For any level player, the serve is the most complicated shot in tennis. This is especially true for beginners.
This is because the serve requires a complex series of movements executed with precision timing in a matter of seconds. It’s the only shot in tennis where you have control from start to finish.
All other shots are started by your opponent and finished by you. For that reason, the serve is a special shot and often requires long periods of time to master.
An advanced serve that can be hit over 100 mph, can take years to learn. As a beginner in tennis, you likely don’t want to spend years learning the serve.
Never fear! Follow the 5 step plan below which will show you exactly how you can learn a beginner serve in tennis.
I call this the abbreviated serve motion. It’s actually not a total beginner’s serve. It’s a shortened version of an advanced serve. If you’re going to learn to serve in tennis, might as well do it right, don’t you agree? These steps will show you how to actually serve in tennis, and build a foundation that you can use immediately or that you can build on.
In this post, you’ll find pictures that illustrate the various steps to take. I also made a video that clearly demonstrates the steps.
These steps make it easier to learn the serve. Think of them like checkpoints to make sure you’re serving correctly.
In order to learn this serve, we need to follow 5 basic steps. They are:
- Set up in the ideal serve stance with the ideal serving grip.
- Position our hitting arm in the perfect place to begin the serve.
- Toss the ball in a spot we can hit with the racket.
- Swing up to contact.
- Follow through in the ideal position.
These 5 steps can be learned quickly if you are coordinated and practice them. Even if you’re not athletic or coordinated, don’t worry. You can still learn to serve but it may take a bit more practice.
The most difficult part of learning to serve in tennis is putting all the steps together into one fluid motion. The second most difficult part is contacting the ball at the ideal location and time.
However, if you follow the 5 simple steps I outline here, you’ll be well on your way to serving and playing tennis.
Whether you’re a total beginner or an intermediate player with a subpar serve, this program will work if you give it a chance. So let’s get started.
Step 1 – The Ideal Serve Stance and Serve Grip
In order to hit a good tennis serve, we need to set up properly. All great servers set up in the same way on every service motion. This routine makes it a lot easier to serve consistently.
Additionally, it positions our body and hand in the correct positions to achieve maximum leverage and power into the ball.
We’ll start with the feet first. I am going to assume everyone is right-handed. If you are a lefty, perform the opposite actions.
Your left foot is going to be positioned close to the baseline at a 45-degree angle. The toe should be pointed to the right net post.
The right foot is to be set parallel to the baseline and 6-10 inches behind the left foot. The toe of the right foot should be in line with the heel of the left.
Setting up in this position will orient your shoulders away from the court and to the right. This is exactly where we want them. It will provide us with torque and power on the serve.
The serving hand will be in the continental grip. This is also known as the hammer grip. The index finger knuckle will be on the second bevel of the racket. If possible, move the index finger slightly away from middle finger. See picture and video for visuals.
By using the continental grip, we can achieve pronation and get more power on the serve. The continental grip is the same grip used by all the top professional players. Don’t you feel special now?
Congratulations, you’ve completed step 1. That wasn’t so difficult, right? It gets a little more difficult as we proceed, so brace yourself.
Step 2 – Position Hitting Arm
This is a very easy step. It will only take a few seconds to learn and do. I could have combined it with step 1 but decided to make it separate. Small chunks equal easier learning.
Once we’re set up in our ideal serve stance and grip, we’re going to position our hitting arm (the one holding the racket), into an “L” shape behind our body.
The “L” shape is akin to a throwing motion. You’ll see baseball and football players assuming the same motion with their arms before throwing a ball.
The angle of the arm should be 45-75 degrees to the forearm. I like to keep my arm more at a 45-50-degree angle. It’s really a personal preference.
Your upper arm should be almost parallel to the ground. Your shoulders will be in line with the hitting hand behind your head; not to the side.
This is important. The palm of your hitting hand will be facing to the right, or away from you.
Hold the racket with a medium firmness grip. If you hold the racket too hard, it will cause too much tension in your muscles and severely reduce power.
We need to be fluid on the serve. For that reason, don’t worry about the results (where the ball goes) in the beginning.
For now, and the following steps, focus on just hitting the ball with solid contact. Alright, we’re ready for step 3.
Step 3 – The Serve Toss
The toss is made with the left hand. Now, since you’re right-handed, this may be a little tough at first. But I assure you it gets easier with practice.
Hold the ball in the fingertips of your left hand. Think of the ball as a fragile egg that can crack. For that reason, never let it touch your palm.
Now place your left arm on or close to your left leg. From here we are going to lift the arm with the palm facing to the right.
When lifting the arm, it’s important not to raise the arm too fast. If you raise too fast, you won’t have any control of the ball and the toss will be inaccurate.
If you raise the arm too slowly, the ball won’t have enough air time once it leaves your hand. As a result, we need to move our arm somewhere in the middle (between slow and fast).
It’s also crucial that you keep your arm completely straight the whole time. As you raise the arm, keep the wrist and hand positioned the same way.
Once the arm reaches top of head height, release the ball by opening your fingers. Upon doing so, keep your wrist and hand in the same position and keep raising your arm until it is fully extended over your head.
The ball should go 5-6 feet above your head on the toss. This will allow enough time for us to swing the racket and comfortably hit with the ball.
The toss should be slightly to our right and slightly in front of our body. I would say 6-8 inches to the right of our body and 8-12 inches in front of us.
Keep in mind we can’t step on or over the baseline during the serve. If you toss to far forward, it could force you to do that.
The key is to toss forward enough to get our body weight into the serve, but not so far that we cross the baseline.
Right after you toss do the following. Keep your eyes up, tilt your shoulders (left shoulder should be higher than right) and bend your knees. This will set you up in a great position for step 4.
Caveat About The Toss
This step can be the most troublesome for beginners. I often see people struggle heavily with the toss. I find that beginners and intermediate players are divided into two camps with the toss.
Either they get it and the toss is no issue for them. Or, they find the toss to be very difficult and can’t place it in the right spot.
I can tell you right now, if the toss is not somewhere in the ideal spot, you won’t be able to serve.
For that reason, if you fall into the second camp and have trouble with the toss, you’ll need to practice it before moving on.
My suggestion would be to isolate the toss and practice it dozens, or even hundreds, of times until it is right. I have a drill for you in my accompanying video that will help, so check it out.
Hopefully you’ll have no issues with the toss and this will be just another step. Even if you think you toss well, you should work on it every practice session.
Step 4 – Swing To Contact
As the ball reaches its apex on the toss and begins to drop, that’s when you’ll begin your swing.
The tennis swing can be a little complicated for people not used to a throwing motion. For that reason, we can simulate it with the tennis ServeMaster. This is a tennis aid for the serve.
I’ll get back to it later. For now, we’re going to swing the racket up to the ball using a throwing motion. There are a lot of nuances that go into the swing. I’ll point out a few here and in the video.
For one, a good throwing motion leads with the elbow. Your elbow will actually be traveling to the ball before any other part of your arm. At a certain point in the swing, your hand will overtake the elbow.
When you begin the swing motion the palm of your right hand should be facing away from you. As you initiate the swing, the palm will turn to face you.
Keep your hand in that position as you move the racket up towards the ball. Just before you strike the ball, you’ll pronate your forearm so that the racket impacts the ball head on.
This is a very critical part of the serve. If done right, it will generate a lot of pace with little effort. To get the timing and movements correct, I suggest using the Serve Doctor and the ServeMaster training devices.
The ServeMaster To The Rescue
We can use the ServeMaster to simulate the serve motion dozens and dozens of times before we ever try to hit a real serve. This will teach the proper swing path on the serve, including pronation.
Instead of holding a racket, simply substitute with the ServeMaster. If you don’t have one, use a long sock with a couple of tennis balls inside (towards the bottom of the sock). I like the ServeMaster, and I wrote a full post all about how it helps with the serve.
We can start in step 3 and simply toss an imaginary ball (or a real ball) and practice the swing path with the ServeMaster or sock. If you can video your swing, that would be ideal.
What I like about the ServeMaster is that it has a continental grip on the handle. It’s also good for righties and lefties, plus has weighted balls on the end of it to simulate the weight of the racket head.
Practice your swing with the ServeMaster or sock as much as you need. Remember to swing upwards, as well as outwards. Many students I see extend too far in front and are therefore hitting the ball too low.
If you are still having difficulty, I suggest you watch the video to see how I do it. Alright, now we’re ready for the last step in the beginner serve.
Step 5 – The Follow Through
Once contact is made with the ball, the body will rotate forward. The arm should continue to extend out as far as possible after contact.
After full extension of the arm is completed, the arm will travel downwards and to the left. It will cross in front of the body and should finish around the hip area of the left side of the body.
Upon finishing the swing, the right shoulder will be higher than the left shoulder. The result is a cartwheel effect that adds power to the serve.
This is what the upper body does. How about the lower body?
For advanced servers, both feet come off the ground on contact, sometimes as much as 8-10 inches in the air. This jump propels the server into the court where he or she lands on their left foot only.
To do this requires much training and a perfect swing. So we are going to follow through differently but still get our body weight into the shot.
Here’s how it will work with our feet. On contact, your feet may or may not leave the ground. This depends on how athletic you are, etc.
Let’s assume your feet stay on the ground, which is perfectly fine. You’re left foot is going to remain where it is during the entire serve.
However, the right foot is going to step forward upon striking the ball. This will cause you to put your body weight behind the serve.
You can think of your left foot as a hinge and your right foot as the one that steps forward, into the court. You can watch the video to see how I do it.
I like this follow through for beginners for several reasons. One is that it’s much easier to perform than jumping. Second, it’s good for players who are older or have joint issues. Third, it keeps you on balance better and is easier to recover.
You can practice the follow through with the ServeMaster or the sock. Once you do that dozens of times (or even hundreds), then practice for a few minutes with just the racket (and no ball).
Once you complete the shadow swings, you can pick up a tennis ball and try out the complete serve. You’ll now have to put together all 5 steps to hit the ball.
At first, the serve might feel very awkward and uncomfortable. You need to realize that tennis is not the most comfortable sport to play correctly unless you learn it young.
If you can get through the initial few practice sessions, you’ll grow more acclimated to the serve. I suggest swinging slowly at first and then building up your racket speed.
If you come out of the gate trying to hit 100 mph serves, you’re likely to miss, injure yourself and grow discouraged. So start slowly, video your serve, practice with the teaching aids I recommended, and watch your serve bloom.
With consistent practice, you can have a fairly good tennis serve in several weeks or months. How good you’ll serve depends on a lot of factors.
If you’re athletic and have a good throwing motion, serving in the 90-100 mph range is easily achievable. I can serve around 100 mph using this serve motion.
Although I covered a lot here, I understand you may still have questions. If so, leave them in the comment section and I’ll get back to you shortly. Thanks.