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Serving Lessons

Patrick McEnroe on what you can learn from tennis' best about the game's toughest shot

By Evan Rothman | Photography by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

It wasn't even a generation ago that tennis purists feared supercharged serves would dominate the game forever. Pete Sampras, perhaps history's greatest server, rained aces and reigned supreme. Overpowering bombers like Goran Ivanisevic, Richard Krajicek, and Mark Philippoussis stood in the wings. That doomsday scenario failed to materialize: The serve remains important, but for different reasons.

"The best players now are the best movers, the best athletes, the best defenders," says former U.S. Davis Cup captain Patrick McEnroe. "You have to have a good enough serve to deal with today's aggressive returners."

A strong serving game can put you on the front foot, or at least keep you off the back foot - yet the serve's intricate blend of rhythm, timing, and technique makes it, in McEnroe's estimation, the single toughest shot for pros and club players alike to master. We asked McEnroe, who heads the USTA's player development program, for his expert thoughts on what weekend warriors can learn from the deliveries of the game's biggest stars.

"Roger's serve is very simple and easy with great rhythm and timing. His first-serve percentage over the years has been so good - it seldom goes off. The big thing is that he never tries to overserve, which really helps him on faster courts like grass or at the U.S. Open, because his direction is so good that he wins lots of cheap points. A good lesson from Federer is don't get out of your comfort zone. The harder you try to hit the ball, the less pace you'll actually create. Keep your arm as relaxed and loose as possible.

"Federer also can hit every serve with pretty much the same ball toss. That disguise is obviously very useful. While the pros can tinker with their toss and get it a bit behind them - especially for kick serves - you want that toss very much in the same vicinity on both serves. If the toss isn't right, generally between 12 and 1 o'clock, you'll have problems. I tell people at clinics all the time, practice simply tossing the ball in your office or at home to develop that placement and consistency."

"For a while, Novak brought his right arm back straight, almost locked, instead of relaxed with a little bend in the elbow. At the point of impact, his arm wasn't loose. It almost hurt to watch. That he could reach and stay at No. 3 in the world with a serve like that was one of the more remarkable things I've seen. He eventually worked the kinks out and got back to a more natural, flowing motion.

"Novak also learned to stop going for so much power. His first serve isn't a huge weapon, but it's a rock-solid serve that he can count on in big moments, with a second serve that's hard to attack. What club players should also take from his serve is that it's a pretty simple motion. Simple is better. You have to do what's natural. The serving motion is like a throwing motion; how you throw a ball says a lot about how you should serve a ball. Practice throwing a ball against a wall over and over, trying to ingrain a relaxed feel."

"She's won a career Grand Slam, so it's hard to knock Maria. Still, her serve is inconsistent because she has a tremendously high ball toss. Without perfect timing and perfect rhythm, a lot can go wrong. Ivan Lendl had a high toss, too, but he was able to handle it much better. Maria is very tall, and so were Ivanisevic and Krajicek, two of the best servers ever, but they had simple motions and made contact with the ball almost as soon as it came out of their hand. Maria waits and waits before making contact. Ideally, you don't want to toss the ball too high.

"She goes for too much on her first serve and doesn't have a lot of racket speed on her second, especially when things get tight, so she doesn't have great margin or kick on it. Club players need to put more effort into making their first and second serves closer in terms of speed, with the same motion."

"The serve is the shot Rafa has practiced more than any other to try improving. He has adjusted his feet to try to find the right position with his back foot to get as much hip rotation as possible. He has tinkered with his take-back a lot, too. Andre Agassi also tinkered with his serve. The reality is, just like you can't teach a pitcher how to pitch fast - the ability to throw a fastball is a talent you're born with - developing a huge serve is impossible if you don't have a live arm.

"The second serve is still probably the weakest part of Nadal's game, though on clay he's not as susceptible to being hurt because he gets a lot of kick on it. One thing you can learn from Nadal is to keep doing the same thing if you're winning points. He serves high to Federer's backhand over and over because it works. He wouldn't do it against, say, a tall guy with a great two-handed backhand like Juan Martin del Potro, because he'll just start leaning into it and ripping it. It's all about the matchup."

More McEnroe

He may be less famous than his brother John, but Patrick McEnroe has also made a big mark in tennis.

• Current: General manager, USTA player development program; and TV announcer for CBS Sports and ESPN
• Longest-tenured U.S. Davis Cup captain (10 years), leading the team to victory in the 2007 Cup
• 17 career pro titles (16 doubles, 1 singles)
• Quarterfinalist, 1995 U.S. Open
• Semifinalist, 1991 Australian Open•World No. 3-ranked doubles player, 1993
• Champion, 1989 French Open men's doubles (with Jim Grabb)

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