As a tennis professional, I always hear people use general terms and phrases to describe very specific actions. For example, you have probably read or heard the term “racket head speed.” This is just the common, quick reference to a very detailed and intricate action. One must understand the words mentally, physically and visually before any meaningful improvement can be made. Most of the time, teaching ends with repeated use of the term: “You need more racket head speed!” or “Snap your wrist for more racket head speed!” Repeating the term does nothing to get the real meaning across to the player.
The serve is such a complex stroke that getting the correct sequence of actions leading to the point of contact can be very challenging. All combined components of the serve lead up to generating racket head speed. So, in order to be successful in creating faster racket head speed, we must consider a number of factors, including but not limited to: The grip (commonly referred to as Continental), an overall relaxed arm and body, and getting the racket head moving on a loose and determined path to contact point.
So, what is the simple answer to “What is racket head speed?” How do we get more of it? Obviously, racket head speed is just that: The speed that the racket head travels during a swing to and through a ball. The average server moves their hand and racket head at the same speed from the shoulder. This is exactly the wrong way to produce racket head speed. This way, power is generated by the shoulder and bicep and a whip like action cannot be produced. When trying to power through a ball with muscular action, we only slow down the racket head and beg for injury. The motion needs to be loose and independent, the racket head set on a path with the ball sitting in the way.
The key to getting more speed on the serve is getting the racket head moving faster than the hand during the upswing and through the contact point of the ball. In order to understand this, we will look at four frames of the serve. What you will notice is that the elbow, wrist and hand move a far shorter distance than the end of the racket.
Picture 1: We see the racket head is dragging way behind the elbow and hand. The racket is cocked, the legs are driving up and the tossing arm is beginning to pull away. At this point, the chest is driving up, the hitting shoulder is coming forward and the elbow is coming with it.
The KEY here is that the hand and racket are lagging way behind the elbow. The further the racket head is behind the hand, the more “sling” you will get. This principle is similar to using a “sling shot.” We load an object into an elastic band and catapult it away from its base. The correlation is that the catapulted object—the racket head, the elastic band—the arm and the base—the elbow.
Picture 2: Notice that the server is at full extension, the racket head is straight up and that the hand is pronated. The grip must be correct to achieve this position. This is the only time during the serve that the hand should be in a direct line under the racket head. By using the triceps and forearm to extend up and allowing the wrist and hand to move from an inside to an outside position (pronation) we reach contact point. It is critical to notice that the elbow has made no measurable forward movement, but the racket head has traveled all the way from the back of the swing to straight up contact point.
Picture 3: The racket head has “slung” up and forward. It is critical to notice that the elbow has barely moved forward, but the racket head is continuing its free acceleration and is now fully in front of the body. The racket head is moving much faster than the hand to produce racket head speed. If the hand was going at the same speed as the racket head, we would see the hand in a direct line with the racket head and would achieve a far slower serve.
Picture 4: Here, we see that the elbow has finally lowered to around waist height and that the racket head has continued well past the opposite side hip. A critical error that most players make is swinging the serving hand all the way to the hip in a single motion. We want the racket head to keep moving as quickly as possible with the elbow, forearm and hand coming to an abrupt, slamming stop. This is known as deceleration. Please compare Picture 1 and Picture 4. Notice that the racket head has traveled in approximately a 280-degree sweep while the elbow has made minimal forward movement to achieve a brilliant service motion.
In summary, racket head speed on the serve is generated by making the racket head move very quickly up and through contact with little movement forward of the elbow. The hand moves by means of the elbow and forearm, and will travel roughly three times the distance of the elbow. Please notice that I have only mentioned use of the shoulder as a factor that will slow the serve down. Think of the shoulder as the hinge pin that holds the arm onto the body, not as a source of power. The less you use it, the longer it will last.
In a very good service motion, the racket head will travel in a sweeping arc that starts back in a cocking position and finishes on the opposite side of the body with minimal movement of the elbow, forearm and hand. The further the hand moves, the slower the served ball will travel! So, get your grip, loosen up your hand and let the strings fly for maximum speed, power and spin on your serve!