Think Like a Baseball Pitcher and Mix Up Your Serves
I was fortunate. Like many young tennis players, I played a number of different sports growing up. I used to play little league baseball, high school basketball, and intramural football in college (which my college coach forbid, but I did it anyway). And to all the players, both young and older, I encourage them to play other sports to develop themselves into better overall athletes. Playing other sports can help young aspiring tennis players develop their understanding of athletic movement in general, as well as grow their competitive spirit.
Click photo: Just as a pitcher mixes speeds, spins, and locations to fool a batter, the best tennis players do the same thing with their serves.
I can share with you one example of this from my own experience, when, as a young jock who played catch with mom and dad almost daily, I was put on the mound in my third game ever in little league baseball. I had never pitched before, but the coach said I had a better arm than anyone else on the team and our normal pitcher had the chicken pox, so there was nobody else to fill in.
So, during the game, I pitched my heart out and did, well, okay. I gave up a few runs and struck out all the people that could not keep up with the speed of my pitches. We won the game, but I was disappointed with giving up a few hits and runs. To this, my coach responded, “Don’t be so hard on yourself. We won. You did a great job. And next practice I will teach you how to throw a curve, how to mix up your speeds, and how to mix up locations.”
And he did. We worked on a curve ball, which eventually developed into two different pitches: a breaking ball and a slider. Then we worked on changing locations of my fast ball, and then we worked on a change up. By the time our next game came around, my goal was to always keep the batters guessing, and to throw to different places in the box that would give the hitters the most trouble. It was no longer about just throwing hard – it was about throwing smart.
In tennis, the same lesson can be applied to the serve. A player with a good serve will mix up speeds, spins, and locations. A smart player with a good serve will also cater his choices of serves to whom he/she is playing against. This line of thinking can galvanize a player’s ability to exploit weaker strokes of his/her opponent, and can also exponentially enhance the effectiveness of one’s serve.
Nine Different Options
To understand how to do this, we must first list the types of serves available to us. In the complete server’s toolbox, he/she possesses a slice serve, a flat serve, and a kick serve. Each of these three serves can be hit out wide in the service box (pulling the returner off the court and into the alley), into the body of the returner (where the ball lands in the center of the box), and up the middle (also called “down the T”, or hugging the middle service line).
So there are three different types of serves, with three different places each of these serves could be put in the box. That’s nine different options for the server right there, and there are an infinite number of other options (theoretically, at least), if one considers the speeds at which any of these three serves shall be hit.
John McEnroe befuddled his opponents with this slice serve out wide and volley into the open court one-two combination. They knew it was coming but could do nothing about it.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about.
If I have a first serve, and I want to serve out wide to the deuce side, I will probably hit a hard slice, since my right-handed slice spin tails away from the returner, forcing him into the alley. But I can hit that slice 120 mph that lands deep in the box out wide, or I can hit it 100 mph with a little more spin and a sharper angle-landing shorter in the box, or I can hit that serve 90 mph with a lot more spin and pull my opponent as far off the court as possible. John McEnroe was the master at this.
Here’s another example.
If I have a first serve to the ad side, and I want to serve to my opponent’s backhand – I know that I have a number of possibilities. I could kick my opponent out wide with higher mph’s, or I could kick them short and wide with more spin, less speed, and sharper angle. I could hit a heavy slice out wide, a hard slice out wide, or either of those two serves instead slicing into the returner’s body. I could also hit flat into my opponent’s body, or hit flat out wide. All of these serves go my opponent’s backhand, but they all can be struck with different amounts of speed and spin, and the locations can also vary.
Click photo: Rafael Nadal has been able to serve with success to Roger Federer’s backhand using this high kicking serve.
This example shows how Rafael Nadal has been able to serve with success to Roger Federer’s backhand with such frequency. Though in many of their matches Nadal has served as high as 90% of his serves to the Federer backhand, by mixing up speeds, spins, and adjusting locations, Nadal can still keep Federer guessing with the variety of his serve.
These options are all viable to me as a server because they all give the returner a different look. The last thing a server wants is to see a returner develop the ability over the course of the match to return your serve with greater frequency and effectiveness. The returner will have a better chance to do this if he sees the same first serve every point, and the same second serve.
Most good players today hit a kick serve for their second serve. But smart servers will mix in kick, topspin, and heavy slice serves for their second serves to keep their opponents guessing. Though all of these options contain a great amount of spin, which good players use often on the second serve to enhance the safety of the shot and up their percentages, the different spins cause different types of bounces. The kick serve is the most widely used choice for the second serve, however, many pros and advanced players will use both slice and topspin serves as well to keep their opponents off balance.
When these different serves, hit with different types of speed and spin that cause different types of bounces are moved around the box to different spots – the list of options for a server grows pretty quickly and the plight of the returner gets darker and more desperate.
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