1. Intro
  2. The prep
  3. Acceleration
  4. Deceleration

Science of the serve

By Thuc Nhi Nguyen || Photos by Joshua Bessex || Videos by Simon Fox

Science of the serve
By Thuc Nhi Nguyen || Photos by Joshua Bessex || Videos by Simon Fox

Emmett Egger has a routine. The junior on the Washington men’s tennis team steps to the line to serve, looks up at his opponent, bounces the ball three times, and looks again. Only then does he start his serving motion. Look, bounce, bounce, bounce, look. Every time. Like clockwork.

Everything about a tennis serve has to work just like clockwork. It’s the only shot a tennis player can completely dictate, but that doesn’t make it the easiest shot a tennis player can hit.

“The serve is commonly referred to as the most difficult shot in tennis,” Egger said. “While you’re not moving, there’s a lot going on.”

A lot would be an understatement. From racket speed to ball velocity, top spin, side spin, and service placement, hitting a great serve that combines power, precision, and consistency takes a perfect storm of the right science and the right brain power.

The prep

For the Huskies, prepping for the serve starts even before anyone gets on the service line.

It starts with a football.

The motion of swinging the racket up to contact the ball at the apex of the toss and then down during the follow-through mimics that of an average throwing motion. So when the Huskies warm up, they always toss a football as part of head coach Matt Anger’s routine.

“It’s part of warming up the throwing motion,” he said. “That’s why some of the American players have had some of the bigger serves, because they grow up throwing balls in all sports, whereas a lot of other countries, they’re playing soccer and not throwing the ball as much.”

Once the players step up to the service line, things get tricky. Much like a dominant pitcher, good servers must have more than one type of serve in their arsenal. Depending on time and score situations, opponent tendencies, and even things as small as weather conditions, the players choose between the three basic serves: flat, slice, or kick.

The flat serve is a tennis player’s equivalent of a fastball; pace is the primary goal. The side spin on the slice serve helps it curve away from opponents, while the top spin on the kick makes the ball fall quickly to the court after clearing the net and before bouncing high toward the opponent.

Once the plan of attack is decided, the serve starts with the toss. Because each serve can have a slightly different toss, returners will often look at ball placement on the toss as a clue for what’s coming.

But good servers never reveal their secrets. Working to disguise the serve with a consistent toss, no matter which approach a player chooses, is one key to being a successful server. Egger has mastered the disguise of his serve, which makes him one of the toughest servers on the team, according to his teammates. 

Kick serve

“It’s hard for me to know where it’s going before it’s hit,” junior Jeff Hawke said of Egger’s serve. “It’s so quick, and he doesn’t change his motion at all from serve to serve.”

Acceleration

Grab almost any tennis trophy and you’ll see a miniature player perched on top with the knees bent, one hand extended to the sky and the other, racket in hand, loaded back behind him in an L shape. Catch a glimpse of one of the Huskies on the court and you’ll see the same pose during a serve, and that’s when the prep ends and the action begins.

Within the next four-tenths of a second, the UW players accelerate their rackets from a standstill to as fast as 80 miles per hour. But fast arm motion is nothing without a good leg push.

“You need to be perfect with your legs, unless you are two meters (about 6-foot-5) tall,” 5-foot-8 freshman Daffra Sanon said. “But if you’re like me, or most of the players, then you need to be perfect. Your legs give you power in the ball and more height so you can hit the ball down.”

Having a fluid service motion is a full-body experience, all the way from the leg push to the smallest rotation of the wrist. Several players have cue points they think about to keep their motion consistent and effective, especially if their serves have undergone construction recently. 

Flat serve

“When I came in, I had a pretty good kick serve, but that’s all I had,” Hawke said. “So we really worked on extending so I was able to hit a hard slice and a flat serve, which gave my serve more variety and made it more effective. … My cue points are to really go up and out to have most of my energy going up.”

Hawke made major adjustments to his serve this past offseason and hasn’t stopped working on it since the UW’s season ended. He, like many of his teammates, has continued to work with Anger in one-on-one sessions to sharpen his service mechanics by hitting serve after serve until the opposite side of the purple court is littered with neon green balls.

Repetition is the main ingredient in turning a good serve into a consistent weapon. Egger is so in tune with his serve, he is fairly sure he can hit it with his eyes closed, which makes any other situation he’s up against in a match seem easy.

“Being able to do it once is OK, [but there’s] consistency in practice and then doing it in a match, under pressure,” Egger said. “And then if you’re playing a very physically taxing match, making sure your techniques hold under pressure and physical stress.”

Deceleration

Junior Viktor Farkas wants to know how fast his serve goes. He doesn’t want the tape measure in this science experiment to interfere with his jump though. So he carefully slides the tape measure back with his foot to free up space for his entire service motion.

The moments right after contact are just as important as those right before, as the follow-through keeps the motion strong and fluid through contact and helps set up the server to play the remainder of the point.

At professional tennis tournaments, serve velocity is measured immediately after the ball leaves the racket, where it is the fastest. The fastest serves on the professional tour have been clocked at speeds faster than 150 miles per hour. The Daily recorded Farkas’ serve at 127 miles per hour, on average, while Egger said he served at about 117 miles per hour when he was 15. Together, the pair of juniors are the UW’s fastest servers.

But, by the time the ball reaches the service box, its velocity greatly decreases. Farkas’ slowed down by 41 miles per hour, or about 67.7 percent, when it bounced in the service box, which is still 18 feet away from the baseline where the returner stands. So while speed is a major factor in making a serve difficult to return, it’s not the only thing. A good serve also has spin, which redshirt freshman Wendell Watanabe knows well. 

Slice serve

Watanabe is the UW’s only lefty, which gives him an advantage over the rest of his teammates because a ball off his racket spins the opposite direction of a right-hander’s. His serve is not as fast as some of his teammates’, but it can still give them fits in practice.

“All lefties usually have a natural curve on the ad (left) side,” sophomore Rishabh Raman said. “[Watanabe] has a natural advantage because he can hit the wide spot that will take us wide on the backhand side. Normally for anyone, it’s not a natural stroke to go wide on the backhand side and stretch and hit that one.”

In all, the entire serving process — from the initiation of the service motion to the ball reaching the baseline — takes less than two seconds. And after the point is over, the process will start all over again.

Like clockwork.

Reach reporter Thuc Nhi Nguyen at sports@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @thucnhi21

Reach Editor-in-Chief Joshua Bessex at editor@dailyuw.com. Twitter: @Bessex_Joshua

Reach Double Shot Producer Simon Fox at huskycast@dailyuw.com.