The Runway Approach to Powerful Serving

The serve is clearly the most frequently hit shot in tennis and is therefore the most important. No doubt about it. For a more effective serve, whether you hit it flat or with spin for more control, racquet speed is essential. Simply put, the faster you swing your racquet, the more effective your serve, as long as it goes in the box! 

The purpose of this article is to help you increase your racquet head speed in minutes by sharing a simple concept comparing the serve to an airport runway.  You might ask how a simple concept can significantly and quickly help improve your serve, when admittedly the stroke is extremely complex. It’s a good question and the answer is at the heart of this article.

First, let’s understand that a long swing allows the racquet to build up more speed, much like a long runway allows an airplane to pick up the necessary speed to take off and become airborne. On the other hand, a short swing doesn’t give us much room in which to accelerate, just as a short runway may not allow a plane to gain the speed needed to fly.

I will offer 4 tips to help you lengthen your runway and get more pop in the process:

Tip #1 Start with the right grip

Recreational players often struggle to find the Continental grip for serving. It can feel awkward at first and look even stranger in the hand, making players wonder how they are possibly going to hit the ball with the strings instead of missing it with the edge of the racquet. Of course, coaches commonly understand that it requires forearm rotation to line up the racquet to the ball holding this grip (through internal shoulder rotation), but they seldom require their recreational player students to use this grip. Why?  It can be challenging, if you miss one VERY important component. To receive the benefits of holding a Continental grip for serving, you need to maintain a relaxed grip and have a loose wrist. The good news is that if your grip is loose, odds are that your wrist will be relaxed as well. 

Tip #2 Start loose, stay loose

At the start of your service motion, check to see if your grip on the racquet is loose or tight. As just explained above, this will help ensure that your wrist is relaxed. How? An easy way to help you start relaxed is by supporting the racquet with your non-racquet hand. There are several ways or variations to get this done. Find a starting position that is both an aid to relaxing your swinging arm and also comfortable for you. Why is a relaxed wrist essential? Not only is wrist flexion on the serve a prerequisite for racquet head speed, but also 100% needed to facilitate the pronation (outwards turning of the hand, wrist, and forearm) that has to occur for a Continental grip to work. Sports scientists will quickly explain that it is actually not the hand or wrist or forearm that pronates, but rather comes from the internal outward rotation in the shoulder joint. The good news is that players do not have to worry about all these details. A relaxed grip itself works wonders to contribute to a loose arm that allows this pronation to occur naturally. The decades-old tennis instruction to hold that grip like a pet bird is still a sound instruction … loose and just enough pressure so the bird doesn’t fly away. Finally, after you finish your follow through on the serve, check to see that you are also relaxed and loose upon completion. If you start loose and finish loose, chances are you will stay loose throughout your entire serve.

Tip #3: Throw a high pop

If you’ve ever practiced baseball or played catch, you’ve probably thrown a high pop. Stand up from this article and go into the motion as if you are throwing a ball as high a possible right now. Pause in the “loaded” position, when your throwing arm hand is in its lowest position. Now replace the ball with your racquet. You should quickly realize that the all the complex components of setting up to serve are in place. In “accelerated learning” circles, this is called tapping into “familiarity.” In other words, when acquiring any skill, the learning of that skill (cognitive or motor learning) will be faster and easier if you are already familiar with something similar to that skill. Since the serve resembles a throwing motion of sorts, an adult who has never thrown a ball can have a very hard time learning to serve in tennis. However, give a professional baseball pitcher or football quarterback a racquet, and the serve can feel natural to them in short order. If you try this “high pop” exercise, keep in mind that you will not be hitting a high pop since the racquet swings up and over the top. The goal is to hit the ball forwards towards the opposite service box. 

Tip #4: Toss in front

For a basic flat or slice serve, tossing the ball slightly in front of the baseline furthers the benefits of the runway approach. Why? Again, if you want faster racquet head speed, it requires distance in which to accelerate. How far in front? That’s the million dollar question and every player will be slightly different based on their height, arm length, weight transfer timing, grip, and subsequent racquet angle at contact. Making small adjustments until you find your own “range” is the best advice most coaches can offer.

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