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Dear Mike, I enjoy tennis. Is there anyway to improve my serve? It always seems like I have too much power, is there even such a thing as too much power when you serve?

Mike Says: Thank you for your question. Let me see if I can help. The serve is a very important part of any tennis game. You need to practice it often to become more confident. The most important part of good serving is not power however but consistency. You need to be able to get your serve in regularly before going for power. Actually, after consistency, you need to work on placement and spin. The fourth part of an effective serve is power. Attempting to hit the serve hard without control will lead to many double faults and some frustrating sets. Almost anyone can hit the ball hard, but you need the consistency to win. Slow things down a little and win more matches. Good luck.

Mike Owens, USPTA, is the Tennis Operations Manager at Braemar Country Club in Tarzana, California. Endorsed by Fila Elite Pro Staff and Babolat Racquets.
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The Big Dipper

I know, you thought it was a grouping of stars, right? Well, allow me to inform you that the Big Dipper is a shining star in the tennis universe - and a great way to keep you from getting into trouble while being attacked. Let me explain:

The "dipper" is simply a ball hit with topspin that drops as it goes over the net. With this shot, the peak of the arc is on your side of the net, so the ball is already falling (or dipping, get it?) as it goes over the net. The key to this shot is the topspin that causes the ball to dip as it arrives on your opponent's side.

Why use this shot?
In singles or doubles, when a player is moving into the ideal volley position they are hoping to receive a volley above the height of the net. Everyone knows the ball above the net is easier to volley, while the low ball needs to be played with caution. The "dipper" will help neutralize the attacking player by making them handle the more difficult low, dipping shot. Conversely, if the ball peaks as it clears the net, you are handing your opponent a much easier shot to volley away and you most likely will be toast!

Just remember this slogan, "Hit it high you die get it to drop low, you're in the dough."

When to use this shot. An opponent who hangs back to protect against the lob, is a prime candidate for the "dipper". Why lob an opponent who is hanging back waiting for it? On the other hand, if your opponent is crowding the net, there's no need to try the dipper. Net crowders are lob bait for sure! 

Try practicing hitting the ball short with topspin and make your attacking opponent deal with balls dipping at their feet. They won't have an easy time of it, that's for sure.

To keep opponents from attacking in the first place, practice hitting the ball deep into their court. That's where you need the height above the net.

Is there a Little Dipper? Yes. The Little Dipper also exists in tennis and is essentially the same as the Big Dipper, only hit with underspin. But that's a topic for another day.

How to play against a player with a wimpy serve. Let's face it, these "weaker" players have challenged us all. They have a slow first serve and even slower second serve that we often send to the back fence! Here are a few suggestions on how to play these players.

The greatest reason the wimpy serve is so difficult to return is that there is no pace. The ball is floating toward you so slowly you can read "Wilson" on it!  This serve can't hurt you, however; you can definitely hurt yourself if you are not careful. The key is to minimize your errors, and not to give away any free points.

If you can, use more topspin when returning the slower serve. Not more power, more spin. You are generally standing further into the court when hitting this ball and there is less court space to work with. Try returning crosscourt, as there is more court space to work with on the diagonal. 

Another option is to treat the weak serve as an invitation to go to the net.  Treat it as an approach shot. If the opponent doesn't lob or hit passing shots well, this is probably the best tactic available. You can also consider matching the speed of their ball on your approach shot. For example, if their ball is traveling toward you at 25 miles per hour, return it at the same speed. If you attempt to increase the speed, you are taking a risk that might not be necessary.

When returning the wimpy serve always use your best stroke. If you prefer forehands, run around the backhand return and give it a good stroke. No need to hit your weaker shot on such a slow ball. 

One final idea is to consider a drop shot off the return. If their serve is short in the court this might be your best opportunity, so try it every now and then.  The key to success with the drop is to hit it without them recognizing what's happening. Since the drop shot is much easier to execute while closer to the net, you might give it a try.

Have fun and don't let the wimpy server boss you around. Have a plan and enjoy the battle. 

Past Tips

Hi Mike, My buddies and I have an ongoing dispute: if you smash a ball over the net, is it illegal to break the plane of the net, even if you don't actually touch it? I say yes, they say no. Thanks a lot!

Mike Says: 1. You must make contact with the ball on your side only. You can not reach over the net (see #2) to make contact. Once you have made contact on your side, your follow though may cross the plane of the net.
2. The only time you can reach over the net to hit the ball is that it has already landed on your side and is headed back toward your opponents court. The rules say you may then reach over as long as you don't make contact with the net. This instance certainly doesn't happen very often.

Mike, I started playing tennis about 6 months ago. I seem to improve at a fairly rapid rate. I bought a good video called "Consistent Tennis Wins" and a book on tennis in the hopes of teaching myself. Here is my dilemma. Do I need tennis lessons? I would love to have them but don't have the $45-50 an hour to spend on them right now. Do you have any suggestions on ways I an improve my technique without lessons?

Mike Says:
Brandon, Thanks for your question. Here are a few thoughts. Tennis is a skill sport where repetition is the key. You need to make sure you are executing a stroke properly prior to practicing, or you will be reinforcing bad behavior. Lessons should certainly be considered. I suggest you consider group instruction. It is much more cost effective, plus it's an excellent way to meet people of a similar skill level. Finding others to play is always a challenge.

Group instruction is great system for meeting new players/friends -- as well as improving your game. Contact your local tennis club or parks department about beginning group lessons. It can be very fun.

Thanks again Brandon and good luck. Keep swinging.

Mike, I do really well in clinics. If I could carry the pro around with me, I'd win a lot more, I can tell you that. I also do well in matches with smart partners who can point out strategic points to me. Left to my own devices however, I have a really hard time figuring out what adjustments to make, which shots I should capitalize on and opponents weaknesses. I have good shots and am working constantly on better execution. How do I start really thinking well while playing well? Also, why is it that sometimes, all too rarely, you seem to be so in tune with the ball and other times you just can't seem to get with it?

Mike Says:
Thank you for your great question. I can see you are on the right path to improving your competitive tennis.

Let me begin with the question concerning which shots to capitalize on. Here are a couple of simple things which should help. You certainly want to know what you are good at and make every attempt to "do it" throughout the match. For example: if you like forehands, hit as many as possible. Also, be sure to recognize when you have hurt your opponent(s). If you have hit a good shot and punished them, be ready to back it up with one more well-placed stroke/volley. Often times it's the second shot that wins a point, not the first one.

You also asked "How do I start to think well while playing?" It begins with having a plan based on your strengths, and the perceived weaknesses of your opponent. It is always nice to know your opponents in advance, but that doesn't always happen. You will have to observe their tendencies during warm-up and then experiment throughout the match. You can view it as a chess game. In other words, how often can you play offensively, and when do you need to go into that defensive mode? Don't just go out and play and hope you win that day. Most players do just that! Have a plan in mind and I think you will find winning to be more within your control.

You last question regarding why it is that some days you are in "tune" with the ball and other days it's just not there, is an excellent one.  If I had the golden answer, I'd be king of the sporting world. The "zone" you are referring to is an illusive feeling that generally comes more often to those players with confidence and little fear. The times I remember feeling like I was in the zone, everything seemed like it was in slow motion when in fact it wasn't. The ball seemed like the size of a volleyball! My opponents couldn't hit a serve I couldn't rip back! But, as you mentioned, it doesn't happen that often. Knowing your game, being relaxed and in control of your fears and confident as to your task at hand certainly should help you find the zone more often. If you find an easier way, be sure to let me know.

Thanks again for the questions. 



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