Tactical Use of the First Serve
The importance of getting the first serve in play is often misunderstood to center around the fact that the first serve is generally faster than the second serve, making it more difficult to return, and therefore an offensive weapon. Especially at the recreational level, a second serve is generally considerably weaker than a first, often hit with a “frying pan” grip, or slowly spun into the service box.
Because of the difference between first and second serves, however, there is also a tactical aspect to serving that is often not understood by players. When a receiver is facing a good first serve, he or she takes a defensive mind-set, generally staying back, waiting to respond to the serve. The receiver often has his weight back, and is prepared to block back the serve, or return it with a short slice stroke. Their intent is so defensive that their goal is often just to get the ball back in play, rather than one of depth and direction.
When the first serve is a fault, the pressure greatly decreases for the receiver, who now can become the aggressor. The receiver generally moves his or her weight forward and prepares to move into the return, attempting a much deeper return.
The pressure also shifts from the receiver to the server, who now not only must get the serve in or double fault, but also must prepare for a more aggressive opponent, who is attacking a weaker serve.
Quite often, during big points, especially those in which the server is trying to close out a game or tie-break, the server uses his or her first serve to add pressure and try to end the point with an offensive strike.
However, knowing what we know about the mental state of the receiver, it is often advisable to put a slower first-serve in play during key points, for the reason that, by the time the receiver realizes the serve is not an aggressive first serve, the ball is already on its way, and the receiver has already started from a defensive position.
To the receiver, the serve is still a first serve, and the mental pressure is still on her. Whether or not the receiver receives a fast first serve, or one served with less pace than normal, the receiver has still started the point with a defensive attitude.
Work with your players to make them understand that during a key point, such as 40-30, 4-3 in the third set, taking something off the first serve to ensure that it goes in ensures them a key tactical advantage.
If they miss their first serve in this situation, their opponent is now in the driver’s seat. If you player loses that point, he will be facing break point if he doesn’t convert the next point.
This is not to say that players should resort to an obviously weak second serve (especially one which is telegraphed with a dramatically different service motion).
The key is to understand that the tactical advantages of a first serve greatly outweigh the extra five or 10 miles per hour gained by “going for it.” If your player has been bombing his or her serves in all day, at a high percentage, then going for it may be the wisest choice. But the better your player has been serving, the more defensive the receiver will be and susceptible to a change-up, and remember, they will still be putting in a solid first serve.
Putting a first serve in at 85 percent speed, or even three-quarters speed (depending on the strength of the your player’s serve and the return of the opponent) ensures that, overall, your player is in the driver’s seat on key points. Make sure your players know this is an option which can increase their tactical advantage and help them win more key points.