In the world of tennis, there are two types of serves: the beginner serve and the advanced serve. The beginner’s serve is often referred to as the “waiter’s tray serve” or just the “waiter’s serve”. The advanced serve is the technique used by ALL professional tennis players. Which one do you have? After reading this post, you’ll have a very clear answer to that question.
I’ve isolated six major elements that you can use to distinguish the beginner serve from an advanced serve: grip, body orientation to the court, racket drop, coming up with the racket flat or on edge, pronation, and jump.
We’ll look at these six categories and explore how they’re different in the two serves. If you have a waiter’s serve, don’t despair. You can still play tennis and serve quite effectively at the club level. At the same time, if you’re willing to make changes, you absolutely can develop an advanced serve. By knowing the differences, you’ll be able to start making those changes.
This post is not a guide on exactly how to serve, but rather on the various options you have, and why some are better than others. I have videos on my youtube channel that take these points and show clearly how to put them into practice. Perhaps one of the easiest ways to learn the advanced serve is with the ServeMaster tennis training aid by Lisa Dodson. It’s great for changing a beginner’s serve to an advanced one or teaching a new player the correct way to serve. If you currently have a beginner’s serve, it’s important to know the differences between it and an advanced serve. So without further delay, let’s get right into it.
Know Your Tennis Grip
A rackets handle is shaped like an octagon and so has 8 faces around which your fingers find their grip. To describe the various tennis grips we begin by noting how your hand fits around the tennis racket handle and exactly which face you wrap your index finger around.
The proper tennis grip for an advanced serve is the continental grip. The continental grip is a very natural grip, similar to how you hold a hammer. It has the position of the racket nearly perpendicular to the ground. Typically, the index knuckle is going to be on the second face with the heel pad on the bottom face. There is very little deviation in this grip for all advanced serves, as it allows for pronation (more on this below) and different types of spins.
The beginner’s serve utilizes what is called an “eastern forehand grip”. This grip rotates the hand around the racket so that the index knuckle grips around face three. Instead of the racket being perpendicular to the ground, the strings of the racket are directly facing the ground. This means there’s almost a 90-degree difference in the racket face in the two serve grips.
The eastern forehand grip allows the beginner to keep the strings aligned with the ball all the way through the serve. This is the most logical way to hit a tennis ball. If you handed a racket to someone who never played tennis before, this is likely the grip they would use to hit the ball. The drawback of this grip is it does not allow for pronation and much variety of spin. The ball can only ever be hit “flat” with hardly any side or forward spin. However, I have seen club players use the eastern forehand grip to hit backspin on their serves, which I do not recommend.
To develop an advanced serve, you absolutely MUST use the continental grip. That’s the first step. Doing so will open the floodgates to better tennis. Not only will you serve better, you’ll hammer out more effective overheads. If you have a beginner’s serve and change to the continental grip, at first you’re very likely to hit the ball off the court. This is because the extreme change in the racket face will cause you to hit the ball almost on the side of the racket. This is only an issue if you do not correct the other elements of the serve.
Learn to use the continental grip in your server for much better ball control, power and spin.
Body Orientation To The Court
Almost all beginners orient their body directly to the net post. This means their chest is facing the net. Again, they do this because it’s the most logical way to serve a tennis ball. There’s no easier way to hit than to align your body and racket face directly to the ball. That’s the way all kids and beginners hit until they properly learn to serve. The main drawback is it does not allow for maximum power, as there is no body torque.
In contrast, advanced tennis serves require you to face your body away from the court. Most professionals will angle their bodies at least 90 degrees from the net. Some players, like Pete Sampras and John McEnroe, will go well beyond 90 degrees. They’re almost at 150 degrees! This creates an excessive amount of body torque, which translates into serve power. When advanced players serve, their opponents can basically see their backs – if only for a second.
If a beginner player uses the eastern forehand grip (and they almost all do), he or she cannot orient away from the court. This type of player must face the court to hit with the eastern grip. Almost the same can be said for an advanced player. Almost no player using a continental grip can face the court and serve. It would feel very uncomfortable and limited on power.
Face your body away from the net to effectively use the continental grip in your serve.
As we now see, grip determines body orientation to the court. The serve can be compared to a chain. If the first link is broken, the rest of the chain will be compromised. An advanced serve starts with the proper grip (continental) and body orientation (away from the court). Once we have these first two steps down, which anyone can do, we can look at the third element.
The racket drop occurs after hitting the “trophy pose” during the serve. What I’m about to describe are the mechanics for the advanced serve. For righthanded players, the arm will move from right-to-left behind the player’s head and the opposite holds true for lefties.
As the arm moves to the left of the player’s head, the elbow will be high (shoulder level or higher) and the racket will invert so that the butt, or very bottom of the racket, faces the sky. This all happens very quickly but once the racket is fully inverted, it’s known as the racket drop position.
The deeper the racket drop, the more power one will achieve in the serve. If you look at any professional player, you’ll see deep racket drops. This allows for the racket to travel a longer path before striking the ball. Why is this important? It’s because the racket head can build up maximum momentum and speed before impacting the ball.
In contrast, the beginner’s serve has a very slight racket drop or sometimes none at all. This results in much less power on the serve. Simply put, the grip and body orientation of the beginner serve doesn’t allow a proper racket drop to occur.
Throughout this article, I’ve been fairly simple in my use of tennis jargon. I like to take complex ideas and make them simple to understand. But I’m going to get a little technical here and mention wrist mechanics because I think it’s important to point out.
An advanced serve utilizes the wrist movement of radial flexion and ulnar flexion on the racket drop and swing up to contact. The beginner serve, however, uses hyperextension and flexion (with the wrist) on the same parts of the serve swing. This not nearly as effective as radial and ulnar flexion.
Learn to use a deep racket drop to greatly increase power on your serves.
In summary, if we can use the continental grip, orient away from the court and make a deep racket drop, we are well on our way to hitting an advanced tennis serve. As we can see, there is a marked difference between each element so far. Now we get into the swing-up-to-contact part of the serve.
Racket Face Position – Flat vs On Edge
An advanced serve will have a deep racket drop so that the racket is inverted (butt cap to the sky) before it begins its swing path to the ball. Once the swing path initiates, the racket will move, or lead, to the ball with the racket edge facing first. To anybody watching, it looks like the server is trying to hit the ball with the side of his or her racket. This is very evident when we see the advanced serve in slow motion.
When the advanced server begins the forward swing to the ball, the palm of the hand will be facing in the opposite direction. For example, a righty’s palm will face to the left when swinging up. This causes the racket to lead on edge with the racket face perpendicular to the ground for some time.
In contrast, the beginner initiates the swing with his palm facing upward. This places the racket in the “waiter’s serve” position with the racket face parallel to the ground, like a waiter holding a tray. Again, this occurs because it is much easier to hit a ball square on by aligning the strings to the ball long before contact.
When the two serves are shown side-by-side in slow motion video, the differences become very obvious. I should point out that even players using an advanced serve can have difficulty with racket position on the serve. It is not uncommon for someone to use the continental grip, orient away from the ball and have a decent racket drop but still swing the racket straight on with no rotation, and all their hard work still leaves them with a waiter’s tray serve. This happens to players trying to use an advanced serve because they don’t trust the process of pronation.
Imagine hitting the ball with the racket edge. Combine this with the next step, pronation, to develop a complete and powerful serve.
You’ve probably heard coaches and players telling you to “snap the wrist” for more spin and power on your serve but they don’t explain what it means in detail. You are left wondering and you try to “snap your wrist” on your serve. But after doing so a few times, it hurts your wrist and doesn’t work. You then give up, mystified at the wrist snap and never understanding how pronation plays a part in the serve.
It took me months of study before I finally realized how advanced players are getting so much racket head speed in their serves. I’ll reveal the secret now: it’s a combination of radial and ulnar flexion with pronation.
Still a mystery? Well don’t worry, you don’t need to be a doctor or a Latin scholar to master the tennis serve.
Basically, this just describes specific arm movements that you can use to generate that extra racket speed that is impossible to manufacture by swinging the arm from the shoulder alone. The arm is basically acting like a whip, and the wrist holding the racket finishes the job.
Now that we know that, we can move on to defining pronation, and along with it, supination. Here’s one of the clearest definitions I found on google:
Pronation and supination are a pair of unique movements possible only in the forearm and hands, allowing the human body to flip the palm either face up or face down.
So “twisting” seems like a more accessible word to use, right? Pronate by twisting a right arm counterclockwise, supinate by twisting clockwise.
To give you an easy visual, do the following easy exercise. Put your dominant arm straight out in front (not to the side) of you around shoulder level. Your palm should face up to the sky. Now turn your hand down so your palm is facing the floor. This rolling motion is called “pronation”. Rolling the hand back to the palm up position is called “supination”.
All advanced serves are using pronation while striking the ball. But it’s occurring while the arm is extending upwards toward the ball. This allows the racket to move in a second dimension when contacting the ball. The racket is moving towards the ball from one angle (first dimension) and the face is rotating in another (second dimension). This speeds up the racket head and causes a stronger impact resulting in more spin and power.
In contrast, the beginner serve has zero pronation. The only wrist movement that can occur with a beginner serve is hyperextension and flexion, which again, is not good for the wrist. This is the main reason a lot of players with beginner serves hurt their wrist.
Since I moved to Florida almost 12 years ago, I’ve been playing an average of 2-3 hours per day. Some days I play 5-6 hours. Not once have I sustained a tennis related injury.
Good form begets an injury-free tennis life. There is no reason you should ever suffer injuries from the movement of your body if your form is ideal.
If you use a beginner serve, pronation is simply impossible. The player with the beginner serve cannot align their strings in the direction of the ball while simultaneously pronating. Pronation is only possible by approaching the ball with the edge of the racket. If a beginner player thinks he can snap his wrist with hyperextension and flexion, he is headed down a bad road. That limited movement can lead to injury and will never match the speed and efficiency of pronation.
Pronate, or twist, the racket face as it moves to contact the ball.
Up to this point, we’ve discussed five components of the serve. Let’s look at the last one, which is the jump.
The jump typically occurs in advanced serves and rarely in beginner serves. It’s the final part of the serve, where the server jumps for height and lands on the leg opposite his dominant arm. For example, a right-handed player will jump onto his left leg and the opposite is true of a lefty. Beginner serves usually have no jump, or at best, one foot stays on the ground and one shifts forward.
If an advanced server utilizes all five components, the end result is the jump. It’s produced by the forward and upward momentum of the stroke. This advanced serve has an explosive element that a beginner’s serve completely lacks. That explosive element naturally produces a motion that moves the player off the ground. Almost all good advanced servers will land on one foot inside the baseline from this jump.
You may not have ever realized this to be true. But look at the best servers in the game – or any professional players on TV. Notice how they all land on one foot inside the court, with their momentum going forward. However, when you watch a beginner’s serve, it looks like they start and finish their serve in the same spot. The forward movement of the body adds power to the serve, which makes advanced serves so difficult to return.
Jump into your serve for explosive power.
Summing It All Up
If you’ve made it this far, you can see there are huge differences in the technicalities of a beginner serve and an advanced one. Truly, an advanced serve takes a long time to master. Most players using an advanced serve today started off learning it as children. If taught early and correctly, the advanced serve feels completely natural for the trained player later in life.
On the other hand, if you’ve been playing with a beginner’s serve your whole life and want to transition to the advanced serve, it’s going to take a lot of work. I’m not going to lie. I’ve worked with older players who have either complete beginner serves or many aspects of a beginner’s serve. It’s nearly impossible to change their muscle memory without doing thousands of reps of ingraining the new swing. Usually, though, older players don’t want to put in that time and effort. As a result, we work on improving their beginner or waiter’s serve.
If you are absolutely intent on learning the advanced serve, whether you currently use a beginner’s serve or are new to tennis, it’s completely possible to learn, especially with the advanced tools available today. I think the ServeMaster is a great tool for learning the advanced serve. It will teach you to hold the correct grip, show you how to transition into a good racket drop and pronate. It does this for you naturally, without you having to think about it.
Once you feel comfortable with the Servemaster, you can replicate the swing with a racket. It should drastically improve your overall serve motion. In the future, I plan to make a long blog and video series on how to learn the advanced serve – so stay tuned. Thanks for reading and leave me a comment below if you have any questions.