the second serve remains an area of weakness in the women’s game. Statistics tend to support this view. In the four Grand Slams of 2006, the percentage of second serve points won in the women’s singles events was 41 percent (based on 508 matches played), which compares unfavourably with the men, who won around 47 percent of theirs (statistics courtesy of IBM). this 6 percent difference becomes fairly substantial over the course of a tightly contested match. More important, these statistics clearly show that if a server is making a low percentage of first serves, then the returner quickly becomes the favourite to win.
the second serve differs primarily from the first serve because the server must make this shot in the court. As a result, the second serve is usually hit more conservatively, with more spin, less pace, and often less accuracy, this combination simply makes it easier to attack. the following sections outline ways the server can make her second serve more potent—with accuracy and variety of direction being critical factors. Although these aspects apply as much to the first serve as to the second serve, their tactical use in making the second serve effective is significant here.
A class second serve has a rock solid foundation, yet always keeps the opponent guessing.
—Nigel Sears, Former Coach to WTA Top 10 Players Daniela Hantuchova and Amanda Coetzer
Most top women players do not defend with extremely powerful second serves. Instead, they tend to reduce the pace on the ball in favour of adding more spin, making it a safer shot. As a result, the accuracy of the serve assumes a more critical role, and this will often decide which player can attack first in the point. Indeed, there is no reason why an accurate second serve shouldn’t counter the threat of the returner and create an attacking opportunity for the server instead. Maria Sharapova, for example, doesn’t hit a very fast second serve, but she does maintain pinpoint accuracy. Her second serve down the middle from the deuce court often crosses the net to the right of the net strap (as she faces it), yet lands to the left of the centre line. She must maintain this level of accuracy; otherwise, her serve will sit nicely in the forehand hitting zone of the right-handed returner.
To improve the accuracy of her second serve, a player must be prepared to miss it sometimes! She must hit this shot with courage and confidence because often she will be better off making an error that lands close to the line than pushing the ball into the middle of the service box. this shot will inevitably be attacked by the returner, boosting the returner’s own feelings of confidence and dominance if successful. hitting an accurate second serve, whether in or (just) out, can often force the returner to step back and play a more neutral return next time.
To practice the tactics discussed in this section, see drills 1.11 and 1.12 on pages 37 and 38.
Variety of Direction
It is crucial for a player to be able to vary the direction of her second serve, as well as maintain its accuracy, if she is to cope with an aggressive returner. Maintaining this variety will prevent her opponent from settling into a consistent returning rhythm. the most successful female servers do this to great effect. they have the ability to serve to both sides of their opponents (i.e., to both the opponents’ weak and strong sides) as well as into their bodies, while analysing their technical and tactical capabilities along the way. this simply means that they will quickly figure out the returner’s least effective return, and play to it accordingly!
Weaker Versus Stronger Side Serving to an opponent’s backhand side on the second serve is usually encouraged in the junior game because, at a very young age, this is often the weaker side. however, this policy does not necessarily follow in the pros because the backhand is not always an opponent’s weak side. Many players prefer to hit returns on the backhand. the majority of players now play with two hands on the backhand side, which enables them to absorb pace more easily than single-handers, because the
extra hand provides more strength. Also, because of this extra strength, the double-hander can afford to hit with a contact point closer to her body, which means she requires less time to prepare for the shot than the single-hander, whose contact point is farther in front because the swing is longer. As a result, the double-handed backhand return has become widely recognised as one of the most effective shots hit on the tour today.
It is important to remember, however, that the double-handed returner has less reach on the wide ball than her single-handed counterpart does. If the server can serve beyond her reach, then the threat of the return can be nullified—especially if the returner struggles to move well to this side. the single-handed backhand opponent, on the other hand, may find the serve that turns into her body more difficult to deal with because of her longer swing.
there are some interesting tactical reasons for serving to an opponent’s stronger returning side, as opposed to serving to her weaker side. If an opponent has a stronger backhand than forehand, for example, hitting a wide serve to the backhand (from the advantage court to a right-hander and from the deuce court to a lefthander) will allow the server the chance to expose the weaker forehand side with her second shot. The width of the serve will open up the court so the server can hit her next shot into the space, forcing her opponentto hit her weaker forehand on the run. The same principle would be used against a stronger forehand side, the only difference being that the wide serve would be used from the opposite court. This tactic is possible as long as the server isn’t under too much pressure from the return! Figure 1.13 shows a second serve hit wide from the deuce court to the stronger forehand side of this right-handed opponent. The server is forcing her opponentto hit her weaker backhand on the run by hitting her second shot down the line. This tactic will prove successful if the server gains enough width on her serve (pulling her opponent off the court) and is in a good enough position after serving to hit her second shot down the line.
Another reason to serve to a returner’s strong side figure 1.13 The second js that some players like to use an opponent’s pace
deuce court to an opponents of shot to create Pace for themselves (a tactic called
strength. counterpunching). this tactic is used effectively as
long as the server is able to move quickly to the aggressive return and hit just as aggressively back. the server’s court position must remain close to the baseline, and her technique must be executed efficiently if she is to put enough time and pace pressure on the returner.
Some experienced players will choose to serve to an opponent’s stronger side on a less important point—for example, at 40-0 or 40-15 up. In other words, they will give an opponent her favourite shot in return for maintaining variety. This will allow them to serve more effectively to the weaker side on the really big points. Finally, there is an important psychological reason why a player may choose to serve and play to her opponent’s obvious strength. If a player can do this successfully, she stands a good chance of breaking her opponent’s belief in her own game. This is because if the opponent cannot win with her strengths, what chance does she have of winning with her weaknesses?
To practice the tactics discussed in this section, see drills 1.13 and 1.14 on pages 39 and 40.
Body Serve The serving direction being used increasingly in the women’s game today is the serve into the body. As the female athlete becomes taller, quicker, and stronger, her ability to execute shots from either side of her body also improves. The opponent with long limbs and a wide reach will often prefer to return a ball that is hit away from her body rather than a ball that ‘cramps’ her technique by being hit too close to her. This applies, in particular, to an opponent using the single-handed topspin backhand return. This shot requires more space because it is hit with a longer swing and a contact point farther in front of the body than the double-handed backhand. (From a technical perspective, it is hit with more ‘linear’ momentum—that is, through the ball in a longer line—compared to the double-handed shot, which uses more ‘angular’ momentum—that is, a more rotational movement.) As a result, the singlehanded backhand tends to require more precise positioning, which the body serve can often hinder.
The body serve also reduces the angles available to the returner. This is usually a more important factor for the second serve than the first because it is more likely to be attacked. The wider the serve is, the more acute the crosscourt angle becomes. For this reason, the returner must be put under enough pressure to prevent her from dominating from this wide position. With fewer angles available to her from the body serve, the returner may try to force an angled shot (which may not actually exist) and make an error. Therefore, the body serve helps to reduce the attacking space available for an opponent.
To practice the body serve, see drill 1.15 on page 40.