Coaches, players, parents...even your aunt Judie know the importance of the serve in today’s modern game. More specifically, the first serve. The first serve is so critical that the top 10 servers on the ATP, year after year, win over 77% of their first serve points! And it’s not just on the men’s side. The top 10 women on the WTA win between 69%-79% of first serve points.
Want more proof? Look at Table 1 - in 2016, the top serving men won over 3/4 of their first serve points. On the other hand, when these top pros missed their first serves, they only won between 52% and 55% of their points. That means that every time you miss a first serve, it’s almost a coin toss whether you’ll win that point. This scenario is even more dire on the women’s side (Table 2) - with only 2 players (Stosur and Makarova) having a second serve winning percentage above 50% in 2015. So if you’re a female player hitting a second serve, you’ll lose that point more often than you’ll win it. If you weren’t convinced before about the importance of the first serve, you should be by now.
More Than Just Percentages - Tennis Players Need Speed On First Serves
So...get your first serve in and you’ll win more points….that’s a pretty straightforward equation. Or is it? Just getting the first serve in isn’t the whole story. I could get 90% of my first serves in the court if I wanted to, but that wouldn’t help if I was serving at 80mph. So therein lies the other side of the equation, serve speed.
Table 3 shows the top 10 fastest serves - both men and women - at the 2016 US Open. Traditionally, big servers have been known to be taller than average but looking at the top 10 on the men’s side for example, 4 of them are either 6’2” or 6’1” (Murray, Sock, Tiafoe, Tsonga) while Dominic Thiem is 6’0”. Yes the other 5 are all over 6’4” - taller players still have an edge - but the gap is narrowing. Female players are also serving big. Ten years ago only a handful of WTA players could serve in the 110-120s. Now there are many female players that have that ability. Of course players aren’t serving this big on every point, but average serve speeds are still in the 120s for men and over 100 for the women. This is likely due to a number of factors including racquet & string technology...but sport science tells us there’s more to it than that. Most players have strength & conditioning coaches & physiotherapists that travel with them full-time, making sure they’re in top form year round. Furthermore, the advances in sport science and training theory have helped players gain strength & power, which transfers to many strokes, including the serve. So how can we increase serve speed? Let’s take a closer look.
Programming the Serve
Before we get into different ways serve speed can be increased, let’s look at volume of serves a player may hit in a tennis match. In the 2016 US Open Final, Novak hit 123 total serves (63 first and 60 second) while Stan the man hit a total of 162 serves (92 first and 72 second). While Andy and Novak - in their 2-set Barclay’s final in 2016 - hit 61 and 59 serves, respectively.
On tour player’s are looking at hitting between 50 and 200 serves in one match. In a Masters 1000 tournament, if a player reaches the final, they could hit as many as 500 serves while if players make it out of the early couple rounds of a Slam, they may hit anywhere from 500 to 1000 serves (or more). Consider this, MLB pitchers throw between 90 and 120 pitches per outing AND they only have to do this a couple times a week. Yes the stresses of throwing are higher but serving also takes it’s toll on a player’s body.
How about junior tennis? A 12 year old girl I previously worked with hit just over 300 serves in one weekend tournament (5 matches)! We then wonder why players are having elbow and shoulder problems at such a young age. It’s simple….we should look at the serve as we would any other training component...by closely monitoring volume and intensity. There was only 1 coach that I ever saw do this, his name was Larry Jurovich. He would prescribe daily serve numbers with is top players - including how many slice serves, flat serves & kickers and in what direction to hit these serves. Here’s what I would add to his prescription:
You can’t hit all out every time you serve. Our bodies aren’t prepared to handle that type of constant high neural stress. Look at sprinters. They don’t sprint fast every time they train, this would destroy them. They can still gain speed by adjusting the intensity of their sprints throughout the training year.
Adding Throws to Serving Programs
Although not identical, the mechanics of throwing and serving are similar. Using various types of throws and weighted implements act as an overload to the throwing arm (similar to a heavy squat acting as an overload for the lower body). Over time, not only will you develop greater force generating capabilities in the internal rotators (which will add velocity) but you’ll also develop sport-specific strength (which will help stave off repetitive strain injuries...that are all too common in tennis). Keep in mind that you wouldn't do a lot of these - the programming is similar to what you'd see with med ball training (2-4 sets of 4-6 throws is more than enough). And 2 sessions a week is also sufficient - spaced out throughout the year (you wouldn't do this ALL year round).
Recovery & Regeneration for the Serving Arm
Often overlooked. As coaches we often ask our players to hit a bucket of serves. But what about recovering from those stressors? In baseball, pitchers participate in a thorough recovery session after each outing to restore internal and external ranges of motion. How many young tennis players go through this type of routine after a tennis match? Andy Murray has a 2 hour recovery routine after every match and I’d bet his serving arm goes through an extensive regenerative process.
Whether it be academy settings or private lessons, the serve is often left until the end of practice. The young player won’t be prepped for a tournament with random serving practices. Bottom line, fitness coaches and tennis coaches need to work together to plan serving sessions appropriately based on time of year, training status of the athlete and injury history.
Learn more about shoulder recovery - check out these 2 posts:
Post-Match Recovery for the Tennis Shoulder - Part 1
Post-Match Recovery for the Tennis Shoulder - Part 2
Complex Training & The Serve
So how can we increase serve speed? One way may be through a sport science phenomenon called PAP (post-activation potentiation). A while back, Tsonga did a form of PAP training - he performed a heavy set of bench press and followed that up almost immediately with some attacking forehands. The theory being that the heavy exercise will increase the power output of any subsequent high velocity movement. One study (Vial 2014) attempted to increase serve velocity using a PAP technique. College players performed a set of 5 power cleans and followed it up by hitting 5 flat tennis serves. Some players did increase peak velocity by just over 2% but overall, the results were not significant. In any case, increasing a player’s serve almost instantly by 2 mph isn’t too bad.
Another study looked at the effects of throwing weighted plyo balls and serve speed in young (U14) players (Ferrauti & Bastiaens 2007). Again, there were no significant increases in serve speed but the problem here was clear. First, PAP works best with older athletes who are already strong and powerful. Second, some athletes are responders to PAP while others aren’t - sport scientists aren’t quite sure why and the only way to figure it out is to test with each athlete individually. Future research into PAP should aim to use exercises that are more biomechanically similar to the targeted stroke - like a med ball throw rather than a power clean - while using physically mature subjects.
Strength, Power & The Serve
What about strength & power programs? Fernandez-Fernandez et al. (2013) were able to increase serve speed in 13 year old competitive juniors following a 6-week training program that included general core exercises, a band routine and a series of high velocity medicine ball (MB) exercises. While core and band exercises can help improve general strength and stave off injury, the authors proposed (and I agree) that the upper body plyometric program was likely the reason these youngsters were able to increase serve speed by close to 10 km/h in such a short time frame. They used the following MB exercises:
Squat to Thrust
Another study compared the effects of a plyometric training program versus a strength training program and increases in serve speed (Behringer et al 2013). The plyometric group increased velocity by 5-15 km/h over the 8 week period. The strength training program had no increases (although machine based exercises were used which have been shown to be less effective in improving strength/power compared to free weight exercises).
Interestingly enough, both studies above saw increases in serve speed with MB exercises while neither study saw a drop in serve accuracy. Why? Because players in each study continued practicing their serves while participating in a power training program. This provides us with a bit of validity that training to increase serve speed doesn’t have to compromise serve accuracy.
Traditional, Periodized Strength Programs Work Too
While power programs have had better success with increases in serve speed, we shouldn’t count out strength training. Kraemer et al (2003) conducted a 9-month strength training study with an NCAA female tennis team and many performance measures improved - groundstroke velocities, leg strength, upper-body strength - INCLUDING serve speed...which saw increases at each testing interval; 4, 6 and 9 months. The authors concluded that these gains occurred because of 2 main factors. First, there was a variation in training volume and intensity - i.e. heavy day, moderate day and light day - and the program was long enough to see positive adaptations. And second, because heavy loads were used, the female players recruited more type 2 muscle fibers, leading to increases in force generation, explosive abilities & power output.
Anecdotally, using a general squat exercise to increase max strength, I've found that players can generate significantly more pace in as little as 6 weeks. If players continue serving while performing an off-court strength program, their coordination likely won't suffer - but they will improve their ability to push-off and thus improve overall racquet head speed (which is what produces greater shot speeds to begin with).
Serving Up Some Recommendations
Based on the above findings we can provide some general recommendations when it comes to increasing serve speed:
PAP needs to be evaluated on a case by case basis and should be employed primarily with more advanced players.
A periodized strength & power program will likely increase serve speed across all age groups and genders (specifically those ready to being a progressive resistance training program).
Including a variety of high velocity exercises (like med ball throws) works better than a traditional strength training program when trying to increase serve speed in a short time frame.
When incorporating strength training into a tennis player’s program, it’s important to use heavy loads. If avoided, players won’t reap the benefits of increased type 2 muscle recruitment and an enhanced neural drive - this will impede their long-term power generating capabilities.
Periodize the serving program just like you would an off-court training program. Vary service speeds throughout the training week, use various implements to work on shoulder specific strength and prioritize recovery.