Myth: I hear that I need to pronate my arm to get more speed on my serve, but when I try it as suggested, I get pain in my forearm and I’m less consistent. I must be doing something wrong.
Reality: Tennis instructors, bloggers and tennis magazine writers are usually using young, flexible, professional athletes as models for recreational tennis players to imitate. This is not always realistic or practical.
One of the great rivalries in tennis was between Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi. Mr. Agassi became famous for his long hair, good looks and camera commercials on TV. Mr. Sampras became known as “Pistol Pete” for his “bomb” first and second serves, which earned him countless aces (single-shot points) against his opponents.
With the advancement in high-speed video recording at the time, people in the editorial tennis world began to dissect Pete’s serve to try to understand how his seemed to be such a “heavy ball.” This is what started the fixation on Pete’s pronation as it relates to the tennis serve.
Pronation is another word for rotation. With a neutral, hand-shake grip on your racket (usually called the continental grip), enough pronation at the moment of contact between the ball and your racket strings happens quite naturally without giving it a second thought.
Overly emphasizing arm rotation after the contact event is yet another example of complicating a very simple sport. The contact event between the ball and your racket strings is really an instant of time, a millisecond or two, if you wish to be more precise.
Worrying about what is supposed to happen after the contact event often causes recreational players to tighten up, trying to force something that may not be natural to them. No two tennis players are exactly alike in size, strength, body proportions or flexibility. Trying to get everyone to imitate one example is just not realistic.
Instead, tennis students should focus on their serve toss and how they can adjust their racket’s approach to the ball, at times, to compensate for a toss that may not be perfect.
There are a hundred slightly different serving styles worthy of imitation, both on the men’s and the women’s side of professional tennis. Incidentally, Andre Agassi had his own unique serving style. It was a smooth and efficient motion and he too got his fair share of aces against Pete Sampras and many other players on the pro tour, yet sports writers never really mentioned it.
Roscoe Tanner, a pro from the generation prior, had one of the lowest ball tosses ever and his bomb serve even broke the net at the 1979 U.S. Open. The ever-popular Maria Sharapova has one of the women’s highest ball tosses. Andy Roddick had great coaching from his teens, yet he went out to the courts on his own one day with a basket of tennis balls and developed his abbreviated, yet powerful serving motion, which tennis writers and trainers criticized at the time claiming it would lead to injury for Andy and anyone who tried to imitate it.
Andy went on to hit record serve speeds over 150 mph and became world No. 1 for a brief period. He can still deliver the bomb serve at will playing on the senior tour.
To develop and improve your own unique service motion, all you need is a bucket of tennis balls, a few target cones and to get out there, everyday if possible, and practice and find the motion that is right for you. Seek individual coaching if you feel you need help. Video record your progress.
Being loose and relaxed is the key to a good serve. If you have some long-standing knots or tight muscles, several visits to a chiropractor, massage therapist or physical therapist may be in order. Make sure they work on your tennis arm and shoulder. Light stretching before and after play is important too.
Throwing a football is a good warm-up for your shoulder and closely approximates the serving motion. Find a friend, neighbor or family member to play catch with using a football (sized to your hand or your child’s hand) and you will also find that as your throwing motion improves, so will your tennis serve, including more speed on your serves.
The U.S. Open is in full swing. You can find the full TV schedule at www.usopen.org. Feel free to send me an email for more serving tips.