Developing the Junior Serve

toss release

I had the opportunity to present this seminar in September at the  2012 USPTA World Conference in Monterey California.

Forgive the following “tooting of my own horn” but the response was incredible, including standing room only in the double seminar room.

That said, the nut of the presentation concerned the mechanics of an overhand throwing motion, and how in many instances junior tournament players serve better and with far less effort when using the sidespin serve.  For the kick serve, truly, has far less in common with an overhand throwing motion, and often results in a serve that appears awkward and effortful.

I presented a video, courtesy Kim Shanley of, that compared the service motions of Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova.  And this was indeed a sharp contrast where Serena tosses just high enough, Maria tosses way way too high.  Serena hits in a sidespin contact orientation, Maria in an exaggerated kick contact.  Serena is balanced and goes up to the ball, Maria leans way to the left and appears to be falling down.  And finally, Serena has a subtle back leg kick, Maria’s is massive – and to my mind that singularly represents the amount of effort used within the serve.

And for better or worse, in my (humble) opinion – most of the juniors are hitting kick serves and emulating Maria – and darn few appreciate just how simple, fluid and effortless Serena serves by comparison.

Using side by side videos that could be synchronized to the release of the toss, to the point of contact, or to elements on the follow through – the following screen capture stills (of the video) show significant differences.

Toss release

Both have their weight relatively “back”

But of the two Maria already betrays “effort”

After all, this is just a toss!




Serena is balanced and going up – note the line from her left foot to the racquet

Maria is leaning way left and moving down – again note the line



Leg Kick

Though many coaches train and emphasize this leg kick, I believe it indicates effort (or over-effort)

Do the comparison yourself.



As an active junior tournament coach, I see many players with powerful forehands, outstanding movement,   but often with remarkably inefficient serves.

These same players spend most of their time honing yet more power and spin on the forehand, while their serve, generally a kick, is rarely practiced and remains a liability.

To my eye the issue is two fold – first these same players must develop a strong and flowing overhand throwing motion, and second they must develop the sidespin serve before ever beginning work on the kicker.

Do any of these problems sound familiar?  (This goes for boys as well as girls)

  • The toss is too high, often way too high, and generally drifts to the left
  • The service motion stops with a hitch or pause in the middle of the motion
  • The serve appears effortful and muscular – rather than rhythmic and flowing
  • The player is unable to create much spin on the second serve
  • The shoulder hurts – often connected to an awkward looking kick serve

The solution

Build a sidespin serve  (NOT KICK) using the balance, rhythm and mechanics of a simple and strong overhand throwing motion.

The basic elements of a loose and rhythmic serve or throwing motion include:

  • Keeping the weight back and on the back foot as the motion begins – balance
  • Unwinding the hips and shoulders to pull the arm forward – rhythm
  • Leading with a bent elbow – this creates sidespin in the service delivery
  • Releasing the ball with the arm in a straight line with the shoulders – this position cannot be found at contact in the junior version of the kick serve!!!
  • Throwing/serving with a continuous motion – pitchers DO NOT HITCH – means servers must lower the toss

The Stanford Biomechanical Engineering department studied the services of WTA pro’s at the Bank of the West tournament.  The research examined possible causes of shoulder injuries that occur across the women’s (and by extension the junior) circuit.

The graphs below show considerably more force (stress) to the shoulder from kick serves.  Which, for better or worse, appears to be the predominant junior serve model.


Dr. Geoff Abrams and Dr. Mark Safran, Stanford University, 2011





Want to improve the flow and mechanics of your overhand throwing motion – and then overlay that on your own serve – then check out Streamling from my online coursework



  • Ron Freitag

    Reply Reply September 23, 2014

    I’m trying to find out about the tennis racquet “whistler” that you talk about.
    Is this available to buy?
    Or is this a bygone invention that is no longer available?


    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply September 24, 2014

      Ron – sorry, we never made it to market, but when we got the patent I was very excited, then reality set in – great experience though and learned a lot

  • mike saine

    Reply Reply April 23, 2013

    One online coach has gone to great extreme to scientifically show and state the there is no wrist snap in the serve. His slow motion video seems to substantiate that notion. Should we continue to use “snap”?

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply April 23, 2013

      Mike – give me more detail, which online coach and more – the main idea is to get more racquet head speed with less effort – to my mind that comes from a loose flowing whip like action – but often the words of the coaches actually obscure the issues

  • Jeff Oppenheimer

    Reply Reply February 13, 2013

    Hi Jim. I working with kick serve app. Question of grip: I have a 47/8 grip- when my index finger knuckle is on the second pane( first one to right ), the v of my hand (valley bt knuckle and index) borders on middle pane and first one to left. Does the v or knuckle determine grip?

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply February 13, 2013

      Jeff – there are a number of roadmarkers on the type of grip – as well as their names – and assuming you are right handed, then the V should rest to the left of the top bevel – does that make sense? And if so that grip is a hybrid between continental (V on top) and eastern backhand (V on first bevel to the left)

  • Sally

    Reply Reply November 1, 2012

    Through Jim and tennisone i’m developing(slowly) some good serves and now i can see flaws in the way my coach serves…hehe.

  • Neil Dyson

    Reply Reply October 31, 2012

    I don’t suppose the fact that Serenas legs and arms and general body is twice the size of Marias has anything to do with the amount of effort required!

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply October 31, 2012

      Neil – truly yes and no – yes she is larger – but truly this is all about mechanics and rhythm – there are all kind of big strong people who cannot break an egg

  • Mark

    Reply Reply October 31, 2012

    Jim –
    Jack Kramer always said the slice serve was the basic serve. Lands deeper in the court and less likely to sit up short. Also more mechanically efficient. That being said, varieties of kick, well done, can be very useful. But the base is the slice or topspin/slice. All your points are well taken.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply October 31, 2012

      Mark – thanks, and I would like to use Kramer and the slice serve being more mechanically efficient – it is unfortunate how few teaching pros currently recognize that

  • Samuel Goldberg

    Reply Reply October 31, 2012

    Serve is a superposition of two rotational movements: in a vertical plane and in a horizontal plane. In each one there is a kinetic chain that starts with creation and accumulation of an angular momentum in the players body and propagation of it into rotation of the racquet about the wrist joint. On the way there is acceleration by reducing the radius of rotation, like ice skater do when they accelerate to a breathtaking speed. Balance, height of an impact,etc., are secondary, in my opinion.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply October 31, 2012

      Samuel – I was following you (more or less) and agree with the ice skater analogy – I have had ice skater juniors who developed a feel for the serve quite easily – as a teacher of so many types of students – my task is to create activities that allow students to feel the aspects of the motion that you described – some day I want to invent something that teaches this without language or cognition – and the Whistler I did so many years ago was a first tentative step in that direction – where do you live, I would enjoy a dialogue

  • Michael

    Reply Reply October 30, 2012

    Jim, does this go against your recent lessons on the kick serve? What’s better the sidespin or kick serve?

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply October 30, 2012

      Michael – either serve will curve the ball down, the kick is harder on the lower back and shoulder – a lot depends on the player and their technique and experience – it is hard for me to give an absolute answer

  • Bud Light

    Reply Reply October 30, 2012

    This was an outstanding lesson. I wish I could print it and give it to all my students, youngsters, juniors and adults alike. It illustrates only too well why it is that Maria Sharapova, for all of her power, hits so many double faults and why Serena arguably, has the best serve in women’s tennis and often the heaviest and fastest. Apart from the course in general, let me know if I can print this one out. Good serving is hard for all of us, but this puts everything into perspective.

  • Wan Rahman

    Reply Reply October 30, 2012

    Jim,you are an inspiration! Wish you were teaching my 8 & 10 yrs old daughters on the serve.Fantastic analysis of both serena and maria.Watched your fire the extensors. Will you be their coach on line?

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply October 30, 2012

      Wan – very very important to have them develop a smooth and fluid overhand throwing motion and then to introduce badminton – for the overhead clear will totally translate to the serve – guaranteed

  • fsilber

    Reply Reply October 30, 2012

    I mentioned to a local coach my problem where I have streaks of numerous double-faults, due to my reluctance to bunt my second serve using a western grip. He said I should develop a topspin serve that will let me hit high over the net and still bring the ball down. I’ve been trying that for two years with little success (and some shoulder pains).

    But now you’re telling me, no, I should develop the slice serve first. Well, OK, but while I’m working on that, what should I use for my second serve when I’m frequently double-faulting?

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply October 30, 2012

      FS- the trick is to have more or less similar first and second serves – where both have some side spin (even in a slightly upward direction) – for way too often players first and second serves are way too dissimilar
      upload something on your serve for a stroke review – it will be worth your while

  • Bonnie Pura

    Reply Reply October 30, 2012

    Thank you, Coach Jim, for your brilliant teaching/sharing abilities and persistence. This comparison of the girls’ serves convinces me of the advantages of taking your training video Building the Serve from the Ground Up SERIOUSLY!

  • Rodger Schuester

    Reply Reply October 30, 2012

    Brings a smile to my face. My decision to work on my serve before working on my other strokes with Big Jim M., was an excellent decision as a fresh 3.0 four+ years ago at age 56. I’m successfully playing doubles at the 4.0 level these days and winning the vast majority of my service games. I use a variety of serves and placements, with attention to where my opponents stand to receive and how they have returned my previous serves or not.

    You deserve the accolades and recognition Jim. Looking forward to your return of serve course.

  • Newt Harband

    Reply Reply October 30, 2012

    The serve is the only part of the tennis game which is completely under the hitter’s control.
    It does not depend on what the opponent(s) do. Therefore it is a formidable weapon—it can be placed, spun, softened , made faster, slower, kicked etc.–to become totally unpredictable by the opponent. So it can be the key to winning or losing a match. And the throw motion, though repetitive can unintentionally vary—sort of like bowling—same place, same target yet it is very hard to throw the ball exactly the same way. So anything that makes a serve consistently accurate is worth the instruction. I try to remember BRLSS—Balance, Rhythm, Loose grip, Spin, Snap—most of which are mentioned in your basic elements.
    Thanks for the tips.

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