How to Hit the Tennis Topspin Serve – Contact and Follow Through

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.

This is the 2nd post in a 2 part series. The first post on serve preparation and the toss can be viewed here.


So, if you goose-neck it at the bottom, do you have to goose-neck it at the top?08b

Uh huh. That’s why you goose-neck your wrist at the bottom in the first place: to give it a heads-up on what’s coming next.

So, what’s it look like at the top?

A righthanded server snaps up and out to the right (like Michael Jordan holding his famous follow-thru) and wraps down and back to the left. D24bown and back to the left puts the racket on the left hip like a sword in a scabbard.

Problem is: too many recreational players put the sword in the scabbard before it does its snap & flap it at the top.

Think of the snap & flap this way: you are a tennis racket standing on the side of a pool. If you go in feet first, it’s a jump; if you go in head first, it’s a dive. What you want on the serve is a head first dive. At the instant the racket hits the ball,22b you want the tip to go forward and come down before the hand. More of which later. That goose-necked wrist at the top is the same goose-necked wrist you had at the bottom when you started.

Bending the elbow for extra leverage puts icing on the cake. (Nobody bent it more than Pete Sampras. And nobody ever served better.) Straight-arm servers never taste that icing.


13-1bWhen you lean & mean it, you land in the green_at least, it used to be green_I saw a court the other day with at least five colors. Blue seems to be the most popular these days.

What you are trying to do is create one straight line that runs from your feet, up thru your torso to the tip of your racket_as opposed to a three-legged nunchuck.

You should feel like you’re falling on your face when you hit a first serve.

13-3bIf you are thinking about coming to the net behind that serve for a volley (something you don’t see too much of these days), the further in front you toss the ball the better (as Goran Ivanisevic is doing here).

If you really want to see how far in front the pros toss it, go to a pro tournament or good college match and sit on the sideline just inside the baseline. You won’t believe it. It looks like they are halfway to the serve line when they connect with the ball.

13-2bExperiment. Find out how far in front you can actually toss it and not fall on your face. Put the serving hopper in the middle of No Man’s Land so you have to go forward to get the next ball.

If you were to stand on a stepladder behind the baseline and look down into the service box you’re aiming at, and then move it three feet in front of the baseline and take another look, you’ll see why the pros lean and mean it.


15-1bIf you want to hit a topspin serve and watch it arc its way over the net and dive for the ground, you have to brush it, nick it, glance it with a slanted racket traveling from low to high on its way up. Here are two ways to look at it:

One, the ball is a face. Your job, as a righthanded server is to brush the left eyebrow (the one on the right as you look at it) with the strings of your racket. Think of your racket as a hairbrush, not a hammer. That’s the upper righthand corner of the ball.

If the ball were a clock instead of a face, it would be the 1 o’clock hour. 15-3bYou can also contact the ball anywhere along that line that runs from 7 o’clock (lower left corner) to 1 o’clock (upper right corner), even on the “nose,” as long as you are brushing up and out to the right, as David Ferrer is doing here.

I hold my tennis ball on a roller up with my left hand, and brush the ball with the racket strings to make it roll on a 7:00 to 1:00 slant. Then, I hand it to my student and have them do it. Sometimes the ball on the paint roller is the magic bullet that gets it for them.15-4b

Initially, for a righty, the balls are all going to squirt off to the left and they invariably say “This will never work.” Which is similar to what Wilbur Wright said to Orville in the summer of 1901. The brothers went back to Dayton, built their own wind tunnel, figured out the Bernoulii principle and some other stuff and we got airplanes. Your homework: compare the Bernoulii Principle to the Magnus Effect. They both apply to curved surfaces moving thru the air.


Rafael Nadal uses a western gripwest1 and a helicopter finish on his forehand that allows him to generate 3,000-5,000 rpm’s on his ball compared to Agassi and Sampras at 1800 or Federer at 2500. How does he get so much spin on his serve?

He uses a continental grip with a backhand angle of arm and racket (see pic 1). The backhand angle is also used by Milos Raonic these days. It was used by Stephan Edberg in the past. Lots of people have learned how to hit a topspin serve by getting themselves ready to hit a one-hand backhand. west2It’s the forehand grip and the forehand angle of arm and racket that prevents self-taught players from learning the topspin serve.

Nadal has a closed stance with a deep knee-bend (pic 2). He brings the back foot up to where it just touches the front foot. The hitting palm is facing the ground, not the sky. As he’s waiting for his tall toss to drop back down to the right height, he goes into his “trophy pose” with the racket pointing up to the sky, tossing arm fully extended, knees still bent.

As the racket drops into the upside-down “backscratch” position (pic 3), west3and the tossing arm folds into the “broken arm in a sling” across his chest, he springs up and forward into the court as he throws the bottom edge of the racket at the ball. The upward thrust of the legs precedes the upward thrust of the racket.


  1. muermans jos

    Nadal throws the ball not at eye height but above his head????
    He is out off balans?? Or am I wrong

    1. John White


      Check the first pic under “WEST” that shows Nadal releasing the ball from above head height


  2. Tom Curtin

    John, great information and you have me out on the court a couple of times a week trying to get the hang of the topspin serve. One comment I’m not sure I understand though is “Lots of people have learned how to hit a topspin serve by getting themselves ready to hit a one- hand backhand. It’s the forehand grip and the forehand angle of arm and racket that prevents self-taught players from learning the topspin serve.” Are saying to put your knuckle on bevel #1 (like a one-handed backhand) or on #2 (continental grip) ? Also, can you explain the forehand angle of arm and racket? Thanks

    1. John White


      Under my photo there is a little envelope. Shoot me an e-mail and I’ll send you some photos that might help…


  3. Bakthan

    Your reference to throwing the bottom of the racquet is a bit confusing. Do you mean the front edge of the racquet leading up to the ball before contact. Please elucidate.

    1. John White


      Find the pic under GLANCES that has David Ferrer’s racket going after the ball on a slant. The edge of his racket that looks like it’s about to hit the ball is the “bottom” edge. If you put a racket on the ground and balanced it on-edge, the bottom edge is the one that’s on the ground.

      If you are a beginner, disregard this next part. For an edge awareness drill with my intermediate to advanced classes, I have them stand up close to the fence for “bottom-top, bottom-top.” I show them in slow motion how the bottom edge of the racket “cuts off the toes” on the drop, and then the top edge of the racket leads on the way up to the trophy-pose and again on the way down the sliding board thru the backscratch position. Then on the way up to go get the ball, the bottom edge leads. Immediately after the brush, the hand turns over and the top edge leads on the way down. “Bottom-top, bottom-top.” If you do it with your bare hand, it’s “pinky-index, pinky-index.”

  4. Tom Bauman

    Thank You Thank You Thank You for great serving concepts taught by great analogies for anyone. I do not think anyone wanting to Improve their serve could not identify with your mental pictures.

    1. John White

      Thanks, Tom. Wish Youtube has been around when I was learning sports. Holy smokes. What I find with my adult students is they need different modalities than teens. A teen might say to me “Show me that again.” And bingo, they’ve got it. The ability to mimic a move gets harder the older you get. Word pictures and still-shots seem to work better for my adults who say things like “What do you mean?” and “I don’t understand.” It’s a fun challenge to find the right simile or metaphor. If I say to a woman student that the counter-rotation on a one-hand backhand is like an umpire waving safe at the plate and she’s never seen a baseball game, I’m going to get a funny look.

  5. John White

    Everybody throws the bottom edge at the ball. Do it with your hand. It’s like throwing your little finger at the ball and catching it on a slant. As the hitting hand pronates (turns the palm forward), you glance, brush, nick the ball. You don’t hit it like a hammer hitting a nail. There are 28 separate lessons in the “Snap & Flap It” collection, each with 3 pics . They are not all up yet.



    On the serve why does Nadal throws the bottom edge of the racket at the ball ?.


    On the serve Nadal throws the bottom edge of the racket at the ball. Why the bottom edge ?.

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