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View Full Version : My Serve Tip: Think Like a Pitcher


SlapShot
10-14-2009, 09:48 PM
I've been watching a lot of playoff baseball lately, and have started thinking about serving as a style of "pitching" if you will.

If you pay attention to pitchers in baseball, there are many different styles, even at the pro level, but they all know their limits and, at the highest levels, know when to throw what at the hitter. Guys like Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens had the ability to throw the ball past hitters on a regular basis, but had other pitches to rely on. At most of the levels of tennis, the serve is rarely going to show the dominance of a 95 mph fastball with movement - that's an elite level. Even at that level, though, the power pitchers will have a second or third pitch to go to. A fastball alone rarely makes a pitcher elite (excluding Mariano Rivera, who is an anomoly in every sense of the word).

My thought process toward serving has been changed, and as such, my serve has gone from being merely a "big serve" to a true weapon at my level, and even at a level above. My goal as a server isn't to hit the ball past the returner every time - it's actually the opposite. I want the returner to hit the ball, but hit it long or into the net. I don't want the returner to find a rhythm.

If you watch the pitch sequence, you can draw a lot of comparisons to serving as an offensive tool. If the pitcher throws a fastball away, and the hitter fouls it straight back, they've got the timing of that pitch down. You can bet that 9 times out of 10, that next pitch is not going to be at the same speed, and will likely not only have movement, but will be in a different location. If I serve a "fastball" to the returner, and they either pick it up and stick the return or just barely miss, I'm sure not going to hit that to them the next time. I'm going to stick it in my back pocket for later. If the hitter is looking away, often the pitcher is going to aim inside to move him off of the plate. That will reopen that outside corner for later, and often frustrates even the smartest hitter.

For an example, tonight, I played a couple of good doubles players. The ad side returner was favoring his backhand return by cheating toward the middle. My first serve to him wasn't a kicker out wide, which I'm sure he sees often when standing in that spot, but a slice up the middle. That opened up the outside corner on my next serve to him, and allowed me a little bit more real estate out there, as opposed to having to hit a perfect serve to force an error. Throughout the match, my focus wasn't hitting bigger, it was hitting smarter. The deuce side returner was a taller guy, and moved in to take my kick serve early, and he was quick enough to get around on my flat serve. He struggled all night, however, with my slice serve into his body. That's not my strongest serve, but I'd much rather put my #3 serve against his weakness rather than my #1 serve against one of his strengths.

We are all going to have stronger and weaker serves, and stronger and weaker aspects to our serves. Some of us are "Randy Johnson," able to hit with lots of heat. Some of us are "Greg Maddux," and we rely on hitting spots and thinking due to not being able to hit big. Even Randy Johnson had a strong #2 pitch, and that was what kept him dominant for so long.

In short, what I'm getting at is twofold:

1. Develop a second and third serve, and be able to hit them to multiple spots reliably.

2. Work to your strength when you can, but know when you need to add some variety to your service game. No sense in abandoning what is working, but if you can keep the returner guessing, that weapon just became bigger, and you'll have it when you need it (like when you're down 30-40).

heretoserve
10-14-2009, 10:16 PM
Really! Your tip huh?

wyutani
10-14-2009, 10:30 PM
but i dun play baseball.

OTMPut
10-14-2009, 11:21 PM
Randomizing your strategies helps as well (there is some game theoretic reasoning behind it). At my level it works as a necessity - often i have no idea where i am going to put the ball until i actually see it there ;)

scotus
10-14-2009, 11:45 PM
My goal as a server isn't to hit the ball past the returner every time - it's actually the opposite. I want the returner to hit the ball, but hit it long or into the net. I don't want the returner to find a rhythm.


Sounds intriguing.

volusiano
10-15-2009, 01:10 AM
^^^ LOL, I do this on my second serve all the times, but not intentionally by design like the OP or anything like that. Just more like because of inconsistency. Sometimes it lacks pace or is too short and the returner has to run up to catch the ball and because they rush up, they tend to hit it long or into the net. But not all my second serves lack pace so the returner can't move up too close. Again, just due to my inconsistency. I'm not that good to "plan" it that way.

larry10s
10-15-2009, 05:00 AM
this is conventional advice. bread and butter serving strategy. when i read the title i thought we were going to discuss again that the serve is more of a pitching motion with the catchers mitt up at the contact point instead of just a throwing motion like a 3rd baseman. no need to rehash that. variety and not letting the returner find a groove is good advice . just like with groundies vary you speed /spin height ala murray to try to disrupt your opponent from getting in a groove.

GuyClinch
10-15-2009, 05:33 AM
Yeah I always think like that when I serve. I think most everyone does. It doesn't take alot of playing experience to realize that even your best flat serves will start being returned if you hit them to the same spots. Likewise from a returner perspective you learn pretty fast that a serve out wide or down the middle when your not expecting can bother you.

Pete

Ventolin
10-15-2009, 05:45 AM
I think Sampras has been saying that about his own serve since the early 90's

TommyGNR
10-15-2009, 07:46 AM
I was a pitcher in High School. I used three pitches(Fastball, slider, and curve). I used to love figuring out how to beat a batter by mixing pitches and location. I can relate to what you are saying. Been using it as a strategy since I was able to add a kick serve to my flat serve about a year ago. The cool thing in tennis is that you can vary the height the ball bounces as well as how it moves through the air and its location. For me it works. And its fun to do!

5263
10-15-2009, 08:08 AM
Very good post and worth going over again. Lots of guys act like they have this really down, but 3 of 4 don't execute it consistently well. Even playing Open level events, most guys know what they want to do, and go mostly that way with little regard to the results. It's pretty rare to see a guy mix it and and do it well.

charliefedererer
10-15-2009, 08:34 AM
"Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing."
-Warren Spahn (363 wins)

The problem in both pitching a ball and serving is having the courage to throw your second or third best offering, secure in the knowledge that your previos selections have set this up as currently your best move.
Or that this may not be your best move now, but will set you up for later.

But the changeup, slider, curve and screwball work just as well in tennis as it they do in baseball.

LeeD
10-15-2009, 10:07 AM
Yeah, I'd love to hit exactly the same serve at the same speed with the same spin at the same location every time until the returner gets frustrated with my lack of variety and I bore him to death and bad habits.....

TommyGNR
10-15-2009, 10:33 AM
"Hitting is timing. Pitching is upsetting timing."
-Warren Spahn (363 wins)

The problem in both pitching a ball and serving is having the courage to throw your second or third best offering, secure in the knowledge that your previos selections have set this up as currently your best move.
Or that this may not be your best move now, but will set you up for later.

But the changeup, slider, curve and screwball work just as well in tennis as it they do in baseball.

You nailed it charlie. Its okay to throw you 2nd or 3rd best ball at them when the have been setup(and are looking for) your best one.

rk_sports
10-15-2009, 12:01 PM
Interesting strategy ... just want to dwell on this .."I'd much rather put my #3 serve against his weakness rather than my #1 serve against one of his strengths. "

What do the experts say on this as a strategy?

Camilio Pascual
10-15-2009, 12:24 PM
Interesting strategy ... just want to dwell on this .."I'd much rather put my #3 serve against his weakness rather than my #1 serve against one of his strengths. "

What do the experts say on this as a strategy?
If one's weakness can beat the other's weakness, then it is an excellent strategy to use.

I once asked on this board if people would rather go with their weakness if it could beat the opponent's weakness or if they would rather go with their strength against the opponent's strength even if it did not work as well. The answers confirmed to me that there are a lot of poor strategists on this board.

fuzz nation
10-15-2009, 01:02 PM
Certainly a worthwhile topic I think. Lots of players will serve so thoughtlessly that they often squander a significant opportunity against a half decent opponent. Kids and adults will just keep on hammering away at that rock star attempt for a mach 2 first serve, but only land one or two all day. I've also seen players with weaker forehand returns, but servers on auto-pilot will keep on putting their first ball to the backhand since they automatically assume that it must be weaker. A little awareness is a great asset for any server and good variety can keep lots of returners less comfortable.

Being predictable can have its advantages, too. When I'm playing doubles, I'll usually keep going after the backhands of both receivers with heavy spinners and occasional heat. Aside from one of the regulars in my group who has a nasty two-handed return, the rest are usually less offensive on that wing. If I keep that up for maybe a set or two, the returners just start looking that way all the time and then whenever I really need it, I can go the other way.

Disguise is one of those priorities with serving that comes farther down the list than consistency and placement, but I'd say that players who want to think like pitchers need to eventually address this issue. A pitcher's variety is really only effective when a batter can't see it coming.

junbumkim
10-15-2009, 01:06 PM
Whatz up Slapshot?
I am still in MN, but I am staying away from tennis for a while. Trying out a few different sports, haha. I went to Korea for summer and I haven't hit a ball in 3 months. We should get in a hit in one of these days, though.

I was an exact opposite of Slapshot. My flat serves would be reasonably big, but nothing overpowering like Slapshot's. If I served well, I always tried to mix it up.

Just to add a little bit, this is a lot easier said than done. Even when you mix it up, the quality of serve has to be there. If you hit a slice out wide on decue which doesn't break enough, it will get crushed. Especially against someone who sees ball well and returns well, just a variety isn't enough, but you have to make sure you hit it well enough.

Variety is also function of situation. In other words, you have to mix it up based on the situation; your strength, your opponents' weakness and strength, you opponent's physique, match situation, and shot-combination you want to use.

Also, assumption for mxiing it up is that you have got a reliable and strong second serve. If you second serve is getting crammed, then you have to be a lot more conservative with your first serve.

mtommer
10-15-2009, 01:16 PM
Pitching is done by the coaches who call in the signals to the catcher who relays them to the pitcher. This goes not only often times for what pitch to throw but where to throw it. Depending on the hitter, you just may see multiple pitches to the same spot. It all depends on the scouting reports, stats, etc. Of course the pitcher always has discretion but he'd better be able to back up his decision to the coach should he stray away from the calls.

SlapShot
10-16-2009, 11:01 AM
Whatz up Slapshot?
I am still in MN, but I am staying away from tennis for a while. Trying out a few different sports, haha. I went to Korea for summer and I haven't hit a ball in 3 months. We should get in a hit in one of these days, though.

I was an exact opposite of Slapshot. My flat serves would be reasonably big, but nothing overpowering like Slapshot's. If I served well, I always tried to mix it up.

Just to add a little bit, this is a lot easier said than done. Even when you mix it up, the quality of serve has to be there. If you hit a slice out wide on decue which doesn't break enough, it will get crushed. Especially against someone who sees ball well and returns well, just a variety isn't enough, but you have to make sure you hit it well enough.

Variety is also function of situation. In other words, you have to mix it up based on the situation; your strength, your opponents' weakness and strength, you opponent's physique, match situation, and shot-combination you want to use.

Also, assumption for mxiing it up is that you have got a reliable and strong second serve. If you second serve is getting crammed, then you have to be a lot more conservative with your first serve.

Hey J - what's happening? So you're still studying at the U? I'm always up to hit, especially during winter when my summer activities are wound down.

Nellie
10-16-2009, 11:27 AM
I would definitely agree that placement of the serve is a lot more important than pace of the serve...

Even if you have a pretty good serve, you cannot constantly hit the same locations.

I find with better players (5.0+), however, that changing up the serve is not as effective as being able to hit your best stuff with consistency. The better player can return anything, and you are just trying to keep them from teeing off your serve.

user92626
10-16-2009, 11:44 AM
Interesting strategy ... just want to dwell on this .."I'd much rather put my #3 serve against his weakness rather than my #1 serve against one of his strengths. "

What do the experts say on this as a strategy?


This is like best volleyer vs best baseline hitter or best/worst slice serve vs best/worst flat serve. hehehe.

charliefedererer
10-16-2009, 12:03 PM
Interesting strategy ... just want to dwell on this .."I'd much rather put my #3 serve against his weakness rather than my #1 serve against one of his strengths. "

What do the experts say on this as a strategy?

I know you asked for the experts rather than me, but here's another thought.
Against a good opponent, they will eventually get their timing down on your shots. The more times in a row you hit it to them, the more likely that timing will start to click sooner than later. Then when you really need to bring your best stuff, they are not just ready for it, they can return it.
Of course all strategies should vary on just how big your strengths are, and just had bad your opponents weakness is. I'm sure Andy Roddick (or any pro) would not have to vary their first serve to blow me away.
And things change during a match.
A kicker first serve may catch your opponent off guard. Use it too many times and you'll be sorry.