We all want more power in our tennis serve. We see professional players on TV hitting serves 120 mph+ and they make it look easy. Yet the average club player has difficulty serving more than 90 mph.
It comes down to the fundamentals – but they’re often misunderstood. These little things can and do make all the difference. To add more power to our tennis serve, here we will isolate 8 elements and make small improvements in each, which together will give a huge boost to your serve power.
We need to take a look at:
- starting stance
- body rotation
- power position
- shoulder alignment
- racket drop
- forward movement
- follow through
I’m going to touch on each fundamental in this post, explaining how you can use them to add power to your serve. Afterward, you’ll have a greater understanding of what produces a fast-paced tennis serve. Professional tour level players are simply combining all these fundamentals together into one fluid motion to produce their huge serves. While you may never serve 120 mph, you can certainly add 10-15 mph to your serve and possibly break the 100 mph barrier, which few club players achieve.
If you have a beginner’s serve, I have a series of videos detailing how to achieve an advanced serve on my youtube channel. Reading this entire post then watching the videos will be very beneficial. I also have a great article on this blog explaining the differences between a beginner and advanced serve.
While my videos are great for visual learning, the blog posts are excellent for relaying the longer technical details. I can provide a lot more information in these posts as opposed to a five-minute video. But the combination of both video and blog posts are by far the best way to learn, so stay tuned to each one.
Now back to the serve. We’ve all heard the saying “the serve is the most important shot in tennis”. It’s true. The serve starts off every point and if you can’t hold serve, you can’t win in tennis. A weak serve will cause you to be on the defensive most of the time. That’s no way to play tennis. So let’s dive into the eight ways you can optimize power on your serve.
There are only two basic ways to stand when serving: the platform stance and the pinpoint stance. Let’s define each to make it easy to understand.
Platform Stance: The server starts the serve with both feet apart and jumps into the air off both feet. Most of the power on the jump comes from the front foot. The lead foot should be positioned at a 45-degree angle to the baseline. The back foot should be parallel to the baseline. The toes of the back foot should be near the heel of the front foot.
Pinpoint Stance: The serve starts with both feet apart but upon entering the power position, bring both feet together so they are touching, or nearly touching, and jump off both feet. The power from the jump is more evenly proportioned between both feet.
Let’s talk about the pros and cons of each stance. The platform stance is easier to learn, requires less timing and is better for serving and volleying than the pinpoint. This is because it has fewer moving parts and propels you forward into the court more than the pinpoint. I teach all new players and kids the platform serve first as it’s easier to learn. Its major drawback is that it’s less powerful.
The pinpoint stance produces more power, as the force in the jump is distributed equally in both legs. The momentum of bringing the rear leg forward also provides additional power in the serve, as there is movement involved, rather than starting from a static position like in the platform stance. The pinpoint stance generates more of a vertical explosion in the jump, which will produce more pace on the serve.
If you play with a platform stance, try experimenting with the pinpoint. It may take a few practice sessions to get used to the timing. I have moved intermediate players from the platform to the pinpoint and they have seen good results.
Many players with beginner and advanced serves orient their body way too straight-on to the court. This means they are facing the court, or net, rather than facing away from it. Ideally, your opponent should even see your back some of the time during your serve motion. The best examples of great body rotation on the serve I can think of are John McEnroe and Pete Sampras. Check out their service motions on youtube for examples. Play them in slow motion if you can.
If you have a beginner’s serve, you can orient slightly away from the court, but not too much because of your eastern forehand grip. You’ll definitely want to work on developing an advanced serve if you desire strong power on your serve. A beginner’s serve (or waiter’s serve) will only get you so far in tennis. There’s a reason why you won’t see a waiter’s serve from anyone (male or female) on the pro tour. It doesn’t generate enough pace or spin to compete with advanced service motions.
Advanced servers with a continental grip can orient away from the net to an extreme extent. The rotation of the shoulders will ideally be greater than 90 degrees (perpendicular to the net) but less so in the hips. This disparity between shoulders and hips creates torque in the core of the body, storing up kinetic energy. The uncoiling of the core during the serve motion is what triggers the arm, shoulder and wrist movements that come afterward. Doing it all correctly results in serve speeds in excess of 100 mph.
Without good rotation, the serve becomes more of an arm and shoulder shot. As I just demonstrated, it’s essential to create a coil with the body to add significant pace to your serve. If you have an advanced serve, turn your shoulders more than you normally rotate them. It may feel very uncomfortable at first, but that’s typical.
Get used to the increased shoulder rotation by turning slightly (10-20 degrees) more than normal at first. Continue practicing and shadow-stroking until your shoulders are 110-130 degrees away from the net. This will allow you to begin generating the higher serve speeds you crave.
All groundstrokes and serves have a power position in tennis. This is the position you hold briefly before making your forward movement into the ball. I see a lot of club players with no power positions on their groundstrokes and serves. On the serve, the power position is often referred to as the “trophy position”.
I always recommend taking video of your serve. If you play back the video in slow motion, or even regular speed, you may notice you lack a power position. If so, it would benefit you to achieve it. Or, if you think you do hit a power position, it may be very weak compared to where it could be. If it doesn’t look athletic (knees bent, tossing hand straight up, racket in an L-shape to the forearm, shoulders slanted), you probably have a very poor power position.
While I can’t go into extreme detail on the power position of the serve here, you can begin to make corrections simply by sight. If you pause the video of your serve in the power position and compare it to the current best servers in the world (or any pro in the top 20), you’ll see considerable differences. Notice those differences and begin to try and close the gap.
Once you identify how to achieve a better power position, begin practicing but without hitting the ball. You can do it with racket in hand or even without a racket. I often practice my serve form at home in front of a mirror with no racket or ball. Make sure you are hitting all the key points of the power position and then hold it for 3-5 seconds. Once you are done holding it, you can continue the rest of the serve motion. I find this really helps my service motion when I really serve.
Almost every great server achieves a great power position. They almost seem to pause there for just a few milliseconds before completing the remainder of their motion. I can all but guarantee you if you improve your power position, you’ll improve the power in your serve. Give it a try. It’ll be a challenge at first but keep working at it. If you have a coach or someone who can keep a trained eye on you while you serve, all the better.
When I talk about shoulder alignment, I mean the angle of the shoulders relative to the ground. Think of a line that’s about 45 degrees in relation to the floor. I had shoulder rotation earlier in the post, but in relation to the court or net. What we are talking about here is different.
I’ve studied many of the great servers of the last two generations. In case-after-case, I noted almost all of them have at least a 45-degree angle of alignment in their shoulders (to the ground) in the power position. One of the sharpest angles I saw was in Pete Sampras (nearly 60 degrees on some serves).
At the club level, most of the servers I see don’t even come close to a 45-degree angle on their shoulder alignment. For example, if you’re a right-handed player, your left shoulder should be much higher than your right shoulder in the power position. All you need do is take a video or picture in the power position and then draw a line through your shoulders. You’ll easily be able to see the angle in relation to the ground.
A big reason for a poor angle in club players’ serves is the early dropping of the tossing arm. If the arm drops too early, so do the shoulders. Another reason for a poor angle is that club players don’t achieve the stretch in their side obliques that make the correct shoulder alignment possible. If you ever notice, great servers flair out their hip (the one closest to the baseline) into the direction of the court. This makes their bodies appear like a bow, constricted and coiled. When uncoiled it unleashes massive power in comparison to not using the body properly.
If you want to gain effortless power on your serve, keep your tossing arm up longer than usual, flair out your front hip, and make sure your rear shoulder really dips much closer to the ground. I’m a big believer in exaggerating postures until they become habit. Try going through your service motion with these ideas in mind. You don’t even need to be on a court or use a racket or ball.
Check your form in a mirror and make sure you see a strong dip (the tossing shoulder much higher than the hitting shoulder) in the power position. Keep working on this until you become comfortable and then practice it in serves with a racket and ball. If you can achieve even a 10-15 degree increase in your dip, it will certainly add a few miles per hour to your serve.
The racket drop is a very big deal when it comes to effortless serve power. This is the part of the serve where the racket inverts (even if for a millisecond) and the butt cap is facing the sky. Without exception, every top professional player has a deep racket drop (strong inversion).
One of the deepest racket drops ever seen on the pro tour was that of Andy Roddick. If you have a chance to check out his serve in slow motion, I advise you to take note how deep is racket drop is. It was even deeper than Federer, which is why Andy averaged serve speeds about 10 mph more than Federer.
I find that club players either completely lack a racket drop or they have a very shallow one. Of all nine fundamentals mentioned in this post, the racket drop was my biggest problem for years. I corrected it using several drills that I recommend in this blog and my youtube channel. I’m sorry to say, but if you don’t have a deep racket drop, you’re likely never going to reach your potential in terms of serve speed.
The reason for this is simple. A deep racket drop allows the racket to travel a longer distance to the target than no racket drop or a shallow one. A longer distance (for the racket to travel) translates into more momentum and a much stronger impact. I’ve noticed a huge difference when the racket drop is done correctly and when there is none.
The only way to tell what kind of racket drop you have is to video your serve. The racket typically moves to fast to tell, unless it’s blatantly obvious you have none. If your racket drop is non-existent or very poor, check out this video I made on how to improve your racket drop. By developing a deep racket drop, you’re sure to add good velocity to the serve. It may take time to develop, but it’s worth it. This is one of the most important factors in hitting powerful serves. It’s also crucial for being able to generate topspin serves.
I’ve said a lot about pronation in previous articles. It’s basically rotating the forearm 180 degrees. I’ll show you how to do it now. Put your arm straight in front of you with palm facing up (called supination). Now turn your palm down, twisting your forehand but keeping your arm in the same position. Congratulations, you just pronated.
This is what’s happening on the serve just before impact and just after impact. Pronation alone can gain you an extra 5-10 mph if timed perfectly right. It allows the racket face to move in two dimensions to the ball – towards it and turning into it. If you don’t pronate, then you’ll always be hitting the ball in one dimension and never be able to generate the kind of pace professional players do.
If you’ve been playing tennis a long time with a beginner’s serve or no pronation whatsoever, it’s going to be difficult to pick up. I can’t lie about that. Early on in my playing days, I didn’t pronate. I was never taught how to serve properly so I hit a waiter’s serve with an eastern forehand grip. When I learned about pronation and saw the great benefits, I decided to teach it to myself after years of playing without it.
It took me a couple of months of constant practice to get used to the continental grip and twisting the forearm at just the right time. I’m glad to say that now it has become as natural for me to use as driving a car or tying my sneakers. One easy way to learn pronation (and the racket drop) is to use the ServeMaster, created by Lisa Dodson. I have a ServeMaster video on youtube devoted to using it. You should also check out my post all about it to see if it might be for you.
If you don’t pronate on your serve and you’re serious about tennis, I highly recommend you give it a try. Remember, it can take weeks or months to learn, so give it time. Or, who knows, maybe you’ll pick it up right away. I can guarantee you it will make a difference in your serve speed. But you’ll need to develop a racket drop and use the continental grip to make it work. So many of these fundamentals go hand-in-hand with each other it seems.
This section is what most people think of as a “jump into the serve”. After striking the ball on the serve, our momentum should cause our body weight to move upward and forward, following the path of the ball. Most professional tennis players get at least 4-5 inches off the ground. This is actually the result of momentum from a violent body motion rather than jumping.
If your mechanics are poor in the previous fundamentals, you’ll likely not experience this upward and forward movement. I almost feel it’s a very violent strike of the ball with the whole body. When I do it right, I can see and feel my opponents flinching on the other side of the net just before I hit the ball. If you never experience this, don’t worry. You can still hit fast-paced serves by trying to direct your body forward.
For sure, the upward movement comes mostly from bending your knees are pressing on the ground. If you lack a good knee bend or just can’t do it, you can at least initiate a forward movement by leaning forward the moment of contact. Just allow your body to fall forward a bit when you strike the ball. You’ll notice your serve is slightly faster and a bit heavier – meaning it doesn’t lose as much pace after hitting the ground.
On the serve, it’s best to land on the opposite leg of your dominant hand. A right-handed player will land on his left leg (and vice-versa for lefties). You typically want your weight slightly over the leg you land on. But if this doesn’t seem possible, just make sure you are finishing the serve inside the baseline. Even six inches of forward movement is better than none at all.
I honestly find this fundamental to be quite difficult if one doesn’t have that initial upward explosion. Whenever I serve and lack that explosion, jumping upward and forward always feels manufactured and forced. Even worse it throws my timing off the serve. Resist the temptation to jump only for the sake of jumping. You can still hit hard serves with forward movement. Before the modern era of tennis, the server was not allowed to jump or leave the ground, and they still hit fast serves – even with wooden rackets!
When I talk about follow through, I’m talking about the hitting arm. I see many club players abruptly stop their arms after hitting the ball. It kind of looks like an invisible force field has frozen their arms, bringing them from a swinging motion to a dead stop. This kind of follow through, or lack of it, is caused by tensing the muscles of the arm way too tight.
The sooner you stop the hitting arm, the less racket speed you generate. The less racket speed you generate, the slower the serve. Make sense? This is also true on groundstrokes. That’s the reason why professional tennis players follow through so far; it keeps the racket speed high upon impact of the ball. When serving, follow through is just as important.
I like to follow through with my right arm slightly bent at the elbow and on the left side of my body – just like you’d see from a major league pitcher. This is especially true of first serves. On second serves, it’s also important to follow through, except the path of the racket is going out to the side. rather than into the court. I find that whether it be a first serve or a second serve, the follow-through is crucial to generating higher speeds and spins.
I know I might sound like a broken record, but the ServeMaster is an excellent tool for the serve and to get you following through. This is because the weighted balls at the end almost force your arm to keep going. It’s only natural that your arm will swing to the other side of your body.
If you are having difficulty with this during your real serves, practice swinging with only your racket. Try to keep your arm and grip super-loose on the serve motion and follow through. Just let the arm finish where it naturally wants to go. If this doesn’t help, swing slower.
I can almost promise you that if you serve full speed, this will be a challenge for you to change. You must first start out using slow shadow swings (with and without the racket) and build up the muscle memory for it. This is the best way to elongate the follow through. I know this through my own experience and that of my clients. I always use slow swings first (in all strokes) to build the muscle memory before going full speed. Trust me on this.
Putting It All Together
If you only use brute force to increase serve speed, you’ll tire yourself out, potentially injure your body, and never reach the speeds your capable of reaching. But by focusing on the fundamentals I outlined in this article, you can begin to see some nice changes pretty quickly. Pick one or two fundamentals that will be the easiest to change and start working on them. Perhaps you’ll soon notice the improvement in your serve pace and want to pick up the other fundamentals.
Building a great serve takes time, lots of practice, and sometimes going back to the drawing board before lasting improvement is made. Don’t ever give up. Video your serve every practice session if you can. Take a hopper of balls and practice serving on your own. Have a goal for the practice session. Maybe you’ll work on rotating your shoulders more or following through better. Pick one thing at a time and then work on it for a while.
Trying new things in a match usually doesn’t work. You need to set aside time to practice alone or with your coach. Consistent practice with specific and measurable goals are game-changers. If tennis is your passion, take your craft seriously and put in the work. I do. The most fun you can have in tennis is to see the fruit of your practice labors fulfilled in match play. Trust me, it’s well worth it.