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There is no question that the serve is the most important stroke in tennis. It is the only shot in the game that is not a return of a shot hit by your opponent. As you stand at the baseline ready to serve, you are in complete control of the point, and how well you hit that serve will determine, to a large extent, how the point will go.
Some players have won major championships solely on the strength of their service. A five-star example is Bob Falkenburg, who won the Wimbledon singles title in 1948. Bob's game had obvious weaknesses, but his serve was so overwhelming he rarely lost it. It was a tremendous psychological weapon, too. I know I spent a lot of sleepless hours wondering how to return that immensely powerful delivery that skidded so fast on grass.
I will now proceed to show you how to serve just like Bob Falkenburg, so that you, too, can win the Wimbledon singles title. Dream on. What I do hope to show you, whether you are a beginner or a veteran, is how to develop an effective serve so that at least you can beat your favorite opponent.
Let's start with beginners. If you have never served before, I want you to concentrate on a simple, effortless swing, putting the ball into play with a flat serve. I should mention right here that in topflight tournament tennis there is no such thing as a completely flat serve. All serves, including the so-called cannonball, are hit with at least some spin on the ball for control. Even Pancho Gonzalez, who hits the hardest serve in the game, puts a bit of-spin on his big serve. If Pancho doesn't hit a completely flat serve, why should you, a beginner? Because, unlike Gonzalez, you won't be hitting the ball hard enough to have a control problem, and until you have learned the fundamental serving motion I don't want you fooling around with spins.
For the flat serve, use the eastern forehand grip, which you assume by taking the throat of the racket in your left hand and shaking hands with the handle with your right. (This is a right-handed world, and left-handers, as usual, will have to adjust accordingly.) This grip allows you to hit the ball easily with a forward motion of the arm, getting the full face of the racket into the ball.
Taking your stance at the baseline, you should position yourself about two feet to the left or right of the center mark, depending on which court you are serving to. Your left foot should be slightly behind the baseline and at a 45� angle to it. Your right foot should be perhaps a foot and a half behind the left and almost parallel to the baseline. Above all, you should feel comfortable.
Now you are ready to toss the ball into the air, an important step. Ideally, it would be best to hang the ball from a skyhook and suspend it at the proper height—as high as you can reach with your racket above your head. Skyhooks being illegal in tennis, you have to toss the ball up there. To insure accuracy, keep the left elbow close to the body, the left forearm parallel to the ground. Hold the ball lightly in the fingertips, palm up, and, in a smooth motion, raise your arm and release the ball. Do not make the mistake some people do and release the ball at shoulder level, and do not let go of it abruptly as if the ball were on fire. There's no hurry.
The toss itself should be just high enough to reach the hitting zone, which is where the racket is when you extend your arm overhead. You want to hit the ball at that precise moment between its rise and fall when it is not moving. If you toss the ball too high—and this is a common error—it will be descending rapidly when you attempt to hit it, presenting you with an additional timing problem. If you do not toss the ball high enough, you will lose that desirable combination of leverage and angle that enables you to hit the service hard across the net yet down into the service court. The higher your racket makes contact with the ball, the more service-court area you have for a target.
So much for height. What about direction? The toss should be about an arm's length in front of you, that is, toward the net. You want to hit the ball as your body is moving toward the net in order to get more power behind your serve. If your toss goes up directly overhead, you will have to lean back to hit the ball, if you con hit the ball.
If you have always had trouble controlling the ball when you toss it, try holding only one ball when you serve. You are allowed two serves in tennis, but there is no rule that says you must hold both balls at the same time. If your hand is small, put the second ball in your pocket. Women who wear tennis dresses can sew on a pocket and start a new fashion.