeded.
If you are as into medieval practices like catapults, you might try replacing the ball with a rock, maybe one with a pointy edge. This will probably inspire you to make adjustments more quickly. Just sayin’.
Three Fingers, Please!
Some players have a really hard time loosening their grip and can’t realize the full potential of momentum on their service.
Practicing with just three fingers holding the racquet makes it impossible to maintain a death grip on it. When you feel the added “swoosh” of the racquet with the loose grip, and also learn that you won’t lose the racquet, you may trust yourself to loosen up on your serve.
Compare the difference
Several instructors recommend swinging your racquet through a serve without hitting the tennis ball. Just go through the motion, even if just from the trophy position.
Then try to make the same motion when you serve a ball. Feel a difference?
Most of us start out with a very noticeable drop in speed, fluidity and height. Repeat this exercise regularly with just one or two serves. Your goal is to eliminate the differences.
Then there’s the Usual Drills…
Muscle memory is a powerful thing. Repeating a motion over and over again helps your body react faster when the time to use that motion comes.
Practicing your perfect racquet drop and swing in slow motion is something that will help you swing naturally and confidently when you need it.
Similarly, breaking the components down in slow motion and repeating sections will also help. One guru recommends dangling your racquet behind you for several seconds in proper position before pulling it through the hitting zone.
Don’t Be Afraid!
To perfect the free-swinging, momentum-maximizing, tennis serve racquet drop, you have to use it and practice it a lot.
Don’t allow the fear of either losing control of the racquet or losing an occasional ball over the fence prevent you from cutting loose with your serve.
Remember that anything that causes you to hesitate is your real enemy. So go for it. Swing faster, not harder. Be like Andy!