The serve is the only shot in tennis in which you have complete control, but I'm still waiting to experience this truth. I feel I'm being toyed with by some mischiveous force inside me that, at whim, flips the ball over my head on the toss or jerks it too far to my right, or pulls my head down as I bring my racquet through the ball. Into the net it goes!
I've tried various methods to cure this defect. I've practiced just tossing the ball, focusing on releasing it at the just-so point, using only my shoulder, keeping my wrist and elbow still.
To work on ball placement and consistency, I've resorted to basketball for help. More precisely, I use a steel bracket that anchors a backboard onto a chain link fence at a schoolyard one block from my apartment building. The height of the lower bracket is about where I would contact the ball for my serve, so I figure it's a good gauge for how high I need to place the ball. It's all about the visuals on the Internet, so here are photos, showing you what I mean.
The second photo looks like I was actually going for the higher bracket, but that's the fault of my upward angle. Haters, I have a hard enough time tossing a ball and swinging a racquet. You should have seen me tossing a ball and taking a picture with my iPhone. The guy waking up that morning on a nearby park bench did, and immediately vowed never to drink Mad Dog 20/20 again.
All this tossing practice works until I try to incorporate my other arm; you know, the one holding and swinging the racquet. I struggle all over again to find my rhythm and balance.
Ian Westerman of Essential Tennis recently posted this instructional video about gaining accuracy and consistency with the service toss. He, too, advocates practicing an isolated, step-by-step method. But watch, Haters. This trips him up. Ian can't for the life of him get a tossed tennis ball into the wire basket he's placed at the service line until he brings his racquet arm into play.
I don't know a thing about teaching tennis, but I wonder if this progression method on the serve is useful. There are so many elements operating at the same time that I think it's folly to isolate them and build upon them. And yet, this progression technique is what every teaching pro uses.
Jim McLennan of Essential Tennis Instruction take a different approach. [Editor's note: fellow tennis bloggers, can we start using a thesaurus? How about Indispensible Tennis? or Crucial Tennis? or Can't Do Without This Tip Tennis?] He also recommends standing at the baseline and practicing the toss, but he suggests placing your focus on your balance, rather than the ball's height or its position upon release.
"Far too many players shift their weight forward during the toss, rather than during the hit," he said in an e-mail promoting his web instruction. "Shifting forward too early...robs the swing of power and rhythm."
He recommends practicing tossing the ball while keeping your weight evenly distributed through both legs. "Monitor your balance as the ball peaks," McLennan suggests. And "if you're off balance, make corrections."
Oh, were that it were that easy, Jimbo! Make corrections. [Sigh.]
Again, at some point, you've got to hit that damn ball with your racquet. This, McLennan said, is where rhythm comes in. Here's a video he offers on that:
Oh, yeah, the "frying pan" pushy serve. Been there, done that. No, wait, do that. [Sigh.] McLennan's suggestion about pulling the racquet through the shot is baffling to me. It feels so awkward and contorted. I keep thinking to myself, what do I do with my elbow? Best not to think about my elbow, and just "see the hit," as Saintly Pro Al Johnson tells me.
To see the hit, I've got to hit the courts. My indoor season begins Monday! In the meantime, Haters, tell me about your loco service motions, and tell me what tips you've heard that have helped you improve.