I’ve practiced serves for years. They have gotten better, but not as much as I would have hoped. When I do practice, I almost always gain new insights into serving; but the overall quality (speed and spin) rarely improves. I’ve read about serving and watched videos. Nothing seemed to help. I was just about to concede that there might not be any improvement in my future. But, I may have stumbled onto a different approach that shows real promise.
Most of what I’ve read about improving serves emphasizes getting out of your comfort zone. Don’t serve the same safe serves. Push yourself to use greater racket speed, even if it means screwing up hundreds of serves before you get it right. I tell my students to try to add energy to their serves. Others have said to serve violently. All of that is excellent advice; but getting out of your comfort zone isn’t easy – It’s really uncomfortable.
Watching other people serve on YouTube videos however, is amazingly comfortable. I noticed that Mima Ito has added a little flair to her serve. I don’t know if it has made her serve any better, but it looks kind of cool. It appears that on some of her serves she is gripping the paddle on the end furthest from the head. This could be an illusion; or I could have missed something during some of her contortions.
While I may have misread exactly how she was gripping her paddle, I decided I would see what would happen if I attempted what I thought I was seeing. The first thing I noticed was that I was instantly thrown out of my comfort zone. Secondly, my serves did seem like they were livelier. It was also obvious that I really had no idea where the ball was headed. Gradually, placement became better; and I could easily produce decent topspin or backspin.
Still, I couldn’t imagine serving like this on a regular basis. It turns out that I won’t have to. The real value to trying a very different grip was not the perceived extra spin, or the unpredictable ball movement. The big plus was getting me out of my comfort zone. I discovered that when I went back to my regular grip, I was less hesitant to put a little more energy into my typical pendulum serves. It even seemed like there might be hope for a reverse pendulum, which I had always approached cautiously. Any serve I tried felt relatively tame compared to my Mima Ito impersonation. When you grip the racket at the end, you easily create a whipping movement that starts to feel normal. Once you go back to a more conventional grip, you just need to maintain that whipping movement. Whip it good….