The serve is a throw.
That line is both the title and the first paragraph for a reason – it constitutes the single most important insight that underpins effective serving. If you can throw well, and you can utilize that same fundamental movement pattern when you serve, you’ll serve well.
You’re a Biologically Great Thrower
Human beings are naturally adept throwers. In fact, man’s ability to throw likely contributed strongly to our ballooning intelligence throughout the millennia.
The ability to kill prey from range, first accomplished with the atlatl, made the hunting process significantly more efficient and drastically reduced the risk of injury during a hunt. This improvement allowed humans to provision the vast nutritional resources required to support our ever smarter, ever hungrier brains.
Today’s human brains, despite constituting only about 2% of the body’s mass, consume roughly 20% of its glucose. In other words, constantly running a supercomputer inside your head takes a lot of energy to pull off. Who would have guessed?
Throwing itself is actually such a powerful adaptation that popular comedic biology YouTuber “TierZoo” suggests that even if humans hadn’t developed IQs that dwarfed the rest of the animal kingdom, the abilities of throwing and sweating on their own would have been enough to render us the dominant primate species today.
Needless to say, if throwing is this deeply ingrained in our biology, it makes sense that we’d want to harness it for athletic performance.
Throwing Biomechanics are Universal
The biomechanics that allow MLB pitcher Jacob deGrom to throw a 100 mph fastball, and that allow NFL Quarterback Patrick Mahomes to launch the ball 83 yards down field, are the same mechanics that allow Andy Roddick to bomb 145 mph serves.
Throwing mechanics are almost universal across sports. In a video discussing NFL Quarterback mechanics, technique coach Tom House explains research they’ve done showing that the football throwing mechanics of quarterback Drew Brees and the baseball throwing mechanics of pitcher Greg Maddux are nearly identical, despite the different sports the two are playing.
Throwing Applied to Tennis
Given that throwing is not only hard wired into our DNA, but also nearly universally applied in elite athletes across disparate sports, it shouldn’t surprise us that elite tennis athletes harness these same mechanics.
But while nearly every elite tennis athlete throws on their serve, recreational players often don’t, because the manner by which throwing mechanics are harnessed is tennis is initially counterintuitive.
Unlike in a baseball throw, a tennis serve takes place above the athlete’s head. This, at first, is a bit awkward. Throwing requires rotating the trunk, and in doing so, whipping the arm around the torso. That action naturally happens to the side of the body, not above it, so adjustments are required to utilize that same kinetic chain on a tennis serve.
How to Throw on Your Serve
The first adjustment required to throw on the serve is in the same class as the adjustments you make (or should make) on your groundstrokes to handle low balls: tilt your torso. By pulling the non hitting-arm down, and the non-hitting shoulder with it, we tilt the torso off to the non-hitting side. After doing this, the exact same throwing motion that, before the tilt, would have taken place to the side of our body, now, after the tilt, takes place above our body. Hence we can use it for a tennis serve.
Getting this to happen naturally can be a bit of a challenge at first, but there are a few insights that might help. After you toss the ball, your goal is to throw the racket past it, not to “hit” it. If you can internalize that, your body will force you to tilt your torso, because it’s the only anatomical way you can throw the racket, and have it get close to the ball.
Throw Your Racket at the Net Post
The second important insight to efficient serving is that the racket is not thrown towards the service box. The racket is thrown towards the net post. There’s a significant difference between how a ball leaves the hand during a throw, and how a racket, being controlled by a throwing arm, rotates and strikes a ball.
At the moment of release during a pitcher’s throw to a catcher, his arm, hand, and fingers are all moving towards the target. But when we use these same biomechanics to throw our racket as we serve, if our arm, hand, and fingers are pointed towards the target, the strings will be pointed way off to the left (or right, if you’re a lefty).
Let’s look, for example, at Tom Brady’s hand and forearm position upon release. The football in the image will fly straight along the trajectory his shoulders are square to, right at the camera. But if he were holding a racket in his hand instead of releasing a football, the path of the racket swing would be very different. As we can see by the orientation of his palm, a held racket would strike the ball off to his left, rather than straight at the camera.
This means that, in order to strike the ball towards the service box we aren’t trying to throw the racket at the ball or at the service box, but rather we’re trying to throw the racket past the ball towards the net post. As we get to the top of our motion, our arm will naturally pronate, the way we see Brady’s doing above, and that natural pronation will cause our strings to flick around and strike the ball towards the service box. But we don’t consciously create that directional control towards the service box – consciously we throw our racket past the ball and allow it to snap around like it wants to.
One quick technical implication of this, which you can use to check yourself, is that your shoulders should be roughly square to the net post at contact, not to the service box. If they’re square to the service box, you’ve over-rotated, and you won’t be able to reach the kinetically optimal release position we see Brady using in our image above, lest the ball go sailing out to the left (or, again, to the right if you’re a lefty).
Taking it on the Court
Next time you’d like to work on your serve, warm up a little differently. Instead of taking your racket and serving some balls, take a tennis ball and just throw it into the fence a few times. Work on relaxing your arm as you do, and really extending your release towards the fence. Feel the kinetic chain – the trunk rotation, which translates to your arm, which translates to your wrist, and finally causes the ball to whip out of your hand.
Then pick up your racket, and, without the ball, just try to get that same feeling going, now racket in hand. Then step up to the line, and execute that same movement, with the racket releasing towards the net post. Finally, toss up a ball and try to swing past it using that same throwing motion, and let the strings snap over and hit it. Just use your upper body at first – let the feet do whatever they want (it doesn’t matter if you foot fault).
It’s been said that Andy Roddick can serve about 120mph without jumping off the ground. Practice your upper body throwing mechanics, and your legs will naturally add themselves into the mix as you try to throw harder and harder. Eventually, you’ll be able to integrate the throwing motion into your regular serve, and you’ll have unlocked a source of power and consistency that’s seemed like a fairy tail until now.
September 20, 2021
Very progressive ideas and concepts! Looking forward to taking them out to the court. What modifications, besides progressive rackets/balls would you suggest to teach U10 players?
Also, what are the adjustments to hit flat, slice, topspin and kick serves?
September 25, 2021
Thanks, yeah people respond well to this idea, especially those who feel like “serving with the continental grip is impossible/uncomfortable.”
With U10 players, don’t bother teaching them the flat serve until they’re taller. Their natural throwing motion will probably end up with some kick, and just leave it at that for first and second.
Also, make sure they can actually throw. You could even refer them to a pitching coach and outsource some of that work if they can’t. If you want to do it yourself, teach them how to use their arms symmetrically, engage their core, let their arm flick out and extend in front of them, etc. Sometimes we put the racket in their hand right away, and the serve looks bad, and we forget that the kid might not even know how to coordinate a throw in the first place.
I haven’t written extensively on adjusting serve spin yet, as I haven’t totally refined my ideas on it. I’m still experimenting with different cues and insights, both with my students and with my own body. That said, fundamentally, the goal is to harness the same throwing motion, but to make a different sort of contact with the ball while doing so.