Variety and deception in serving

No matter how powerful, deep, and accurate your service is, it is most effective when it is varied imaginatively. Here are 10 ways you can vary and disguise your serve to confound opponents.

A lesson in serving... right-handers should study videos of Pete Sampras, and left-handers videos of John McEnroe (below). Their combination kick-slice second serves pulled opponents way outside the alley and enabled them to sprint close to the net, often for point-ending volleys, especially on fast surfaces.   -  Getty Images

Variety, or versatility, is the spice, essence and cardinal principle of tennis success.

Bill Tilden, the sport’s first superstar and sage, in the March 15, 1919, American Lawn Tennis magazine.

For me, it was always most important to keep variety in my serving, that I can hit the spots precisely.

— Roger Federer, holder of a record 19 major singles titles

How did a slip of the tongue change tennis history?

This strange, but true story involves a rivalry between two young stars. During 1988 and 1989, Boris Becker defeated Andre Agassi in their first three matches. Becker’s booming serve was always the deciding factor even though Agassi had a superb return of serve.

So the thoughtful Agassi went back to the drawing board, or in this case, tapes of Becker in action. After studying them for hours on end, voila! — Agassi noticed a serving pattern. The German stuck his tongue out just before he tossed the ball. When his tongue went to the left side of his mouth, Becker would serve toward the outside corner of the service box. And when his tongue remained in the middle, he would serve up the middle. Agassi’s methodology wasn’t as sophisticated as Allied cryptologists, who broke Germany’s Enigma code during World War II, but it proved equally efficient.

Armed with this crucial information about reading Becker’s serve, Agassi turned the rivalry completely around, winning their next eight matches. Just like the Allies, though, he had to keep his prized intel top secret.

“I didn’t have a problem breaking his serve, I had a problem hiding the fact I could break it at will. I just didn’t want him keeping that tongue in his mouth,” Agassi later revealed. “I told Boris (about this) after he retired. I told him at Oktoberfest, while we were having a pint. He fell off the chair. He said, ‘I used to go home and tell my wife it’s like he reads my mind. Little did I know you were just reading my tongue.’”

This story illustrates how vital it is to disguise your serving intentions, particularly its direction. The amount of power and the type of spin should also be disguised and varied.

Imagine if baseball hitters, cricket batsmen, and tennis receivers knew what the oncoming pitch, ball, or serve would be, as Agassi did. They would react quickly and correctly every time. That rarely happens though. The intricate cat-and-mouse tactics of these opponents are designed to start every play or point with an edge.

Baseball pitchers try to throw the ball with the same motion to conceal their intentions, while their catchers plot pitching variations to confound hitters. That’s a big reason why baseball batters get hits only slightly more than 25% of the time. Cricket bowlers receive tactical advice from the captain and the wicket-keeper, who plot the dismissal of a batsman. Tennis servers don’t have tactical help (except in tennis doubles), but they also try to fool their adversaries in every way they can.

No matter how powerful, deep, and accurate your service is, it is most effective when it is varied imaginatively. The baseball pitcher, cricket bowler, and tennis server all try to keep their opponent off balance and confused. They know the baseball hitter, cricket batsman, and the tennis receiver can dig in with confidence only against a stereotyped, predictable delivery. As 1980s champion John McEnroe pointed out, “Nothing is worse in sports than being predictable.” In fact, the more variety and deception the tennis server has, the better.

John McEnroe of the United States serves against Bjorn Borg of Sweden.   -  Getty Images


Here are 10 ways you can vary and disguise your serve to confound opponents.

1. Vary the speed of your serve. The object is to throw off the receiver’s timing so that he either swings too early or too late. Remember that a tennis court is much narrower than a baseball field where a very early or late swing can often produce an extra-base hit. In tennis, mistimed serve returns often land in the alley or the net and result in errors.

2. Mix up the type and amount of spin on your serve. For first serves, your repertoire should include a powerful flat serve which curves slightly from right to left (for right-handers), a wickedly swerving slice serve, and an over-spin or kick serve that bounces high. For second serves, the odds shift more in favour of the receiver, unless you’re a terrific server. That’s because you have to decrease the power to avoid a double fault. Therefore, to keep your opponent honest, you should combine a kick serve in the deuce court, preferably with some slice, and an American twist serve out wide in the ad court.

Righties should study videos of Pete Sampras, and lefties videos of McEnroe. Their combination kick-slice second serves pulled opponents way outside the alley and enabled them to sprint close to the net, often for point-ending volleys, especially on fast surfaces.

The most glaring weakness in women’s tennis today is the lack of a strong kick serve, and in many cases, a kick serve of any kind. In fact, the only women who can hit big kick serves, particularly ones wide in the ad court, are Serena Williams, Samantha Stosur, Svetlana Kuznetsova, Madison Keys, and Coco Vandeweghe.

3. Placement, or accuracy, is another critical variable. In the deuce court, you should target four spots: just inside the centre service line to your opponent’s backhand, toward the centre of the service box into his body, deep in the left (forehand) corner of the service box, and a shorter version of that with a severely sliced serve landing very close to the sideline and 5-10 feet inside the service line. In the ad court, aim for three spots: just inside the centre service line to your opponent’s forehand, at his body more with power because slice is less effective, and deep in the right (backhand) corner of the service box.

Just as you never want to reveal your serve placement intentions, always look for clues to detect your opponent’s intentions. They may be more obvious than Becker’s loose tongue. Jimmy Parker, a 1960s world-class player, recalled this revealing story about two 1940s champions:

Bobby Riggs and Don Budge are at a cocktail party in New York long after their playing days. Bobby says to Don, “I wouldn’t be telling you this if I thought we’d ever play each other again. But do you remember how much trouble you had acing me on our second (barnstorming) tour? (Riggs won it.) Well, I realised that you set your feet slightly differently when you were going up the middle with your serve, and when you were going wide.” Don went out the next day to see if he could tell whether Bobby could have detected such a thing. Sure enough, years later, Don still had a slight variation in how he set up for the two serves!

As the Spanish proverb goes, “Quien busca, halla.” (“Whoever seeks, finds.”)

4. The server may follow his serve to the net or stay at the baseline. He should use neither tactic exclusively. There is one exception to this rule. If either his serve or his volley is weak, he should not serve and volley. How often he serves and volleys, and when, depends on several factors: his skills at this difficult and dying art, the effectiveness of his opponent’s serve returns and passing shots and lobs, the speed of the court, the strength and direction of the wind, and the importance of the point. In general, a faster court and a wind at your back improve the odds if you serve and volley.

Some players serve and volley almost exclusively on first serves, fearing their second serves aren’t strong enough. Other players are successful when they serve and volley to either the deuce or ad court. For example, lefties often prefer to serve and volley in the ad court where they typically serve better. Whatever your preference, don’t be predictable.

5. Space and time are two more variables you can manipulate. The server can vary the path of the ball by serving from different spots. For example, if he wants to serve up the middle often, he usually stands about a foot or two to the left or right of the small centre service strip. Conversely, if he targets the outside corners of the service boxes, he typically stands three to 10 feet from the centre strip. An American twist serve that bounds fast to the right works best when you stand about halfway between the centre strip to the left sideline because your opponent must return the ball from way outside the alley, and you can often crack an aggressive forehand for your next shot.

As the match progresses, assess which serves from which spots prove most effective. Remember to subtly change your serving positions to disguise your variations as much as possible.

Like a savvy baseball pitcher, you can speed things up or slow them when you serve. For example, if you’re on a roll, winning points quickly, take very little time between points and between serves. Roger Federer, amazingly, grabs some service games in barely over a minute. On the other hand, when your opponent is smacking your serves back consistently, or when the match is trending badly, or if you’re getting tired, play more slowly and vary the amount of time you take. That will disrupt his rhythm and test his patience.

Study the stats. Aces, much like the strikeout in baseball, are spectacular. Match statistics always include aces, and TV analysts frequently mention aces to point out service domination by a given player. A more detailed statistical breakdown, however, reveals much more about the effectiveness of serves. Besides aces, formidable serves also produce return errors and elicit weak returns that enable the server to attack and then win the point quickly.

6. The body serve, both underused and under-appreciated, rarely aces anyone. When accurate, though, it can win points by producing errors or soft and short returns you can punish.

Paul Annacone, who coached superstars Sampras and Federer, pointed out, “Why would you not want your opponent to have to protect three targets rather than two?” The best baseball pitchers use every part of the strike zone, except the centre, to confound hitters. They are adept at handcuffing batters with inside pitches. Tennis servers should adopt the same tactic.

The body serve is especially effective against tall, rangy players who can’t move quickly enough away from the swerving ball. “Don’t let the long-limbed players reach and swing (freely),” Annacone, a Tennis Channel analyst, advised. “As players get taller and taller, I expect the body serve will be used more and more.”

Heavy-footed and tired players will also have problems returning fast, accurate body serves for two reasons. Sometimes they won’t clear their body out of the way early enough and with the requisite balance; other times their racquet will arrive late at the desired contact point.

What is the best way to handcuff returners with body serves?

Right-handed servers should hit penetrating slice serves from the deuce court that swerve into the left hip of the returner. Left-handed servers should slice serves from ad side into the right hip of the returner.

Paul Annacone... “As players get taller and taller, I expect the body serve will be used more and more.”   -  Getty Images


As the returner reads and slides away from the oncoming serve, the ball keeps swerving into his body. If the serve is not accurate, however, the returner can confidently extend his arms and belt the ball. If the serve is not fast enough, the returner has enough time to align his body properly. And if the serve is not sliced enough, the returner can easily adjust to its spin. So make no mistake: mediocre body serves can and often do backfire.

In addition to accuracy, power, depth, and spin, several other variables can make or break your body serve. First, experiment with serving from various distances from the centre strip, starting with three feet away and moving as far as six feet away to determine what works best. Second, use a wind blowing diagonally at your back to create an even more vicious body serve. Third, fast courts and fast balls will also make your body serve more effective. Fourth, where your opponent is positioned is crucial. If he returns serve from the baseline or inside it, your slice serve will be most effective because he has less time to react.

Finally, you have two tactical decisions to think about. First, when should you use the body serve?Besides considering the previous variables, you should use it on big points, such as ad-in and ad-out, only if you are confident it will work. Also, the body serve seldom succeeds on second serves unless you hit them much faster than usual.

Second, how often should you use the body serve?

Keep in mind that the more often you use it, the more likely it won’t surprise your opponent and the more likely he’ll get used to dealing with it. You always want the element of surprise in your favour.

7. Varying your second serve — which typically accounts for 35 to 40 percent of your total serves — is as essential as varying your first serve. One of the most telling match statistics is “second serve points won.” In many matches, the quality of your second serve will significantly determine this statistic. And its quality is always enhanced by variety. The second serve can be a plus, a neutral factor, or a minus in a player’s game. With the level of serve returns at an all-time high, it behooves players at all levels to hone their second serve. At a minimum, it should not be attackable. At its best, it can be another weapon in your arsenal.

In Nick Kyrgios’ 2017 wins over Novak Djokovic, in Acapulco, Mexico, and Indian Wells, Kyrgios won a combined 62 percent of his second-service points and faced only one break point in 23 service games. The unpredictable Aussie cleverly varied his second-serve speed between 83 mph and 129 mph, the latter faster than any Djokovic first serve.

Master the kick serve because variants of it work best for second serves. You should vary its power, spin, and placement to prevent your opponent from returning it confidently and cleanly. It will prove even more effective if you add slice to your kick serve. For right-handers, the swerving, high-bouncing kick second serve veering wide in the deuce court can elicit weak returns and even occasional errors.

8. Don’t forget the underhand serve. Let’s get one thing straight. There is nothing underhanded, nefarious, obnoxious, illegal, unfair, or unsporting about serving underhanded. In fact, this serve can prove tactically smart, and diabolically effective, in certain circumstances.

A cramping Michael Chang used it brilliantly to win a pivotal point when he shocked Ivan Lendl at the 1989 French Open. And after squandering three championship points, a nervous Pablo Cuevas, who had double-faulted 12 times, tapped an underhand second serve and then out-rallied Albert Ramos-Vinolas for a 6-7, 6-4, 6-4 victory in the 2017 Brasil Open final. On his unorthodox decision, Cuevas confided, “It was something I probably shouldn’t do. But I also should not do another double fault.”

Before you try it in a tournament, practise different kinds of underhanded serves. The most common underhand serve has a tremendous amount of underspin. To be successful, it should land within five feet of the net and bounce vertically or even backward. When a right-hander uses this serve in the ad court, he should try to add as much sidespin as possible so that the ball bounces near the sideline and then veers sharply into the alley. A fast underhand, sidespin serve directed toward the alley in the deuce court can swerve into a wicked body serve.

These tactics work best when you’re serving against the wind, when your opponent stands well behind the baseline, and when he lacks speed, agility, and correct technique.

Believe it or not, an underhand serve can also be effective with topspin, particularly if a right-hander hits a hard forehand deep and wide in the deuce service box. If you have a sore arm or are exhausted, give it a try.

9. Deception comes from technique as much as from tactics. How did 14-time major winner Sampras, who had one of the greatest first and second serves in history, disguise his serve? “The disguise came from the ball toss,” Sampras explained. “My toss would be the same for a slice, kick, or flat serve.”

How was Sampras’s serving variety related to his serving and volleying style as well as the court surface? “The only ever so slight variety in my serves for serve and volley was that I would toss the ball a little farther into the court when I was going to serve and volley than when I would stay back,” he said. “Surface didn’t matter for my serve; only what my intention was. So when I played on clay, I didn’t serve and volley as much on clay as when I was on grass, so I made those adjustments to my ball toss.”

Federer, who broke the record he shared with Sampras when he captured his eighth Wimbledon crown in 2017, possesses the same ability to conceal his serving direction. “Roger can hit every serve with the same ball toss, and with such high precision, and that’s what makes it so difficult against him,” pointed out Toni Nadal, Rafael’s uncle and longtime coach, in Fedegraphica: A Graphic Biography of the Genius of Roger Federer. “You don’t know where the ball is going to go, and then suddenly he hits the line.”

Serena Williams, who copied elements of the Sampras serve, also masterfully disguises where she aims her serves. Sometimes, in fact, her opponents are so fooled they are “frozen” and do not move at all when the serve is delivered.

10. Mixing up your patterns based on the score and the importance of the point — just as baseball pitchers do with the count — is another trick of the trade. No one does it better than Federer. When leading 40-love, he seldom hits his favourite serve because this point is relatively unimportant. So Federer might go for a body serve to keep his opponents guessing.

On the crucial points, the shrewd Swiss always thinks at least a shot ahead, much like a chess player. For example, he often fashions a wicked slice serve in the deuce court even though it goes to his opponent’s forehand. He figures, correctly, that it’s too risky for the returner to aim down the line to his backhand. Then, with a quick step or two to his left, Federer positions himself for a powerful forehand to dictate the rally or produce an outright winner.

Rafael Nadal, a lefty, executes the same devastating one-two punch when he serves in the ad court to his opponent’s backhand.

Just when opponents think they’ve deciphered Federer’s patterns, he changes them. “With Roger, a hidden element of his brilliance is the constant awareness of what his opponent is expecting and thinking,” explained Craig O’Shannessy, the lead analyst for the ATP World Tour, in Fedegraphica. “Most players think they should be focusing on their strokes, and they believe, ‘It’s all about me.’ It’s not. The most important thing on a tennis court is the person on the other side of the net. Get inside their mind and figure out what they’re thinking.”

Once you do that, mix up your serves and disguise your intentions accordingly. Continually assess what you are doing best in a particular match, even a particular set, and even more important, what your opponent is having the most difficulty with.

Take the advice of renowned coach Vic Braden: “The basic principle should be: always serve to the shot which will produce the highest and weakest ball in return.”

As you win the battle of wits and add new dimensions to your serve, you’ll win more matches and have more fun than you ever imagined.

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