What Is A Serve In Tennis? (Fully Explained)

23 May 2023

A serve in tennis is an essential skill and the foundation of every play in the game. It initiates the first point and serves as both an offensive and defensive tool, dictating the pace and strategy of each rally. The server's goal is to deliver the ball over the net and into the designated service box on the opponent's side of the court, forcing the opponent to return the ball under pressure.

A serve in tennis is the first shot of a point, where the server hits the ball to start the rally. It is executed from behind the baseline and must land within the opponent's service box on the opposite side of the court.

There are various types of tennis serves, each offering unique advantages and requiring mastery of technique, speed, and accuracy. Common serve types include the flat serve, known for its speed and minimal spin, the slice serve, with its right-to-left spin for right-handed players, and the kick serve, characterized by a high bounce and a challenging trajectory.

Players may also mix these techniques or add their personal touch to make their serve more difficult for their opponent to predict and return.

To execute a successful serve, a player must become proficient in several key components, from the initial toss of the ball to the follow-through at the end. Proper foot placement, grip, and body movement all contribute to the efficiency and effectiveness of a serve. By dedicating time and effort to serve practice, a player can cultivate a strong and reliable serve that elevates their overall performance on the court.

What Does Serve Mean in Tennis?

A serve in tennis is an important shot used to kick off a point. It sets the tone for the remainder of the point and can either yield advantage or enable a quick end to the point. This shot is executed by a player hitting the ball with their racket diagonally into the opposite service box.

Before initiating the serve, the player stands behind the baseline, between the center mark and the singles sideline. While attempting the serve, the player tosses the ball into the air and strikes it, typically near the highest point of the toss. Players should take care not to step on or over the baseline before making contact with the ball.

The serve has several variations. Each offers its distinct advantage, depending on the situation and the player's strength.

Some of the commonly used serve types include:

  • Flat serve: A powerful shot with minimal spin, aimed for a fast, straight trajectory.
  • Slice serve: Adds sidespin to the ball, causing it to curve during flight and make it difficult for the opponent to predict and return.
  • Kick serve: Imparts topspin and sidespin to the ball, altering the bounce and often forcing the opponent to move to an uncomfortable position.

In addition to adding variation to their serves, tennis players should focus on consistency and accuracy. A well-executed serve can alter the ball's trajectory, forcing the opponent off-balance or exposing their weaknesses. As each point in tennis begins with a serve, mastering this skill is essential for a player's success in the game.

Rules For Serving in Tennis

The serve is a crucial aspect of the game as it initiates each point. There are specific rules that players have to follow when executing a serve.

Firstly, the player needs to stand behind the baseline during the entire serve motion. If the player touches the baseline before hitting the serve, it will be a foot fault. The server must strike the ball before it touches the ground, typically hitting it near the highest point of the toss.

Baseline on a tennis court

In both singles and doubles play, the serve must land diagonally in the opponent's service box across the net.

Tennis court showing where to serve

The player is allowed two chances to deliver a valid serve – the first is called the first serve, and if it is unsuccessful, they have a second attempt called the second serve.

"let" may occur during a serve, which means the server has an opportunity to re-serve without penaltyA let happens when the served ball touches the net but still lands in the correct service box. If a let occurs during the first serve, the player can re-serve the first attempt; if it happens during the second serve, they can re-serve the second attempt.

During professional tennis matches, there is also a time limit when serving. There should be a maximum of 25 seconds between points. If the serving player takes more time, they will first receive a warning, and a subsequent violation will result in a penalty.

In summary, serving follows specific guidelines to maintain fairness and playability. Players need to be aware of these rules to ensure successful serves and enjoyable matches.

The Basics of a Tennis Serve

Components of a serve:

The serve is the initial shot in tennis, and it's an essential part of the game. A serve involves the player tossing the ball into the air and striking it with their racket to propel it across the net into the opponent's service box.

A good serve can give the server a significant advantage, as it can force the opponent to return a weak shot or even miss the ball entirely, resulting in an ace or unreturned serve.

There are several different types of serves, including the flat serve, slice serve, and kick serve.

The flat serve is a powerful shot aimed at going straight at the opponent with little to no spin. The slice serve moves sideways due to its sidespin, causing it to travel from right to left (for right-handed players), and can be particularly effective on the deuce side of the court.

The kick serve, on the other hand, is an advanced serve that makes the ball bounce high and is often used as a second serve for consistency.

Service box and net:

The service box is a marked area on the tennis court where the serve must land to be considered in play. The court is divided into two halves, with each half containing a right and left service box.

Service boxes on tennis court

When serving, the player must aim to get the ball over the net and into the diagonally opposite service box. The net is the central barrier that separates the two halves of the court and serves as the primary obstacle the server must overcome to start the point.

First and second serves:

In tennis, players get two chances to serve the ball into the correct service box. The first serve is typically more aggressive and powerful, while the second serve is generally more conservative, focusing on placement and consistency.

A player starts their serve from behind the baseline, standing between the center mark and the appropriate sideline, depending on which side of the court they are serving from.

All lines for single tennis explained

If the first serve lands outside the service box or the ball hits the net (called a let) and then lands in the correct service box, the player gets a second chance to serve. If the second serve also fails to land in the service box, the server loses the point and is awarded to the opponent as a double fault.

By understanding the basics of the serve, including its components, the role of the service box and net, and the distinction between first and second serves, players can further develop their serving skills and enhance their overall tennis game.

Types of Tennis Serves

Tennis serves are a crucial part of the game, and there are various types of serves that players can use to gain an advantage over their opponents. This section will discuss the four main types of serves: flat serve, slice serve, kick serve, and underhand serve.

Flat serve:

The flat serve is known for its minimal spin and low trajectory, resulting in a fast and straight bounce on the court. Due to its speed and low angle, this serve can be difficult for opponents to return.

To execute a successful flat serve, players need to focus on a smooth and powerful motion while ensuring proper ball toss and racket angle at the point of contact.

Slice serve:

The slice serve involves imparting sidespin on the ball, which causes it to curve and skid upon hitting the court. This type of serve is particularly effective in pulling opponents out of position and opening up the court for the server.

To perform a slice serve, a player should concentrate on brushing the side of the ball with their racket during the motion, while maintaining a well-placed toss and slightly adjusting the racket angle to create the desired spin.

Kick serve:

The kick serve is characterized by its topspin and higher bounce, making it harder for opponents to attack. The ball trajectory and bounce can vary depending on the amount of spin and the angle of contact, with the twist serve and American twist being variations of the kick serve.

To achieve an effective kick serve, players need to focus on generating topspin by brushing the back of the ball with their racket, while ensuring a suitable ball toss and racket angle.

Underhand serve:

The underarm serve is less commonly seen in professional matches but is still a legal serve in both amateur and professional play. It involves a gentle, underhanded motion and is typically used when a player is unable to perform an overhand serve due to injury or fatigue.

While not as powerful or fast as other serves, the underhand serve can be deceptive and catch opponents off guard. To execute this serve, the player should aim for a fluid, underhanded motion, a precise toss, and a proper racket angle.

Please read this article to learn more about why tennis players serve underhand.

By understanding and mastering these different types of serves, players can develop a versatile and strategically-sound serving game to excel in tennis.

Serve Technique

The serve is one of the hardest shots in tennis. Therefore, to master this stroke properly, the use of proper technique is essential. Below you can see what technique is involved in performing a proper serve.

Grip and stance:

The serve technique starts with a proper grip, known as the continental grip. To use this grip, hold the racket like a hammer, with the edge perpendicular to the ground.

The server's stance should be comfortable and balanced, with both feet parallel to the baseline. The back foot should be placed behind the front foot at a comfortable distance, and the toes pointing toward the net post.

Toss and timing:

The ball toss is crucial to a successful serve; a consistent toss leads to accurate and powerful serves.

When tossing the ball, keep the arm straight and release the ball at eye level. The server's goal should be to achieve an ideal toss height, allowing the racket to make contact at the highest point of the swing.

Proper timing is also essential. As the ball reaches its apex, the server's body should be fully loaded, ready to unleash power into the swing. Hesitations or rushing the serve can lead to errors or weak serves.

Swing and follow through:

A smooth and fluid swing is vital for generating power and accuracy in the serve.

As the server tosses the ball, they should engage the legs and bend the knees in preparation for launching. As the racquet swings back, the server should keep the elbow high and aligned with the shoulder, maintaining a smooth and fluid motion.

The follow through is just as important as the swing itself. After making contact with the ball, the server's racket should continue in a fluid, downward motion, finishing near the opposite hip. A proper follow through ensures the maximum transfer of energy into the serve, promoting power and control.

Trophy pose and contact point:

The trophy pose is a key component of the serve that helps the server maintain the proper body position throughout the serve. As the server initiates the swing, the racket should be pointing upwards, with the elbow bent and aligned with the shoulder, creating a trophy-pose-like position for the upper body.

The contact point is the moment the racket connects with the ball. Ideally, the server should make contact with the ball at the highest point in their swing, in front of the body, and slightly to the right (for right-handed players) or left (for left-handed players).

A well-timed contact point enables the server to generate power, spin, and accuracy.

Serve Biomechanics

Pronation and coordination:

When it comes to a tennis serve, the player's ability to effectively coordinate movement and pronation is crucial for delivering a high-quality serve.

Pronation is the rotation of the forearm, which allows the racket to move outwards and up. It is particularly essential for generating power and spin on the serve.

In order to execute an effective tennis serve, the player must have good coordination between their body segments. The process begins with the feet, which are responsible for anchoring the player to the ground and providing a stable base.

Right-handed players typically use a left-foot forward position, allowing for increased balance and control. Proper foot positioning is necessary for establishing a strong foundation and for transferring momentum up through the body into the serve.

The shoulders play an important role in generating power for the serve, as the rotation of the upper body helps build up torque and momentum.

A study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research illustrates how the serve sequence starts with the legs, moves through the trunk to the arm, and culminates in the racket striking the ball. The coordination between these segments is vital for producing a powerful serve.

Body momentum and strength:

Creating body momentum and strength throughout the tennis serve is vital for achieving a strong and effective stroke.

As described in a Springer publication, the kinetic chain is essential to this process. This term refers to a sequence of movements beginning with the lower limb action, followed by the trunk and upper limb.

To maximize the strength of their serve, players need to capitalize on the connection between these different sections of their body.

This includes the following sequence of movements:

  • Bending the knees for leverage and to create a strong base
  • Rotating the hips and trunk to increase torque and momentum
  • Raising the serving arm overhead to generate racquet speed
  • Coordinating the arm's pronation and wrist snap to apply the desired spin to the ball

During a strong tennis serve, the player's focus should be on maximizing the force generated by this sequence of motions, enabling increased power, spin, and control.

One of the primary goals for tennis players when serving is to maximize topspin on the ball. Overhead serves with a high degree of topspin make it more difficult for the opponent to return the serve effectively.

Developing a powerful, well-coordinated serve, as well as the necessary body momentum and strength, can be advantageous for players who want to excel at their game.

In summary, understanding the biomechanics of the serve can help players refine their technique, perfect their form, and ultimately improve their overall performance on the tennis court.


A serve is a crucial shot that initiates each point during a match. It requires the server to stand behind the baseline and hit the ball over the net into the diagonally opposite service box on the opponent's side.

The serve not only starts the point, but it can also create an advantage for the server by positioning their opponent off the court or targeting their weaknesses.

There are different types of serves, each designed for specific purposes in-game situations. These types range from flat and powerful serves that aim for more speed, to spinning serves that slow down but add curve and unpredictable movement, making it even more challenging for the receiver to return the ball successfully.

While a strong serve is indeed an asset, hitting a high percentage of serves within the service box does not guarantee victory. Other factors, such as the player's return abilities and overall strategy, play a significant role in their success on the tennis court.

In summary, the serve is an essential shot and strategic tool in the game of tennis. Mastering various serve types and combining them effectively with solid gameplay strategies will increase a player's chances of success on the court.


Would you like to learn more about tennis? If you do, have a look at the 107 best facts about tennis!

Written by

Neil Taylor

Tennis is my passion

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