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Optimum Performance: In tennis, the serve sets up the game plan

Serena Williams, of the United States, serves against Kaia Kanepi, of Estonia, during the fourth round of the 2014 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Serena Williams, of the United States, serves against Kaia Kanepi, of Estonia, during the fourth round of the 2014 U.S. Open tennis tournament, Monday, Sept. 1, 2014, in New York. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

After almost six years of working with Serena Williams, the No. 1 female tennis player in the world, along with continued research and study on the physiology and mechanics of tennis, it amazes me how much I still have to learn about this complex game.

Before one of Williams’ matches here at the U.S. Open, the last Grand Slam of the 2014 season, I sat down with Williams’ hitting coach, Sascha Bajin, to discuss a strategy to attack an opponent’s weaknesses.

Bajin, who has worked with Williams for the last eight years, has an extensive understanding of the pro tennis game.

Bajin said: “A strategy to defeat the backhand shot is to use a slice on the first serve to open the court and force the opponent to use her weaker forehand in the return, while putting her on the run with the next shot, especially on the deuce side (serving from right to left).”

Speaking of the slice, this technique is one of several weapons which competitive female tennis players possess, along with the body serve (my favorite), and the use of top spin (kick serve), which forces the ball to take an irregular bounce.

According to Bajin, “the kick serve’s purpose is to have the opponent hit the ball at an uncomfortable height, and at the same time, push the opponent off the court on the advantage side.”

Bajin said the kick serve can be used as an aggressive second serve, “because it permits the server to create significant pressure on the opponent, while the server still has a high percentage of getting the ball in the court.”

Bajin made a point of saying unlike football, where a team puts a game plan in place prior to the game, the only strategy you control in tennis is when you serve. From that point, the strategy develops while you are countering what the opponent gives you. In essence, your best strategy to win is to use your own competitive weapons to your advantage.

“The serve is the only shot that completely depends on your abilities,” noted Bajin.

And, I might add, the serve is most debilitating technique, because the ball initially is not in forward motion.

Williams is one of the best servers in the game, because of her ability to leverage her strength to her advantage – force to weight ratio. Recently, I have been working with Williams on increasing her first serve velocity back to the 128-mph speed that she possessed in her earlier years in the game.

At the commencement of the serve, the back leg is loaded eccentrically – creating potential energy – and the spine is hyperextended (arched) to set up a rotational chain of events that culminates with the racquet meeting the ball at its high point.

The motion of the serve begins with a 15-degree front knee bend and ends with a rotational “jump” into the court after ball impact. The mechanics of the serve in the lower body is very similar to the leg action and the rotational components of the shot-putt.

As my Navy SEAL friend says, while speed is impressive, accuracy kills. I have watched Williams countless times score an ACE on her first serve with a ball speed between 85-95 mph – based solely on ball placement and the opponent’s inability to react.

The key, saids Bajin, “is not giving away or ‘telegraphing’ your serve to the opponent by not showing the way you toss the ball before the serve.”

And, Williams has mastered that part.

Mackie Shilstone, a regular contributor to NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune, has been involved in the wellness sports performance industry for nearly 40 years. He is currently the fitness coach for Serena Williams, has trained numerous other professional athletes and consulted a litany of professional sports franchises. He is St. Charles Parish Hospital’s Fitness and Wellness expert. Contact him at mackieshilstone.com.

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