First vs. Second Serves

Soft Serve
What’s the correct balance between the first and second serves … In other words, how hard should the first one be and how soft should the second one be?

We all have warmed up for a match with a new opponent and are thoroughly impressed by his serve power; only to find out in the match, that he misses more than he makes and his second serve (which you didn’t see in the warm-up) is just a puff ball that you can really attack.

So, what is the correct “balance”? As explained in the posting on “Serving PPPriorities,” getting that first serve in consistently is the most important factor for me. I think you should hit your first serve as hard as you can – AND STILL get much more than half of them in play.

Maybe the percentage in play is 55, 60, or 70% … that depends both on the quality of your second serve + the style of your opponent. If he is a baseliner who just puts your second serve back in play, then you can be more aggressive on your first serve; and not worry about your second serve. But if he is really attacking your softer second serve, then you need to get as many firsts in as possible.

Too many recreational players will serve 100% power on their first and then something down to 50-60% on their second serves. If they took 10-15% off their firsts, and added it to their seconds, they would be more balanced and much better off.

And you shouldn’t swing softly on your second serve, no matter what strategy you are using. A Florida teaching pro friend advised me: “You want to swing just as hard on your second serve as you do on your first. The only difference is that you are putting that energy into adding spin to the second serve.”

2 thoughts on “First vs. Second Serves

  1. the second serve is a different technique than the first. you hit it just as hard, but you have to turn your grip a little more to the back hand, turn your body (so that your back is facing the net more), toss the ball a little lower and right on top of your head, bend your knees and just hit up on the ball more. this gives the ball more topspin.
    you can hit the ball as hard as you want and this topspin pulls the ball into the court. this is just IMO.

  2. Some pieces of advice about serves that have either been told to me or I have learned the hard way over the years. Some are repetitive of your comments, George. Some are a bit different:

    (1) In doubles, more even than in singles, it is essential to get your first serve in even if it is not hit as hard as you are capable. For various reasons related to the fact that there are two players on each side of the court, that one is at the net when the other is serving, that the receiver has a much smaller location into which to hit the return in doubles than in singles, that a slower second serve gives the net rushing server more time to get to the net for the first volley than a faster first serve, that there is greater psychological pressure on the returning team to hit good returns when they never see second serves but only first serves, etc., a slower first serve is always more effective in doubles than the same serve used as a second serve.

    (2) There are many, many different ways to hit an effective serve and not a single one of them is key except for one. You absolutely, positively cannot have a good serve unless you learn to hit UP on the ball at the point of contact. It is always counterintuitive to say this, but hitting up, in reality, does not result in the serve heading skyward but, instead, it maximizes the chance that the serve will actually clear the net but then move DOWNWARD and land in the service box. Hitting up forces you to pronate the wrist and, therefore, both imparts the necessary spin to hit an effective serve (even on a supposedly “flat” first serve) and automatically adds the wrist snap that puts the extra MPH on the ball that you need to hit the serve at the fastest speed that your body is capable of producing.

    (3) This also seems counterintuitive, but the lighter you hold the racquet in your hand, the more wrist snap you will generate and the faster and better hit your serve will be. This also imparts the most spin on the ball. You should never hold the racquet like a hammer or a club on a serve but you should, instead, hold it loosely in your fingers with just enough pressure that it will not slip out of your hand when you swing but absolutely no more pressure than that. (PS. George, this is the best piece of advice that your favorite coach, Emmo, taught me years ago during his serving clinic at Tennis Fantasies. He is 100% right about this.)

    (4) To hit an effective serve, you must also forget the ball is even there and learn to hit THROUGH the ball. The trick is to pretend the ball is merely a fly or a mosquito that has no mass and is just getting in the way of what would otherwise be a practice swing. If you can learn to do that, you will wind up hitting the ball with maximum speed. The concept here is that, too often, and probably instinctively or subconsciously, we actually start slowing down our swings during the millisecond that we create contact with the ball. We don’t realize that we are doing this, but we are. Instead of slowing the swing down during delivery, we should actually be still accelerating the swing as the racquet travels through and past the plane where it has struck the ball. The racquet only should start to slow down after it has crossed the plane where it has already stricken the ball and your arm is moving across your body to end the service delivery.

    (5) Here is a little trick that works for me. Maybe it does not work for everybody, so try this at your own risk. If I want to hit a first serve with maximum speed, I think about sweeping my arm through the swing from right to left so my finish winds up with the racquet stopping just beneath my left arm pit. (I am right handed; the reverse would be true if I were left handed.) However, if I want to put as nasty of a spin on the ball as I possibly can – usually for a second serve – then I think about sweeping my arm from LEFT TO RIGHT so my finish actually winds up with the racquet stopping to the right of my body, with a high degree of wrist pronation throughout the swing. If I do this right, the ball usually has so much side and top spin that it moves from right to left through the air and then bounces from left to right (from the server’s perspective) after it hits the ground. In the old days, this used to be called an American Twist serve. My personal name for it is “The Fugly.”

    (6) For the vast majority of us “old guys” and other mere mortals, forget about the pace of the serve when hitting a second serve. Unless you truly do have a huge first serve as a normal weapon in your arsenal — which most of us don’t — the most important factors are placement and spin. Thus, statistically speaking, I have found that I win just as many “cheap” points hitting a heavily spun and well placed second serve as I ever win trying to pop my hardest, fastest first serve.

    (7) Your ego is your enemy when serving. You NEVER are able to hit the ball as hard as you think you can hit it. If you don’t believe me, have a pro with a radar gun actually time your fastest serve. If you THINK you can hit it 110 mph, the likelihood is the actual number will not be faster than 90. If you swear you always break 100, the truth is you are probably not getting it much faster than 80. Try it. You will see that I am right.

    (8) Nobody (including the touring pros) takes sufficient advantage of the body serve. It is the secret weapon of all of the best servers, and it is so secret apparently very few think to use it very often. On a body serve, don’t be afraid if you think you are telegraphing where you are serving. Even if you are, it won’t matter if the receiver stands in his normal spot to receive. If he tries to move to take the ball on forehand, the excessive spin on the ball will still give him a devil of a time trying to hit it, unless he is as good of a receiver as Djokovic (in which case, why are you reading what a guy like me is writing for advice anyway?).

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