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
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.
The 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.
This 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.
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.
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.”
Servers 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
One 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.
When 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. Turn 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
All 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.
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.
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.
Some 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.”
When 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.”
The 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.