When it comes to holding your serve, being smart on the court is just as important as being strong. In match play, you can’t just rush back to the baseline and hit your first serve as hard as you can, and then pray to the tennis gods that it goes in. Well, I guess you could do that, but wouldn’t a plan of attack be much better?
Obviously, a plan requires time, and it just so happens that league rules allow the server 20 seconds to serve each ball – and believe it or not, that’s a long time, and you should take full advantage of it!
Every time before you serve, take a mini break like the pros do and adjust your strings or dampener, or tie your shoe, and use those those few seconds to think about the following factors:
Where does my opponent think I’m serving?
This is the first question you should always ask yourself before hitting a serve, as it typically carries the most weight of all of these factors. We all have our favorite spot where we like to place our serve, but when your opponent figures this out (and they will), they’ll know exactly how to return it. EVERY TIME. To avoid this you should mix things up just enough so that your opponent is uncertain when you’re going there. Serve to your favorite spot. Slice it down the T. Go hard and flat, out wide. Change where you stand on the court. Whatever you do – keep them wondering.
What are my opponent’s strengths and weaknesses?
You have two options here: Attack your opponent’s weakness right off the bat, or take your opponent out wide, leaving open court (I usually do the latter until I’m sure of their weaknesses). In either case, figure out the best way to match up what you like to do against what makes your opponent the most uncomfortable.
Where do I want the ball to come back?
The reality of tennis is that around two-thirds of first serves and nearly all of second serves are returned back in play. And most of the time, it comes back at the same angle you served it. For example, you’re on the ad court and you serve out wide. Your opponent is likely to return it cross-court to your backhand, which is great if you’ve got a decent backhand. But if you don’t, you might want to serve at their body or down the T. Also, if you’re playing doubles, going down the T makes it easier for your partner to poach.
What’s the score?
This is always a filter that deserves considerable attention, as it plays a major role in the pressure level that exists in the minds of both players. In general, you’ll want to vary your serves more often in lower-pressure situations, like when you’re ahead in the score, and stick to your go-to and serves when the score is tighter and the weight of the points have greater importance. Of course, there may also be times in a match when it’s more important just to get your first serve in rather than hit any specific location.
What are the natural conditions?
On paper, this may seem silly, but on the court, the sun, wind and even the slope of the court are all elements that must be considered to increase your winning percentage. These can be major factors that can alter tactics at either end of the court or affect a subtle part of your decision making.
Where is my opponent standing?
Most players stand in the exact same spot all the time to return serve. Understand the angles you can impose on your opponent and use their location as a weapon against them. It’s amazing how infrequently players change their return position, even when an opponent launches a full-on assault to a particular location.
A few seconds are all you need to improve your odds of winning the point. Remember these key things, and you’ll out-think your opponent before you even hit the ball.