Serving up a winning new action
tennishead coaching editor Dave Sammel highlights the key considerations for developing a new serve
tennishead: How long does it take to learn a new serve?
Dave Sammel: Before a club player decides a major modification of any stroke he/she must decide and ask the following questions: Do I truly have the time to practise? Do I trust that my coach is also truly committed to this change and willing to monitor me enough to help me make it happen? Am I prepared to spend the extra money on more lessons for three weeks to do it properly?
Take a video before you start and every two or three days after so you can visibly see the progress. Also I recommend you study the action of a pro so you can see your video growing closer to what you want.
Next ask yourself, is my existing technique a liability that is hurting my ability to play well at my level? There needs to be a healthy upside to a major modification or you might just as well work on a few good tips to improve your existing swing.
Tennis is an open loop sport which means technique is multi-faceted and not a race against the clock. Learning something new is a mixture of talent, time spent consistently on practice and desire to actually change.
If you practise for 30 minutes five times a week on a modified serve, an average time to become competent and reasonably confident in the new action is three weeks minimum.
tennishead: How would a player learning a new service action break the learning down over a few weeks?
Dave Sammel: Week one is just learning to feel the new action and repeating it a lot without the ball (three shadow swings to one with the ball).
Week two is hitting a lot of balls beginning the grooving of the new swing hitting the ball. Week three is where you begin to think about hitting it in with some direction and controllable pace.
Week four play points and have video taken to make sure poor habits aren’t creeping in under the stress of points.
tennishead: Is it best to avoid competitive play during that time, in case the player reverts to the old style?
Dave Sammel: Yes. Playing matches before new technique is easily repeatable will lead to confused, possibly poor play and loss
tennishead: What happens if a new service action does not come together and player is tempted to revert to the old?
Dave Sammel: This is rarely an option after three weeks since it will be hard to revert to the muscle memory of the old technique. The decision has to have been made and committed to already.
tennishead: What are the reasons a player would want to change serve?
Dave Sammel: Each player is different and I have worked with several on developing aspects of their game. I worked with British player Anna Fitzpatrick to change her second serve.
Anna struggled to control her racket face and changed her grip midway through on her second serve so lost spin and thus margin for error, leading to double faults and flat second serves.
I chopped her swing almost in half, after the point where she switched her grip. She began to feel the outward and upward swing better and without the grip change began to hit a decent amount of topspin mixed with some slice (slopspin). The improvement was almost immediate but feeling comfortable with the whole new feel took about two weeks.
Overall it was a big success which began to pay dividends in matches about a month to six weeks.
I worked with former British Davis Cup player, Andy Richardson, to change his ball toss. Andy had a very rounded toss with a kink where he bent the arm, which depending on where the ball left his hand made it difficult to get a consistent ball toss anywhere near the same spot.
We taped a plank of wood to his arm so it could not bend and he spent hours practising. There was an improvement but in hindsight the upside compared to the hours spent was probably not worth it.
The player has to totally buy in and also gain confidence from the process. If as a coach or player the process begins and a couple of days into it it becomes a chore and something to fear then knock it on the head. No matter how frustrating, excitement about the final outcome has to be there