In women’s tennis the need to serve more effectively has become greater in recent years because the game is being played more aggressively, and rallies are becoming shorter as a result. How well a female player starts each point is now vital. A strong serve will often create an immediate opportunity for her to dominate, whereas a weaker one gives her opponent the chance to dictate the rally instead. Without a doubt, the tactical momentum in each point will often be determined by the quality of the serve.
the serve is also the one shot in the game that a player has total control over, as well as being the easiest to practice. however, many players simply do not practice their serve often enough. What they don’t realise is that regular serving practice can make a huge difference to their game. Like the top golfer who routinely hits hundreds of balls on the practice range to fine-tune technique and maintain a rhythmical swing, the tennis player should practice her serve.
consistent serving practice is essential for building the power, accuracy, and variety required to carry out the most popular serving tactics in women’s tennis today. Furthermore, when studying serving tactics, players should regard the serve as part of an overall strategy, this means looking not only at how and where to serve but also at what to do with the shots that follow it. Therefore, many of the tactics discussed in this chapter include the serve as part of a combination of shots. Consideration is also given to the server’s movement and court positioning after serving.
This chapter analyses all of the key serving tactics and gives examples of the various patterns of play that can be used with each one. These include tactics for the baseliner, all-court player, and serve and volleyer, as well as for the aspiring doubles team. First serve tactics are discussed separately from second serve tactics because the first serve is used more often as a weapon. Players tend to hit this shot with more ‘adventure’ because they know they have another attempt if they miss. The second serve, on the other hand, is hit more safely because it must go in! However, a player with an exceptionally strong second serve could naturally use first serve tactics for both serves.
The Dominating First Serve
Now, more than at any other time in the history of the women’s game, the first serve is being used as a weapon. Not only has its power increased—average serving speeds among Wimbledon’s top 10 fastest female servers rose from 165.1 km/h (103.2 mph) in 1992 to 189.6 km/h (118.5 mph) in 2006 (statistics courtesy of IBM)—but the serve has also become more accurate, making players increasingly harder to beat when they get a high percentage of first serves into court. this is highlighted when we consider the first serve statistics of the four Grand Slam winners in 2006 (Amelie Mauresmo at the Australian Open and Wimbledon, Justine Henin-Hardenne at the French Open, and Maria Sharapova at the US Open). In australia, Mauresmo won 75 percent of her first serve points and 78 percent at Wimbledon. In paris, henin-hardenne won 70 percent, and in New York, Sharapova won 76 percent (statistics courtesy of IBM). Ah of these champions achieved notable success when using their first serve, and they used power and accuracy throughout.
Overall improvements in the first serve have developed as a result of physical and psychological factors. physically, the professional female tennis player is becoming taller, stronger, and faster (for example, the average WTA top 10 player is now over 3 centimetres [1.2 inches] taller than in 1991). psychologically, she is trying to hurt her opponent with the serve rather than simply starting the point with it. She recognises it as the first point of attack and therefore her chance to immediately impose her own specific game style. With its power and accuracy, the first serve is now the first shot in a winning pattern of play.
the first serve tactics discussed in this section include options for players who prefer to attack from the baseline (groundstroke attack), as well as for those who like to play at the net (sneak, drive volley, and volley). there is also advice for the player who does not attack with one specific shot, but rather, tries to maintain control with a series of groundstrokes after the serve (maintaining baseline control). Using the first serve in doubles is also discussed, along with the various options for court positioning and player movement after the serve has been hit.
First Serve and Groundstroke Attack
I would always try to attack my opponent after I hit a strong first serve— especially with my backhand groundstroke.
—Asa Svensson (nee Carlsson), Former Swedish Number 1 and Top 30 WTA Tour Player
the most common first serve tactic on the women’s singles tour is the serve and groundstroke attack. It is regularly used to dominate an opponent from the very start of the point and can be applied at any time during a match from either the deuce or advantage court. this attack consists of a powerful and well-placed first serve and is followed by the server hitting an aggressive second shot (i.e., the third shot of the rally), usually early and from inside the baseline to maintain pressure on the returner.
When using the first serve and groundstroke attack, the server must consider which type of return will allow her to hit her favourite second shot and choose the serve that has the most chance of producing this return. the quality of this serve (i.e., its power and accuracy) will dictate whether this favoured second shot is used effectively. For this reason, she must specifically practice this type of serve regularly. It is also helpful for the server to anticipate the direction of the return whenever possible. If she can do this, her second shot will be earlier and of a higher quality. As a rule, the more powerful and accurate the first serve is, the greater the chance the return has of being caught late and thus fading away from the intended target. For example, a strong first serve out wide from the advantage court to a right-hander’s backhand is more likely to produce a slightly late return down the line or to the middle of the court than to produce a sharp-angle, crosscourt return. If this happens regularly in a match, then the right-handed server should begin to anticipate hitting a forehand as her second shot from this position. By contrast, the serve out wide from the deuce court will often force a return that fades toward the right-handed server’s backhand. the ability to dictate and anticipate in this way is the key to dominating with the first serve and aggressive groundstroke attack.
Depending on the server’s second shot preference, this tactic comes in two forms: the first serve and attacking forehand, and the first serve and early backhand. players using the first serve and attacking forehand tactic may play their forehands from almost anywhere on the court, provided they are in an attacking position. When hitting forehands from her forehand side, the player should move straight to the ball. this direct movement is crucial in preventing the opponent from having time to recover. players who move only sideways will often lose the initiative in the rally, the player should move around the ball when hitting forehands from her backhand side. She must create enough space around the ball to be able to hit with power and aggression.
Figures 1.1 and 1.2 show the right-handed server’s forehand options following first serves down the middle of the court. In figure 1.1 the server hits a penetrating first serve down the middle from the advantage court. the return fades across the court to her backhand side, so from inside the baseline the server moves around the ball and hits either the ‘inside- out’ (crosscourt) or ‘inside-in’ forehand (down the line; see chapter 2 for an explanation) from this position. this shot doesn’t have to be hit close to the lines if it is hit with enough power from an aggressive position. the pace and time pressure applied will be enough to dominate the returner. In figure 1.2 the server hits a first serve down the middle from
the deuce court. The return fades across the court to herforehand side, and the server moves straight to the ball to hit either crosscourt or down the line. Again, power and an aggressive court position are crucial to this tactic. In both of these tactics, the same principle applies to the left-handed server, except that the movement around the ball occurs in the deuce court and the movement to the ball occurs in the advantage court. Note the different types of movement needed for these forehands. The inside-out/ inside-in forehand requires the playerto create a space around the ball, whereas the forehand on the run
requires the player to move into a space to hit the ball. It is vital that the server practice both types of movement patterns.
■ Coaching Tip
An excellent exercise that helps a player practice her first serve tactics is to allow three serves per point instead of two. This gives the server two chances per point to construct a first serve pattern of play. If she misses the serve, she has the chance to correct her technique immediately—thus allowing valuable serving practice within a competitive situation.
the first serve and early backhand tactic applies to players who don’t necessarily favour their forehand side but instead prefer to use their backhand to attack with. Whereas the attacking forehand can be hit from almost anywhere on the court, the early backhand following a strong first serve is hit early and from inside the baseline. this early contact can often be more important than pace or depth because it gives the returner virtually no time to recover. Even players who prefer their forehand may choose to use this tactic against a fast ball that is returned down the middle of the
court. In this situation, they may find that they have less time to prepare for a forehand (since the forehand uses a bigger swing), and so the backhand becomes a more effective option. Figures 1.3 and 1.4 show the right-handed server’s options following the popular tactic of serving out wide from the deuce court in order to dictate with a backhand groundstroke. This serve is hit most effectively with slice. The server aims to hit around the outside edge of the ball to make the serve turn away from the returner—dragging herwide of the court. In figure 1.3 the wide first serve results in a return that fades away, either down the line or down the middle of the court. This allows the right-hander to step up and hit her backhand early into the space crosscourt. Figure 1.4 shows the same shot construction but with the server opting to hit her second shot back behind her opponent, thus wrong-footing her as she moves to the middle of the court. Note that the same tactic applies to the left-hander who hits the first serve out wide from the advantage court.
To practice the tactics discussed in this section, see drills 1.1 through 1.5 on pages 28 through 32.
ф Coaching Tip
Serving targets are often used to measure the accuracy of a serve and provide a visual record for the player. However, it is important to be able to measure the power of a serve also (without needing a speed gun!). This can be done by placing a marker where the serve’s second bounce lands. If the serve hits the back fence before its second bounce, then the coach measures how high up the fence the ball hits. This ‘power marker’ should rise (or lengthen) with an increase in serving pace.
position within two shots. In this scenario, the server’s plan should be to dominate by hitting a number of quality groundstrokes that eventually open up a space, force a short ball, or pressure the opponent into an error. the key to this tactic is maintaining control. the server doesn’t necessarily try to hit an immediate winner from her second shot, but works on increasingly dominating her opponent as the rally goes on while trying not to allow her opponent the chance to regain a neutral position at any time during the point.
To practice maintaining control after the first serve, see drill 1.6 on page 33.
O’ Coaching Tip
Servers should be wary of players who hit the backhand slice as their preferred choice of return. The pace of the first serve can be controlled more easily when the returner uses a short, compact swing. The slice return is often hit accurately and low and can be difficult to attack. In this situation it is worth considering the serve to the forehand because there is more chance of a higher-bouncing, ‘pacier’ return, which may be easier to maintain control against.
In doubles, a serving team will often want to maintain control over a returning team by using a series of high- quality groundstrokes. Instead of using the attacking groundstroke down the line as a second shot, the server hits crosscourt while her partner at the net looks to intercept a weak reply with a winning volley. The better the crosscourt groundstroke is, the more chance the server’s partner has of finishing the point from the net. Figure 1.6 shows the tactical intent of the serving team when the server maintains control of the point from the baseline. In this figure, a first serve from the advantage court is followed by a series of crosscourt groundstrokes between the server and returner. Once the server gains control of the rally, her partner looks to intercept with
a winning volley into the shaded target area. Note how the intercept volley target area is positioned in the middle of the court. this allows for a high margin of error (i.e., the shot is a relatively safe one because it is hit into a big target area, allowing room for error). It also means that the volley is hit down to the feet or behind the returner’s partner, making it very difficult to defend against. Note also that the server’s partner moves forward toward the ball she is about to volley, this movement allows her to hit more aggressively.