Technique: Key Factors in the Development of Racket Speed in the Tennis Serve

Bruce Elliott, Ph.D

As every rally in tennis starts with a serve, it is logical to assume that this stroke could be described as the “ultimate weapon” of the game. The powerful serves of players such as Ivanisevic, Sampras and Becker have had such an effect on the game that many people have suggested that the rules be changed to limit play to a single serve. Notwithstanding such reactions, it is apparent that in general all players would modify their service technique if a higher speed serve could be achieved.

Sport scientists and coaches agree that the speed of the racket at impact and therefore the speed of the ball, the height of impact, the angle of the racket and the amount of forward rotation of the ball, are the major factors which determine a successful serve. The speed of the racket at impact is therefore a critical feature of a high speed serve and as such “leg drive”, trunk rotation and the rotations of the upper arm, forearm and hand must all be analyzed with respect to their role in the service action. Questions such as:

  • How important is wrist flexion in the service action? or
  • Does forearm pronation assist in racket speed? or
  • How does “leg drive” affect racket movement?
    need to be answered, so that coaches can identify those movements which are critical to performance. Research I conducted with Drs. Marshall and Noffal at the University of Western Australia has provided the following insight into how racket speed is generated in the service action.

The Serve
A sequencing of movements is needed if a high racket speed is to be achieved. This ensures that undue stress is not placed on specific areas of the body (eg., the shoulder). The following movements are therefore required to produce an optimal racket speed.

These movements increase the distance the racket has to build speed for impact, while also using elastic energy to assist in the up-and-out drive of the racket. These movements produce approximately 10% of the racket speed at impact.

Coaching Implications:
All movements previously discussed are important if a high speed serve is to be produced. Specific emphasis in both physical and technique training must be paid to key elements in the serve. For instance training MUST address the external (outward) followed by internal rotation of the upper arm to protect the shoulder and elbow regions from injury. Coaches must decide when to emphasize these movements when teaching beginners if a successful serve is to be achieved.