I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage in tennis, “you’re only as good as your second serve.” Well, that’s because it’s true. If your second serve is meat, the lions of tennis will feast on it and you’ll quickly be torn asunder. And if you can’t hold serve, you can’t win in tennis, period.
You’re probably reading this post because your second serve is weak. You know it needs to get better. But despite all your efforts, it’s not getting any better in the time you’ve been playing. Maybe it doesn’t have spin, or it has spin but no pace, or maybe you can’t get it in the box.
Whatever your issue is, this article will likely resolve it for you. I’ve put together the 10 most common second serve issues and how to fix them. For years, I struggled with hitting a good topspin serve until I slowly began to correct my form by addressing these 10 specific points:
- Not holding the correct grip (Continental or Eastern Backhand)
- Not tossing over the head
- Not tossing high enough – must allow the ball to drop
- Not using a racket drop
- Not using ulnar and radial deviation
- Not swinging from left to right
- Not staying to the side – orienting to the court too soon
- Not keeping the head up
- Not pulling the tossing hand to the right of the body
- Not swinging fast enough
Additionally, I studied the serves of the pros while watching hundreds of videos and reading dozens of blog posts. I ultimately identified 10 areas of the second serve that were crucial to its execution. I thought it would be very beneficial to list them all in a single article.
As I bettered my game and started coaching others, I used the knowledge of these 10 areas to improve the second serve of my students. It was rewarding to see them get the same good results. After years of experience playing and coaching, I now feel confident I can help you achieve the second serve you’ve always wanted.
One caveat before we get into it. You can improve one or two areas, but that’s not going to yield outstanding results. If you want to hit a great second tennis serve, you’ll need to be proficient in all areas. Putting them all together in a fluid manner with good timing is the key to an effective second serve in tennis. Of course, it goes without saying, you’ll need to practice.
Some of these ideas will be contrary to what you are currently doing on your serve. You’ll need to break out of your comfort zone to adapt to some new concepts. However, if you’re a newbie to tennis, it may even be easier, as you have no bad habits to break. If you’re an old dog trying to learn new tricks, take your time and start slow. Focus on the process, not the results.
One more thing. If you have a beginner’s serve with an eastern forehand grip, you’ll need to change your serve motion to an advanced one. There are basically only two types of serve motions in my opinion: beginner and advanced.
The beginner motion is commonly referred to as the waiter’s serve with the body and racket strings oriented to the court. There’s no way you can possibly hit with spin with it. If you’re not willing to change, this article won’t help much. I implore you to at least give the advanced serve a try though.
If you already have an advanced serve motion using the continental grip, your ahead of the pack. This article might be the final piece of the puzzle for you in terms of building a quality second serve. So let’s dive in!
If you’re using the eastern forehand grip for your serves, you’ll need to scrap it. The eastern forehand grip requires the index knuckle to be on the third bevel. You’ll need to move the index knuckle down to the second bevel, home of the continental grip. This is the grip most advanced and professional tennis players use for their first and second serves.
When switching from the eastern to the continental grip, you’ll notice the racket will make about a 90-degree change in the orientation of the face. If you have a beginner’s serve, you may be wondering how you can hit the ball. Don’t concern yourself with that for now. Just make sure you set up for all serves with the continental grip and feel comfortable holding the racket with it.
It’s important that you trust the grip and not try to change it during the stroke. That was one of my issues early on. I’d set up with the continental grip and in mid-swing, I’d shift into the eastern forehand grip. If you begin the serve with the continental grip, check your hand after you finish your swing to make sure it’s in the same position. Many players are totally oblivious of shifting their hand on the serve – if they do.
Once you begin practicing the serve (after you read this entire post, you’ll be able to do that), you may notice that you’re not getting enough spin with the continental grip. In that case you could move your hand to the eastern backhand grip. This will provide more spin but a bit less power.
To find the eastern backhand grip, position the hand so that the index knuckle is now resting on the top bevel, which is bevel number one. A lot of professional tennis players prefer this grip for their second serve. I believe Patrick Rafter (a former two-time U.S. Open champion) preferred the eastern backhand grip for both first and second serves.
This is because Rafter was hitting kick serves most of the time, being he was a serve and volley player. The cool thing about using the eastern backhand grip on your first serve is that you’re most likely to get it in. If you’re not coming to the net, I advise you to stick with the continental grip for your first serve.
I see so many club players trying to hit kick serves with tosses a foot or more to their right (assuming they’re right-handed). Lefties do the opposite. It’s physically impossible as the racket cannot brush on the ball. The proper toss is one that can be struck over the right ear (for righties) and slightly inside the court.
I’ve watched videos of some of the best servers of all time, like John Isner, Pete Sampras, Rafter, etc. Every one of them is tossing the ball over their head on second serves, most by their right ear. This is the only way to impart topspin or kick spin on the serve; slice serves can be tossed a bit more to the side.
For those who toss out to the side, tossing over the head will be a bit of a challenge. This is because a strong racket drop and proper orientation of the body is required to hit a toss above the head. We’ll go into that later. Just trust what I’m saying here first.
I also want to point out a question that comes up often, which is, “Should I arch my back on the second serve?” The answer is no. Don’t arch your back. It’s unnecessary and can hurt your back. Most players bend their knees 90 degrees or further, which makes it look like they’re arching their back.
Lastly, you need to toss so that the ball is slightly into the court. You should be moving up and slightly forward to make contact with the ball. This will allow you to put some power into the shot, as most of the racket head speed will be directed into generating spin.
This is a common error that many club level players make. Most club players have no idea of this and toss both the first and second serves at the same height. Not tossing high enough will kill your chances of hitting with massive spin. The second serve needs to be tossed higher than the first serve for a couple of reasons.
The first is that you’ll want to allow the ball to drop some before contacting it. The downward speed of the ball (though slight) adds to the velocity of the impact when struck by the racket. This is also due to the racket moving up towards the ball at the same time. On the first serve, where spin is not as important, you can hit the ball with a slightly lower drop from the zenith to contact.
The second reason is that you need a bit more time to hit the second serve. On second tennis serves, the knees should bend more, the shoulders rotated greater and the hitting arm will be slightly more to the left (for right handed players). You want to allow enough time to hit these important positions before contact.
Consider this: If you hit the ball near the apex of the toss, how will you generate spin on the ball? Your racket needs some space to brush on the ball, and so a higher toss is necessary. Only when the ball is on its way down can this happen. In contrast, first serves with a lower toss can be hit at the zenith (though not advised) because they don’t require a lot of spin.
The racket drop is when the racket moves into the inverted position where the butt cap is facing the sky. The racket drop comes directly after hitting the power position of the serve. When this occurs, the serving hand of the player drops and the racket falls into the “scratch your back” position some of you know.
Most beginner serves do not have a good racket drop. Some have no racket drop at all. This was my big problem early on with my serve. As a result, I never could develop a second serve until I changed to the advanced serve. If you have a beginner or waiter’s serve and have been banging your head against the wall on why you can’t impart spin, this is the main reason (besides your grip).
Check out my video devoted to how to achieve a proper racket drop:
Additionally, I wrote an article on how to use a tennis serving device called the ServeMaster to achieve an effortless racket drop. You can also see the video I created on the ServeMaster as well. All of these resources will help you develop a good, deep racket drop. It’s absolutely critical to hitting an effective second serve.
Your racket really needs to move in a clockwise fashion to hit the second serve. The racket will eventually achieve a 6 o’clock position and hit the ball at approximately 12:30 or 1:00 o’clock (with your head being the center of the imaginary clock). Again, this assumes your right-handed. Lefties will be making contact at 11:00-11:30.
There’s another benefit of the racket drop. It allows the racket to generate momentum on its way up to the ball. This momentum translates into racket head speed, which will impart more spin on the ball.
This one added a big boost to my racket head speed. First, let me explain what radial and ulnar deviation are. You can also see the picture I added for a good visual.
Hold your hand out in front of you, palm away, so that you see only the back of your hand. Now move only your hand to the thumb side until it can’t go any further. That’s radial deviation. Now move only your hand in the opposite way, to the side with the little finger. That’s ulnar deviation.
Now that you understand, let me explain how to use it in your second serve. At the point of the deepest part of your racket drop (6 o’clock position), you should achieve radial deviation with the hitting hand. This will also allow you to have a deeper racket drop, which is very good.
As you move your racket up to contact the ball, your hand will remain in the radial deviation position. Just before the racket contacts the ball, you’ll quickly transition to ulnar deviation. This allows for a “snap” of the racket, giving it more speed. You should experience a noticeable difference in racket head speed if done correctly.
Keep in mind this may not be easy to pull off at first. Practice with just the racket in slow motion before using it with an actual serve. You could also hurt your wrist if not done correctly, so start easy. Again, this only works if you use an advanced serve and correct the previous errors I mentioned in this post.
Right after you strike the ball and go into ulnar deviation, you’ll start to pronate. I talked a lot about pronating in other blogs on this post. It’s basically a twisting of the forearm that causes the racket head to face the opposite side. I didn’t mention it as one of the main common errors because it’s actually possible to achieve spin and go through all the steps mentioned in this post without pronating.
Of course, it’s optimal if you do pronate, as it maintains racket speed and all advanced servers use pronation. One question I get asked a lot about is the difference between pronation on the first and second serve. On the first serve the pronation is more violent. On the second serve it is less violent and a bit more elongated, as the swing path is traveling out the side rather than into the court.
Most beginners and some club players are unaware the first and second serve have totally different swing paths. On the first serve, the racket swings into the court. This is how every beginner serve (whether first or second) hits the ball.
The second serve, however, has a very different swing path. The swing travels from left to right (for right-handed players). One good way to demonstrate this is to stand at the service line slightly on the ad side. For righties, your first serve swing path will basically follow the path of the midline. However, on the second serve, the swing path will travel along the service line out to the right, never really going forward.
To summarize, on the first serve you swing into the court. For the second serve, you swing out to the side. There’s no getting around it if you want to hit a good topspin serve. Look at all the pros hit their serves in slow motion. You’ll see their rackets move way out to the side after contact.
This may sound illogical. But trust me, it’s correct. You may be wondering how the ball can go forward if you’re only swinging to the side. Try it. The ball will go forward with no problem, even though you are swinging to the side. This is a concept that is difficult to impress upon someone who has only ever swung into the court.
I recommend a good drill to help you with this. Stand at the baseline, in proper serve stance, with your racket dropped into the 6 o’clock position. This will result in the butt cap of your racket facing the sky.
Toss the ball and move the racket from left to right, finishing the swing path along the baseline. You should see the ball go forward to your target on impact. If you think about it, the strings are aligned to your target the entire time anyway, so it makes sense.
When you hit your second serve, really keep in mind the swing path out to the side. Resist the temptation to hit forward into the court. This should help your second serve out immensely. Again, it can only be done with the advanced serve motion.
This error is one of the most common I see at the club level. If you have a beginner’s serve, it won’t mean much. But if you serve with an advanced serve and use the continental grip, then it’s very important. Fortunately, this is one of the easiest errors to fix as well.
The more we can stay oriented to the side (to the right for righties and to the left for lefties), the better we can impart spin on the ball. I think the reason so many players orient to the court (or net) when hitting their second serves is that they learned the first serve initially. On the first serve, it’s important to orient into the court. It also feels natural to do so. But the second serve is different.
To fix this error we need to exaggerate the orientation toward the side. For righties, keep your chest facing to the right during the entire serve motion. You can skip the jumping into the court and just keep your feet planted on the ground while doing this drill.
At first, it will feel uncomfortable and you may not get much pace on the ball. Stay with it. We’re exaggerating the motion at first so you feel what it’s like to stay to the side. Once you become adept at not orienting into the court, you can then go back to your normal serve motion.
When performing your normal serve motion, stay to the side until the racket flares all the way out. Only then should you allow your body to begin facing the court. If you orient to the court too early, you can kiss your topspin serve goodbye.
I recommend you video yourself on a few serves or have a coach or friend watch you. Have them make sure you stay closed (to the side). We can’t see ourselves when we play so video and a coach are crucial to our development.
This is a bugaboo that afflicts many players. If you watch a professional tennis player serve and then look at most club players, you’ll see a huge difference in form. One major difference I see all the time is the premature dropping of the tossing hand for those club players. Fortunately, this is something that can be corrected quickly.
All great servers leave their tossing hand in the air until the racket begins to ascend upwards out of the racket drop. This is done for a couple of reasons. One, it allows the server to hit the ball higher, which increases the chances of it going in the box. It also creates a higher bouncing ball off the court, which is more difficult to hit.
Two, it keeps the body in one linear line. If the hand is dropped too soon, it breaks the posture or integrity of the body into two units (legs and upper body) and does not allow the kinetic chain to move from the feet up to the ball.
It may feel uncomfortable at first but keep that tossing hand up until you start moving the racket to contact. A good drill I have my students do is to practice the toss alone. Stand in a serve position (with or without the racket) and toss the ball.
Don’t swing at all. Instead keep the tossing hand up and just catch the ball as it comes down – with the tossing arm still fully extended. Keep repeating until you feel comfortable with the drill.
This will get you used to keeping the tossing arm up. As for the head, it will follow the tossing arm somewhat, so lowering the arm will lower the head a bit too. Still, you need to keep your chin up and eyes on the ball throughout the serve.
I see a lot of players looking straight ahead when they serve, hitting the ball by feel. Keep your eyes on the prize and hand to the sky for serving success!
You may have never even thought about this common mistake. While there is no one perfect spot for the tossing arm to move to, there is an ideal location. The tossing arm will begin to drop as soon as you initiate the leg drive upwards. At the same time the racket should be coming around to hit the ball.
The ideal place for the tossing arm to move on the second serve for righties is the right side of the body. I’ll explain how to do this in a minute. Let me tell you the why first. By moving to the right side of your body, the arm stabilizes it, keeping the shoulders from orienting to the court too soon.
Now, for the how. After the tossing arm drops, it should bend at the elbow. Bring the arm across your body so that the forearm is a little higher than the belly button. The right hand should be all the way to the right of your body. Hold that position as long as possible during the serve.
One way to tell if you are doing this correctly is if the hitting arm finishes over, or on top of, the tossing arm. If so, congratulations, you’re on the way to hitting a great second serve. If not, keep practicing.
You’ll probably feel like you’re lacking power by serving this way. It’s a slight exaggeration from a real serve but great practice. When you go back to your regular service motion, you do not have to finish exactly in this position. But you shouldn’t be far off. If you watch Roger Federer hit a second serve in slow motion, you’ll see he keeps his tossing arm across his body after dropping it.
I feel like this is another common serving mistake that can easily be corrected. It does not require intricate timing or a complicated maneuver. Practice slow shadow swings with the tossing arm finishing across the body, in the correct position. Then shadow swing faster until you feel you’re ready to hit real serves.
If you don’t have great second serve mechanics, I’m willing to bet the house that you slow your racket speed down on your second serve. You think, “If I swing slower, I’ll have more control. If I swing too fast and the ball will hit the net or fly out.” Unfortunately, that’s how most beginner and club players approach the second serve on big points – and maybe most points.
There’s no way you can generate big spin unless you push your racket speed to its upper limits. And the more spin you achieve, the greater the likelihood you’ll get the serve in the box. But this only applies if you have the right serve mechanics.
This article can set the foundation for you to hit with proper serve mechanics. Once you have worked them all out (no easy chore, I’m sure), only then will you feel confident swinging at full speed. This is how the pros approach their second serve. You’ll rarely see them slow their racket speed on the second serve. If they do, they’ll typically double fault.
Racket head speed is essential to hitting a good second serve. Remember, since your swing path is moving out to the side, you’ll only be grazing the ball, not hitting it head-on. You therefore need as much racket speed as possible to generate sufficient forward velocity.
I find that when I couple ulnar deviation with pronation around contact, I get an explosive movement of the head that really adds extra rpm to the ball. It’s just something you have to experience to understand. Of course, athleticism, age, and flexibility will determine your maximum level of racket head speed. But technique can go along way towards improving it.
Now, if you don’t have all the fundamentals for an advanced serve in place, I have a small hack that can work for you. If you stay absolutely oriented to the side and swing as fast as possible, there’s a chance you may get the serve in routinely with some practice.
I found this to be true for myself, but the serve will certainly lack power. Give it a try. Even if your serving technique is not perfect, it can work as a short-term hack.
You might be wondering the best way to apply this information. I would start by videoing your second serve just the way it is. Once you have it on video, play it in slow motion and look at all 10 areas I brought up this article. For example. Is your toss high enough? Is it over your head? Do you keep your tossing arm up long enough? Do you stay oriented to the side?
Once you understand what to look for, you can begin to make corrections. Work on one thing at a time. It all starts with the correct grip, so make sure you’re using the continental or eastern backhand grip off the bat. Then go through each area, making sure each one is resolved. If you get stuck, try using the ServeMaster to help out your swing path.
After you feel you have made progress, video your serve again and then review. What are you doing correctly? What are you not doing correctly? Keep going out to the court alone with a hopper of balls to practice. Have a definite and specific goal for your practice sessions.
For example, for one of your practice sessions, you may want to only work on swinging from left to right (if you’re right-handed). For the practice session, you would start with shadowing the serve with the correct swing path.
When you begin to actually serve, focus on the swing path only. Make sure you swing from left to right, with the racket finishing all the way to the right side with arm extended. Start slowly and build up until you are going full speed.
Sometimes it takes several sessions of doing this until you feel comfortable. Once you do and are swinging correctly, you can then attack the next area, which might be, for example, bringing the tossing arm across your body.
Look, acquiring a great second serve doesn’t come overnight. You’ll need some time, so cut yourself some slack right from the beginning. Hey, Rome wasn’t built in a day, right? If you practice several times a week, and are diligent in your sessions, in a few months you can realistically expect to see the blossoming of an effective topspin serve. I think it’s worth putting in the time if you truly love playing tennis.
In my experience, I like to experiment on the court in my practice sessions. If something’s not going right, I make a slight change and try that. I might get nowhere after an hour, but I don’t despair. Soon after I may notice that one of the changes I made resulted in something great. So I repeat it over and over again. I then make note of it and carry it into my next practice session. This is how progress is made.
Stay with it and believe you can do it. I feel like any able-bodied person can ultimately learn the topspin serve. And once you have it locked in, and your second serve is no longer a detriment, you’ll enjoy tennis a lot more. Not only that, you’ll win a lot more too!
Thanks for coming this far with me. If you have any questions about the second serve, feel free to drop me a comment below.