The serve is a throw.
The serving motion in tennis utilizes the exact same throw chain as all the throwing motions across sports. The baseball pitch, the volleyball spike, the NFL touchdown pass – all are accomplished by coordinating certain muscles in the exact same way.
But how exactly do we adapt this throw chain for tennis? That’s what we’ll answer today.
Up and Away
Step up to the serving line, but instead of bringing your racket, just bring a tennis ball. Hold it in your serving hand. Now, throw it up and away from you. If you’re right handed, launch the ball such that it travels about 25 ft over the right net post.
Because the throwing motion you just used to throw the ball 25ft over the net post – that’s the exact throwing motion that you’ll use when serving.
You might be thinking: wait, why don’t I throw the ball at the service box? Good question.
When you have a racket in your hand, the angles work differently than when you’re launching a ball off of your fingers. If you want serve by harnessing the same biomechanical process that throws a ball, then you have to “throw” your racket to the right of your target (for lefties, to the left of it), such that when your forearm naturally rotates over at the top of your throw, the strings will hit the ball towards the box.
Further, you don’t “throw” your racket level, like you would a baseball, but rather diagonally up. This causes the racket to flick over the top at the end of the throw. Depending on how you time it, this will either create topspin on your serve, helping you keep it in, or it will slap the ball flat, down into the court, also a good thing.
The Continental Grip
The continental grip is necessary in order to harness your throw chain when serving. It’s the grip that orients your strings towards the service box as the racket turns over at the apex of the up and away throwing motion.
During the throw, the edge of your racket will race towards the ball. Once your hand gets far enough away from you, it’ll hit the end of its range of motion, and your forearm will naturally rotate forward. When this happens, if you’re holding the racket in the continental grip, your strings will slap the ball directly into the service box. If you’re holding the racket in a different grip, say, the Eastern grip, the ball will spin off to the side.
The most counter-intuitive part of a proper serve is that the hand doesn’t travel towards the target. It makes sense that this is tricky. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of shots on which your hand basically travels towards your target:
- Forehand Volley
- Backhand Volley
And here’s the list of shots where your hand doesn’t travel towards your target:
It’s a niche thing, tough to get the knack for. Most players serve with the Eastern grip because their brain really wants to throw their hand at the service box, instead of up and away, and if you’re going to throw at the service box, you have to use Eastern for the shot to work.
The tough part about switching to a real, throw-chain-engaging serve is that you need to make two changes simultaneously:
- Throw up and away, instead of straight at the box
- Use the continental grip
If you only throw up and away, but you continue using the Eastern grip, you’ll spin the ball off to your right (for righties). If you use the continental grip, but continue throwing your hand straight at the box, you’ll have to awkwardly contort your wrist and body in order to make it work.
If you do both together, it’ll work, but it takes some time to get used to.
Each player’s optimal serving throw vector is a little different depending on their particular body. Here’s what I recommend as a starting point:
Always pretend you’re throwing your racket 15-20 feet over the net. The shorter you are, the higher over the net you should “aim” your throw chain.
And with respect to the left-right direction (for righties):
On the deuce side:
- Throw your racket towards the ad side service box
On the ad side:
- Throw your racket towards the ad side net post
This will give you a good starting point. It’ll help you feel, roughly, what the serve feels like when the throw chain is incorporated properly.