Everyone says, “work on your serve, work on your serve.”

You come up against a great server and think to yourself, “I wish I had a serve like that.”

Now and again you hit a great serve, or have a great day serving and think, “Why can’t I always serve like that?”

But how often do you really get out and work on improving your serve?

I’ll admit that I’ve been one of the worst offenders in this regard. For years I’ve wished I had a better serve, and have rationalized to myself how my weak serve actually works well because a lot of club players have trouble generating their own pace. But last year I was bumped to 4.5 and it became strikingly evident that my average first serve and puff second serve simply wasn’t going to cut it any longer.

So, over the past couple of months I’ve tried to get out at least 2-3 times a week and work on my serve. It’s been an arduous process to say the least.

At first I went out and just tried hitting the serve in different ways to see what worked, what felt right, and what didn’t. That didn’t get me very far because, frankly, nothing really “worked” and I found myself tending back to my standard, comfortable serve.

After a few sessions of trying different things with nothing really to show for it, I decided to film myself. I set up a camera and shot myself serving from different angles to see what I could see. I would download the video to my computer and compare it to videos of professional players serving to see what the differences were.

Let me tell you, the differences were too numerous to count.

A biggie though was my contact point – much lower than any professional. In fact, I was pretty much hitting my serve with a bent elbow, maybe a foot above my head, almost every time. So, with that knowledge I went back out a few times with the camera, determined to change my hitting point and in other ways emulate more closely the service motion of the pros.

Fail.

More practices, more serves, and still more video evidence that I simply wasn’t extending my arm. It seemed like no matter how much I tried, my body instinctively reverted to my habitual form – bent elbow and all.

It was at this point I knew I needed some help.

Because it’s summer and I wanted to take advantage of free outdoor court time, I opted to hold off on signing up for lessons from a pro at the club and instead looked to YouTube for instructional advice as a starting point. Turns out there are some really great tennis instructional videos on YouTube, though not a ton of great ones that focus exclusively on serving.

I was able to find some very good video lessons (I particularly like those produced by Pat Dougherty – the “Serve Doctor”) and have spent the last several weeks religiously working the drills. At first I filmed these practices, but I’ve stopped doing that for now, as the video rivaled anything you might find in the horror section. Slowly but surely though, the work finally seems to be paying off and I feel like my serve is actually improving.

So, about three months into this process what have I learned?

  1. Watching yourself hit a serve on video can be stomach churning, but it’s useful insofar as it makes you very aware of how poor your service motion might be. If you’re going to use video analysis though, be sure you have a camera that has good slow motion capability, as you really need to slow it down to see exactly where you’re going wrong.
  2. A lesson plan is crucial. It’s very, very difficult to break bad habits and unless you are following a specific lesson plan your muscles will try very hard to revert to their comfort zone.
  3. The hard truth, for me at least, is that to dramatically improve my serve I have to suffer through a period where my serve is dramatically worse – or at least less consistent. I’ve played a couple of matches and have really had to commit to practicing my new serve – double faults be damned.

It’s proving to be a long and arduous process, though my guess is it could have gone faster had I ponied up for lessons from the beginning (which I still might do with winter fast approaching and my free outdoor court time soon to come to an end). I’m about three months in now and am only beginning to see some improvement, and only to my second serve at that.

But you know what they say, the worst day of practicing your hobby is better than the best day at work 🙂

How much do you practice your serve? And how’s it coming along?

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