Serve With A Purpose – Playing With Advanced Tennis Players
I’ll admit, most of the time when I play tennis, I try to blast my first serve in as hard as I can. After all, it’s fun to hit fast serves when everything is going well. I usually get so wrapped up in trying to hit a hard serve that I don’t think about direction at all. My only goal is to hit it in the service box with a lot of pace.
Last week during a doubles match, I was playing with my very good friend Pierre, the owner of Sportystation, on the ad side of the court. One of our opponents served wide to my backhand each time during the first game. This was incredibly effective, as I was struggling to return the serve back crosscourt. Most of my returns were getting picked off by the net player. My opponent easily held serve.
The next time he was up to serve again, he went right back to the backhand side. This pattern continued throughout the night. As I grew frustrated with his partner picking off my returns, I tried hit the ball harder and at a sharper angle. This only led to errors. The most surprising part about this match was that this particular opponent has a monster serve.
Yet, he chose to reduce the pace and place it wide each time. My first thought was “why aren’t you crushing your serves at me?”. There’s nothing more satisfying than feeling a huge serve come off the racquet face just right!
But the effectiveness with which he was winning points by simply placing the ball in the right spot made me second guess my whole serve strategy. The thing my opponent realized was that I’m pretty good at returning fast serves that are hit at my body or to my forehand side, but I struggle with even moderate pace serves hit extremely wide to my backhand.
He also knew that it’s much more difficult to hit a huge serve with perfect placement. So rather than go for extreme pace, he turned it down a bit and went for accuracy. The lesson that I took from this match was that I need to think about more than just pace when I step up to the line to serve.
I need to have a gameplan each time! If my opponent struggles with any type of pace, then I don’t really need to worry about serve placement as much. I should try to get the ball in with a good amount of pace. However if my opponent is good at returning heavy serves, I need to have a different plan.
Does my opponent struggle with the backhand return? Then I need to place the ball to their backhand side consistently.
Does he stand flat-footed when I serve? Perhaps I should try to serve into his body.
Is he cheating over to the left or right when he lines up for the return? Maybe I need to hit the ball to the other side.
Is my opponent shorter? If I have a strong kick serve than I might be able to kick the ball up out of his strike zone.
I’ve also played opponents who have no trouble returning a heavy serve to either side, as they simply block it back into play. But if I hit a soft second serve, the unforced errors start to pile up. These players have a tough time generating their own pace on the ball.
The more effective play just might be to hit slower serves during the entire match. The main point to remember is that there is more to a good service game than simply being able to hit the ball hard.
It’s much more important to figure out what my opponent struggles with and try to exploit it. And this may mean turning down the serve a bit so that I can hit my spots consistently.