There is no question that the serve is the most important stroke in tennis. It is the only shot in the game that is not a return of a shot hit by your opponent. As you stand at the baseline ready to serve, you are in complete control of the point, and how well you hit that serve will determine, to a large extent, how the point will go.
Some players have won major championships solely on the strength of their service. A five-star example is Bob Falkenburg, who won the Wimbledon singles title in 1948. Bob's game had obvious weaknesses, but his serve was so overwhelming he rarely lost it. It was a tremendous psychological weapon, too. I know I spent a lot of sleepless hours wondering how to return that immensely powerful delivery that skidded so fast on grass.
I will now proceed to show you how to serve just like Bob Falkenburg, so that you, too, can win the Wimbledon singles title. Dream on. What I do hope to show you, whether you are a beginner or a veteran, is how to develop an effective serve so that at least you can beat your favorite opponent.
Let's start with beginners. If you have never served before, I want you to concentrate on a simple, effortless swing, putting the ball into play with a flat serve. I should mention right here that in topflight tournament tennis there is no such thing as a completely flat serve. All serves, including the so-called cannonball, are hit with at least some spin on the ball for control. Even Pancho Gonzalez, who hits the hardest serve in the game, puts a bit of-spin on his big serve. If Pancho doesn't hit a completely flat serve, why should you, a beginner? Because, unlike Gonzalez, you won't be hitting the ball hard enough to have a control problem, and until you have learned the fundamental serving motion I don't want you fooling around with spins.
For the flat serve, use the eastern forehand grip, which you assume by taking the throat of the racket in your left hand and shaking hands with the handle with your right. (This is a right-handed world, and left-handers, as usual, will have to adjust accordingly.) This grip allows you to hit the ball easily with a forward motion of the arm, getting the full face of the racket into the ball.
Taking your stance at the baseline, you should position yourself about two feet to the left or right of the center mark, depending on which court you are serving to. Your left foot should be slightly behind the baseline and at a 45° angle to it. Your right foot should be perhaps a foot and a half behind the left and almost parallel to the baseline. Above all, you should feel comfortable.
Now you are ready to toss the ball into the air, an important step. Ideally, it would be best to hang the ball from a skyhook and suspend it at the proper height—as high as you can reach with your racket above your head. Skyhooks being illegal in tennis, you have to toss the ball up there. To insure accuracy, keep the left elbow close to the body, the left forearm parallel to the ground. Hold the ball lightly in the fingertips, palm up, and, in a smooth motion, raise your arm and release the ball. Do not make the mistake some people do and release the ball at shoulder level, and do not let go of it abruptly as if the ball were on fire. There's no hurry.
The toss itself should be just high enough to reach the hitting zone, which is where the racket is when you extend your arm overhead. You want to hit the ball at that precise moment between its rise and fall when it is not moving. If you toss the ball too high—and this is a common error—it will be descending rapidly when you attempt to hit it, presenting you with an additional timing problem. If you do not toss the ball high enough, you will lose that desirable combination of leverage and angle that enables you to hit the service hard across the net yet down into the service court. The higher your racket makes contact with the ball, the more service-court area you have for a target.
So much for height. What about direction? The toss should be about an arm's length in front of you, that is, toward the net. You want to hit the ball as your body is moving toward the net in order to get more power behind your serve. If your toss goes up directly overhead, you will have to lean back to hit the ball, if you con hit the ball.
If you have always had trouble controlling the ball when you toss it, try holding only one ball when you serve. You are allowed two serves in tennis, but there is no rule that says you must hold both balls at the same time. If your hand is small, put the second ball in your pocket. Women who wear tennis dresses can sew on a pocket and start a new fashion.
Another thought: if you do make a poor toss, one that promises to land five feet behind you, let the ball drop. You don't have to hit every ball you toss. Granted, it is not etiquette to make five tosses for every serve, but once in a while it is all right.
Now we come to the business end of the serve, the actual swing. Essentially, the service stroke is a throwing motion. The difference between Willie Mays throwing to the plate and Pancho Gonzales serving an ace is very slight. Pretend your racket is a ball and "throw" it a few times. That's the motion of the serve. What you are doing when you serve is throwing your racket across the net. If, when you hit a serve, you let go of your racket, it should land in the general area of your opponent's service court.
The movements of your tossing arm (the left) and your serving arm (the right) should be carefully coordinated. Taking your stance, you should keep your weight evenly balanced. Hold the racket in front of you in your right hand, the ball in your left, touching or at least near the strings of your racket. As you begin, shift your weight to your rear foot and bring your racket back, exactly as you bring your arm back when you start to throw. Make your toss as your racket comes around, shift your weight forward and, keeping your eye on the ball, hit it with the middle of the strings, sending it into the service court. If, by any chance, the ball goes into the net, try again, aiming a little higher. But do not worry at first where the ball lands. The important thing is developing the motion—a simple, fluid motion—and the timing. Control will come with practice. And that is the nice thing about serving. You can practice it without need of opponent or backboard. If you have a date to play at 2 o'clock, show up at 1:45 and, if the court is empty, practice your serve.
Just as a pitcher needs more than a fast ball to be effective, you should add some variety to your service once you have learned to control the flat serve. Repeat: when you have learned to control the flat serve. A pitcher has to throw strikes, and you have to put the ball into play. Unless you can do that, there is no game.
To put spin on your serve, use the backhand grip. Assume your normal forehand grip and move your hand an eighth of a turn to the left: instant backhand grip. This will make it easier for your wrist to snap the racket across .the face of the ball.
The stance and toss are the same as before, but the motion of the racket is now part forward and part sideways. Whereas you hit the ball solidly before, you are now going to slice across it. Imagine the ball as the face of a clock. When you hit the flat serve, you hit dead center, the spot where the two hands of a clock are joined. Now, to put a spin on your serve, you bring the racket across the face of the ball and hit slightly to the right of center. This will send the ball into the court with a slight right-to-left spinning movement. Of course, the first time you try it you may hit too much of the ball or not enough, and you may even hit the ball on the edge of the frame, a home run in any park. But, again, practice should iron out most of these flaws. In time you will find that you have more control over the spin than over a hard, straight serve.
Once you master the basic spin, a whole new world awaits you if you are willing to experiment and practice. You can hit your serve hard—your cannonball—and yet control it by hitting the ball just to the right of dead center. By tossing the ball slightly more to the right and—remember the face of the clock—hitting the ball at 3 o'clock, you can produce a truly wicked slice that goes screaming in low over the net.
You can also hit an American twist. Same grip, same stance. The toss, too, is essentially the same, except that you want the ball closer to you, almost directly overhead. You must arch your back, bring the racket farther behind your head and hit the ball where 10 or 11 o'clock would be. Again, as in the basic spin, your wrist does the work, for it is the snap of the wrist that puts the spin in motion. The action on the ball should make it clear the net by a safe margin and then drop sharply into the court. When it does, it should kick high to your opponent's left, his backhand side if he is right-handed and, unless your opponent is named Budge, this is a plus.
It is not enough just to put the ball into the court, of course. A service court is 13½ feet wide by 21 feet deep, and you should use as much of that area as you can. A serve to the back corner of the court is obviously going to be more difficult for your opponent to return than a serve that is down the middle and only medium deep. Sure, once in a while you can surprise an opponent by hitting the ball directly at him but, as with the strike zone in baseball, the corners are where you want to put the ball. When you practice serving try placing a couple of empty ball cans in the corners of the service court and then see if you can knock them down. Having a target to aim at will increase your accuracy and relieve some of the drudgery of practice.
Try to get your first serve in, even if it means letting up on it a little. There are several reasons for this. When you hit a fault, it gives your opponent a lift, a little edge. He also will probably move up a bit for your second serve. Don't give him that lift or the better court position. Pop that first ball right in there and wear him out. Of course, you can't let up on your serve too much or you'll defeat your purpose. There's a third reason for putting in your first serve. Tennis has become a battle for the net, and to get yourself into volleying position you must start your forward motion the instant you hit your serve. If that first serve is a fault, you have wasted energy. In the course of three sets or so this extra movement can be taxing.
There are such things as beautiful days for tennis—not too warm or bright and no wind—but never when I play. Or so it seems. Whenever I go to serve, an Arabian sun is glaring down directly into my eyes. Sunglasses or a cap with a visor helps, but usually I find the best solution is to adjust my toss ahead, behind or even slightly below the sun.
Fast court surfaces—grass, wood, cement—are a good server's delight. On these, the cannonball is tough to return, for the ball will skid rather than bounce. On slower surfaces—clay, asphalt, composition—don't knock yourself out trying for aces. Concentrate on accuracy.
Now you are on your own. How you serve—grip, stance, toss and swing—is largely an individual matter. I have drawn rough guidelines, but the rest is up to you. You must practice and, as you do, feel free to experiment. If your grip does not feel quite right, shift it a fraction. If your feet do not feel comfortable, move them. Be flexible. And most important of all during all this trial and error and practice, don't forget to have fun.