tennis-training-serve

How to Hit the Tennis Topspin Serve – Preparation

John White

John is a USPTA Elite Professional with a master's degree in counseling. He has a coaching practice in Baltimore, MD and publishes podcasts and eBooks on positive thinking in sports.

The rules say you have to toss the ball up in the air, hit it before it bounces, and make it go over the net and into one of those boxes over there. You have two tries to pull this off.

In order to get topspin (or forward roll) on a tennis ball, the bottom line is this: your racket must be a foot below the ball and traveling up when it hits it. It’s a brush, a glance, a nick, not a flat-splat.

Flat-splats are what you get when you hit with a frying pan or a hammer. I used to carry one of each in my bag and make my students serve with them. I also carried a hairbrush, a toothbrush, and a hatchet to give them the feel of brushing, glancing and nicking the ball. (I had a big bag.)

If you are trying to learn how to hit a topspin serve, find yourself a certified teaching pro and save yourself some headaches. Once you get it, you got it, and you never lose it.

The sine qua non (without not which) of a topspin serve is a continental grip. If you refuse to get out of the Eastern forehand grip, nothing can help you. You are doomed to a 3.5 ceiling.

All 4.0 players and up have topspin serves. The waitress-grip, palm-up, tray-position is the mountain that must be climbed. Certified teaching pros are like Sherpa guides. Don’t leave home without one.

But, if you insist on doing it yourself, here are some things that worked for me that you might try…

Topspin Serve Stance, Grip and Wrist Preparation

Goosehenin-sv-goose

If you want to carve the turkey, you’ve got to get a goose. What’s that mean?

Arch it and bow it, get ready to throw it. A forehand grip won’t get it. You need the continental, durn it-learn it. Only takes 21 days, then it’s not a new house anymore.

Radwanska sv dragThe reason all pros use a continental (and very few self-taught players) is because of what happens at the top. What happens at the top is this: the racket starts to go after the ball like it wants to hit it with the bottom edge, more like a hatchet than a hammer.

At the last second the palm starts to pronate, i.e., turns forward like a basketball player shooting a jump shot and instead of hitting the ball with the bottom edge, it brushes it with the strings.

federer-tossThis gives it the 7:00 o’clock to 1:00 o’clock up & out topspin it needs to arc it’s way over the net and dive for the ground.  I use a paint roller with a tennis ball on it to demonstrate this. Thinking of a tennis racket as a hair-brush or toothbrush is also not a bad idea.

All ball sports are spin sports: ping pong, pool, bowling, tennis, football, baseball, basketball, soccer. You’re either looking for the gyroscopic stability that spin gives a ball, or the magical properties of curve. To curve a serve, you need a goose.  My suggestion: Get a goose.

Dragsbouchard-sv-drop

If you had a rag, a rope, or a bullwhip in your hand, instead of a tennis racket, and wanted to get it up in the air to crack the whip, the way you would do it is by dragging the handle up, not pushing the head.

You can’t push a rag, rope, or bullwhip, you have to pull them. Pulling a tennis racket up in the air means your palm is facing the ground, and your elbow is away from the body, not up against it.Federer-sv-drag

When you goose-neck the wrist of your hitting hand, instead of making a ledge with it, you have formed what’s known as the “A” position.

You can make a “V” or you can make an “A.” The volley “V” is when the racket head is cocked back. The “A” is when it’s pushed forward. When you are serving, it’s the “A” you want. When you are volleying, it’s the “V.”

agassi-sv-dragServers make one “A” down at the bottom where they cut off their toes, and another at the top when they crack the whip.

The thing that sets up the crack of the whip at the top is the loose-goose at the bottom. Get yourself a loose-goose. Use a relaxed continental grip that bows the wrist and prepares you to throw the racket.

How to Toss the Ball for Your Serve

Toast

serena-sv-tossOne thing you can say for sure about how the pros toss a tennis ball is that they all release it from above head height without a lot of spin, and with a straight arm (Serena Wiliams).

Some touch their tossing arm to their chin or cheek while they are waiting for the ball to seek its peak, and many spread their fingers, like a bomb bursting, or a flower blooming in order to stop the finger-flickers.

fed-serve-tossWhen left to their own devices, fingers will flick, they have to be taught what to do. Roger Federer taught his fingers to raise a toast. The champagne toast is where you turn your tossing hand so the palm is facing the side instead of the sky. It’s the way you would raise a champagne glass at a wedding. It’s also the way you would hold a tennis can to toss a ball from, and the way you raise an ice cream cone or a torch.

Palm to the side eliminates the bends. You get the bends when you come up too quickly with the palm facing up. The “bends” in this case don’t come from nitrogen bubbles in your blood, they come from finger flickers. nadal-sv-tossTurn your palm over and take a look. You’ve got 16 bends in each hand counting the wrist. Not to say some pros don’t toss with their palm up; some do (as Nadal is doing here). But they are very careful not to flick the fingers. Recreational players are not quite so careful.

Keeping the tossing palm to the side and then turning it toward the net after the release is your best bet.

Preparing to Strike Your Serve

Bends

federer-trophyAll pros are up on their toes when they serve. They may not be up on their toes in the beginning, a lot of them start with a heel-rock, knee-bend, back-arch but they are all up on their toes when they go up to hit.

Check any pro in the backscratch position and what you’ll see is this:

At the instant the toss has reached its peak, and the racket is hanging upside down, they’ll be up on their toes with the front leg extended, ready to crack the whip, as Samantha Stosur is doing.stosur-backscratch

Righthanded jumpers land on their left foot. Most pros jump these days. But, pros and advanced tennis players are only the tip of the iceberg. Before jumping became legal in ‘61, you had to keep that front foot anchored to the ground. Righties went up on the toes of the left foot and swung the right foot around into the court. Then it was a quick back-pedal to get back behind the baseline to take the return.

isner-scratch

If you are teaching beginners, or learning the serve, save the jumping for later. A righthanded beginner should dribble the ball once or twice with the weight on the left foot.  Then, lean back on to the right foot and hold still. Now, everything begins from here.

Intermediates start with their weight on the left foot, then shift to the right and immediately come back to the left as the toss goes up. “Lean across before you toss.” Don’t toss on the way back or the ball will be behind you.

Pops

errani sara backscratchSome beginners are taught to serve from the backscratch position with the racket-head hanging down their back. Some pros (like Sara Errani here) revert to it when they are having trouble.

From the backscratch the only place to go is up, and up is good. “Hitting up” on the ball is a concept that eludes a lot of beginners. It’s not a bad first step, but it doesn’t give you the true feeling of “drop & pop it.”

agassi-sv-dragWhen a pro releases the ball, the racket is waist-to-shoulder height with the palm facing the ground (as Agassi is doing here). When the ball is almost at its peak, the racket is about shoulder high, palm still facing the ground.

As it reaches its peak, the racket points up at the sky for a split second before plunging back down to earth like a roller coaster, and then up again for the snap and flap it at the top. Do a Youtube search for any pro and add the words “serve slow.”

dumbellThe backscratch is nothing but a blur. Before you can blur it like the pros, you’ve got to get the hang of drop & pop. A three-pound dumbbell can help. However, if you hit yourself in the head with a three-pound dumbbell, you’re going to be a dumbbell, so be careful.

Another way to get that weighted feel is to take off your right shoe (if you are a rightie) and tie it onto the face of the racket. Or, tie it onto the tip the racket and let it dangle. Use bow-knots, not square knots, or you’re going to be there for awhile.

Comments

    1. John White

      Hi Monisha,

      If by “throw” you mean the toss, I couldn’t agree more. Just turning the palm to the side, quiets the finger-flickers. The “J” toss also seems to help a lot of folks, as long as the body turns with the arm. Releasing it above head-height and turning the palm forward seems to put the icing on the cake. See if you can find a youtube of Martina Navratilova releasing her toss. Her tossing arm was welded to her cheek. Regards, John

  1. Bakthan

    Simple, direct and entertaining information that is easy to follow. My only disagreement in on the follow through. All pros land on the front foot with the back foot kicking backwards. You seem to advocate keeping the front foot planted and swinging the back forwards on landing.
    Please explain.
    Bakthan

    1. John White

      Thanks, Bakthan. Good point. Since most of the people I teach these days are over 30 (and 2.5, 3.0, 3.5 players), and none of them jump, I thought I’d write Snap & Flap It with them in mind. Some of my 20 year olds like to jump, but the ones who do the two-foot push-off already have topspin serves. The thing I have to get them to do is scramble back after they land in the court. John

  2. Lloyd Apter

    Nice read thanks!

    Sometimes when i bend my legs too much a lose control of the ball. What helps me is a more controlled first serve but then I’m just a B league player in Israel 🙂

    1. John White

      Hi Lloyd,

      I’m with you. When I’m teaching, I use the old-fashioned serve with my feet firmly connected to the terra firma, but when I play, I use the two-foot push-off and a lot of knee-bend. If I haven’t done my lunges lately, my quads refuse to obey.

      John

  3. j cain

    May 24, 2015. : racquet lift and body lift—do you have a tip or two on how to apply Band Isometrics to these two lift motions? It seems that the key to higher racquet head speed lies here.

  4. John White

    You might be right. Watch a couple of the band isometric YouTube videos. I got into isometrics many years ago because of Charles Atlas’ story. But what has worked for me in the sports I’ve played and taught has been to create exercises that mimic a specific motion and then to repeat that motion as many times as I felt like ( I always did more than the 8-12 reps) with added weight or stress. You might try some therabands anchored on a door. I got a little set of 3 at Walmarts for under twenty bucks. Lot of ways to add speed to a serve. I guess I’m more of an isotonic guy. Best wishes, John

  5. j. cain

    John white – I have done three days of 5 positions against the pulleys on a chop frame with weight set to virtual immobile pulling for 10-12 seconds. I started looking to add to my golf driver swing speed, but then added 2 more positions for the tennis racquet swing speed. I may overdone it as my low back is suffering badly. I have had driver average gains from 84 mph to 88 mph to 90 mph with a individual highs of 106 and 109 mph. Now I am hurting and back to 85 mph. All at golf. No measurements for tennis yet.
    After as many as 30-50 serves warming up before playing every few days I do have success in consistency but have not been able to add much speed. So I am adding tennis to my isometrics for serve and forehand.
    Have you taught fast hip turn as a 15 mph factor in forehand speed? I saw a promising video on that but I am not wiling to pay too big a price in error rate to try everything.
    Any guidance you can pass along to me I will appreciate and try to incorporate it.
    Thanks, John C.

  6. John White

    John C,

    Send me a video clip of your swings in tennis and golf. Just hand your smart phone to a friend and get a couple of quick shots. Attach it to an e-mail or post in on youtube with a private setting and send me the link.

    John W

  7. Jacques Garcia

    Knowing its utmost importance for the service, I’ve always been interested in mastering the various elements of a quality ball toss. In that regard, I have been for quite a long time a true admirer of Jo-W. Tsonga ball toss. It is so natural, so fluid, so stable, so constant… I also like the way the ball “dies” at the apex of its course (which gives a precious extra time to hit the ball and do any necessary adjustment). To me, that’s a very useful element of the toss. Now after having read your column, I just went back to YouTube and it appears to me, Jo-Wilfred is tossing with his palm up towards the sky. He simply opens his fingers at the end of the movement (which is the way I have learned). In my opinion, if the lifting of the arm is done at a gradual speed with no sudden acceleration at the end and that you then simply open your fingers wide (again with no staccato), you can get a decent ball toss. Thanks for your very interesting column. J.G., Montreal

  8. John White

    HI Jacque.

    I watched Tsonga last nite serving for the match against Berdych. The French crowd was not to be denied.

    The height of your toss has to accommodate the speed of your swing. I’ve always thought it was easier to hit a ball at the apex of the toss than to hit one falling of the sky, but a lot of pros hit a falling ball. Whatever works.

    Jerking it up in the air with a “chest pop” never works. You’re right, a smooth consistent lift, without a lot of spin is your best bet. I like a “J” shaped toss, released above head-height. I use 4 tosses for the 4 serves (flat, slice, top and twist).

    All the best,

    John

    1. Jacques Garcia

      Hi John,

      You’re obviously a very generous man (with your time) and this is something to be appreciated especially in today’s world. Regarding the height of the toss, to develop it in such a way that it will consistently reach the ideal height (which, of course, is a function of one own’s heighg) requires more work but it really pays off. I simply don’t understand why that feature isn’t anymore standard with the pros nowadays. When you toss the ball at roughly the top of your racquet head with your arm fully extended in the vertical plan, it sits there for a very brief moment and that gives a precious extra moment to really do what you want with it, as opposed with hitting it “falling off the sky”, like you say, which considerably reduce your “time window” to execute. I think it’s those small details that make tennis the beautiful sport that it is! And once again, Tsonga has a really sweet and smooth toss (which must have required tons of work). Thanks again for your time. Jacques

  9. John White

    I do that same thing you describe with my students, Jacques, where you hold the racket extended vertically and toss the ball just high enough to land on the top. Some of the teachers I’ve trained though have told me that the idea of hitting up on a ball that is falling is easier to get across to beginners than hitting a stationary one. And, yes, I’d really like to see Tsonga have a break-thru year. Nice guy, great player, good for the sport.

  10. Eric Biddle

    G’day John
    I’ve been trying to play tennis since the middle of last century and have liked to consider myself as a student of the game, but developing a top-spin serve has been one of my more spectacular failures. Your article challenged several of my long-held thoughts and practices, and tho your suggestions offered perhaps just “tweaks” of others I can’t wait to give them a try, even in the cold & rainy weather we’re having at this time (in a small town in the SW of Western Australia). Many thanks for expert opinion so freely given
    Cheers

  11. John White

    G’day mate,

    It’s raining here, too (in Timonium, MD, USA). I’m taking the day off and not feeling guilty a bit. Take a quick video clip of your serve with your phone and attach it to an e-mail or post it on youtube, Eric. We’ll figure this out. Once you get It, you got it.

    John

  12. Poida

    “……The back foot lands in the court. (Jumping became legal in 1961. ……”

    When I look at top servers today I see them landing in the court with their front foot and back foot kicking up and back. Am I seeing things???

  13. Sansriti

    Hi John, I would like to know about the arching of the back in the top spin serve. How exactly should one bend -sideward or backward?

  14. John White

    Hi Sansriti,

    I don’t advocate bending the back at all, but if I were made of rubber, I probably would. I just did a 15 pic analysis for my students this week on the fastest women’s serve (Sabine Lisicki 131 mph vs Anna Ivanovic at Stanford in 2014) and she definitely arches her back. If you are over 30, I say forget it on your first serve, but if you are hitting a kick, you need it on the second. If you are under 30, pick an ATP player you like, go to Youtube and plug in their name + serve slow and watch what they do. If you are going to arch your back, you need to stretch and work your core (belly and abs). Good luck.

    John

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