Improving Your Serve Variation

I had the privilege of hitting with Roger Federer a couple of times in 2014. As those sessions were some of the best tennis moments of my life, I made sure I was learning from it. Out of everything I learned, the biggest thing I took away was “I have no idea where the guy is serving.” 

I always knew Roger had an incredible serve, but it wasn’t until I shared the court with him that I realized why his serve is so special. Statistically, he has one of the greatest serves of all time even though the speed is lower than most of his competitors. Sure, he hits his spots great. But his serve variation is what gives Roger’s serve that extra edge. 

So what is the secret to mastering your serve variation? Like anything else, you’ve got to be putting in reps the proper way. The ability to hit different types of serves to every spot is critical to holding serve. Serve variation is much more than just mixing up locations, but also speeds and spins. The best servers are able to hit any type of serve in any spot. If you are able to do this, your favorite serve spots will have much more credibility that you can use on the big points.

Additionally, one of the biggest components to variation is the disguise of the serve; what good is it being able to hit a certain spot if your opponent sees it coming? In order to disguise your serve, it is necessary that you get rid of tells that show your opponent where you will be serving. This has to do with the ball toss and motion looking the same regardless of what serve you decide to hit. 

Be Able to Hit Every Spot

First thing is first. You need to improve your ability to hit each spot. What does that mean? Lots and lots of reps. Put targets down in the service boxes and try to hit them. You should be spending a lot of time on your serve if you want to improve it. The best part of practicing your serve is, unlike the rest of your game, you can work on it alone. Get a basket of balls and some targets and go to work. 

As you become more consistent, you can work on hitting these spots with different action on your ball. You want to eventually get to the point where you can hit any spot with any type of serve on command. I don’t care how good your serve is, anyone can get better at this. If the pros are constantly working on this (and they are) you should be too. 

Disguise Your Serve

Disguising your serve is important. It doesn’t matter how big you can serve, you’re going to struggle if your opponent knows where it’s going. Good players return well if they are able to read it, and good returners can pick up on the smallest things to read where you are going. In order to disguise your serve from your opponent you will need to get rid of your “tells” and master your toss consistency.

Get Rid of Your “Tells”

Getting rid of the tells in your serve will help you to keep your opponent off guard. In tennis, a tell is something that you do before or during your motion that may tip your opponent off. Tells happen in other sports such as baseball, and even card games like poker. Getting rid of tells is the biggest part of disguising a serve effectively.

An example of a tell in your serve may be that your toss sneaks out 4 inches to the right every time you serve a slice wide, or you bend your back and knees way more when you are about to hit the kick wide. It is pretty obvious why things like this can limit your serve’s effectiveness. If you have a great kick serve with lots of action, it will do less damage if your opponent sees it and takes it early. 

What can you do to get rid of your tells? 

Getting rid of your tells is something that you actively need to work on. The first step is recognizing what they are. After you realize what they are, you can practice specific drills to smooth them out.

The first way that you can figure out what your tells are is to simply ask your practice partner if they know where you are serving before you make contact. Odds are if they can read it easily, other people can too. Another person is able to see things in you that you can’t feel yourself. Get a couple of different perspectives on this and work on disguising your serve based on what they say. 

The second option is film. Film is a great tool for this because it is the only thing that gives you the ability to see yourself. Hit each of your serve spots and spins on film and compare them side by side. Notice what the differences are and what you can do to make them more similar.

After you do one or both of these things, get to work. Get out there with a basket and put the reps in. This shouldn’t be a reconstruction of your current service motion. In fact, the tells are usually subtle so you should be able to fix them fairly easily.

My favorite drill for this goes as follows. Grab a friend and get him to call out a specific serve to hit after you toss the ball. One, this will get you tossing the ball in the same place each time and two, it will get you to manipulate the ball in different directions from the same toss.

Toss Consistency

Because the most obvious tell is your toss, so you have to be sure to get it right. Your toss should not dictate where you are serving. As a general rule, you should try to get your toss as similar as possible for every serve. If you are able to toss the ball directly over your head, you should be able to hit flat, kick, and slice pretty comfortably without your opponent reading it. For more information on how to get your toss right, check out our article Serve Toss Consistency

In the 3 videos below, Keegan Smith demonstrates how effective a similar toss can be. For his first serves flat wide, first serve T, and his kick second serve wide, his opponent is unable to read where he is serving.

Keegan Smith flat 1st serve wide.
Keegan Smith flat 1st serve T.
Keegan Smith kick 2nd serve wide.

Depending on your level, you can get creative with the toss. You can mix up your toss to throw your opponent off a bit. For example, you can toss a couple of inches to the left, making it look like you will kick it wide, then slide it down the T from there. This is something that professionals on tour are incorporating into their games. Be realistic with your game. If you aren’t comfortable with your serve to begin with, don’t try to mix this in as it will only cause problems. However, as your game and serve progress, this is a great element to disguise that you can add. 

There is no secret to improving your serve. You can read all the articles you want and gain all the knowledge possible, but if you don’t go and put them into action your serve will never get better. Repetition, repetition, repetition. 

Be Unpredictable

As a junior, some advice that stuck with me was “serve like a pitcher.” Baseball fans, you’ll understand why this is such a great analogy. What makes a great pitcher isn’t necessarily how fast they are able to sling the ball into the strike zone, but how well they are able to keep the batter on their heels. Pitchers intentionally throw their least effective pitches in certain situations in order to give their best pitches more credibility in bigger moments.

Tennis is no different. If my flat serve down the T is my best serve, I’m going to be sure to use it on big points to make sure that it works when I need it to. On a 40-15 point, for example, I may mix in a slice body or a kick T. Then, on a deuce point, that flat T serve will be more effective. 

So what can you do to work on that? Unpredictability is something that you can work on while playing practice points. As practice matches have less consequence, you can do more experimenting. Try mixing in your least favorite serves even on big points during practice. Utilize all of your serves to work on getting each one better.  

Even if you miss it, it’s worth showing your opponent that you’re willing to hit every serve. This will break up your opponent’s return rhythm. As a returner, there is nothing I like more than knowing my opponent is serving to my backhand every big point. Work on your unpredictability and get your serve to be more credible. 

Final Thoughts

Good serves have a lot of pace, a lot of action, or both. Great serves have variety in addition to those things. The higher the level you play, the more important variety becomes.

There is no secret to improving your serve. You can read all the articles you want and gain all the knowledge possible, but if you don’t go and put them into action your serve will never get better. Repetition, repetition, repetition.

As always, feel free to reach out with any questions or comments below, or reach us on Instagram @mytennishq. Thanks for reading!

Austin Rapp

Hi there! My name is Austin Rapp and since I picked up a racket at age 8, I worked hard to improve my game. I was never the most talented junior, but I tried to learn the game to give myself an edge. I earned the privilege of playing at UCLA for 4 years, serving as team captain for my last 2. In my time there, I took advantage of the coaching and great talent around me to grow my knowledge of the game and became an All-American. I am currently playing professional tennis, ranked top 700 in singles and top 350 in doubles. Above all, my favorite tennis moments were hitting with Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal at Indian Wells!

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