Living and dying by the serve

Venus Williams, the player with the fastest serve in women's tennis history, says that she steps up to the line trying to orchastrate three elements in concert leading to point of contact - her mood, technique and tactics.

While the 3x3 of tennis serving mentioned in the old blog I posted yesterday mainly involves "technique" and "tactics", it does not cover "mood". In simple terms, mood is about confidence, which is what many experts consider to be the most important aspect of serving. "As with any shot, 90 percent is just confidence," says Taylor Dent, whose successful comeback to professional tennis after three career-threatening back surgeries I wrote about in two blogs in September last year. "If you're feeling great about your serve, you're probably going to serve well."

Conversely, you can land yourself in deep trouble if you do not feel confident about your serve, and according to sports psychologist Allen Fox, the serve is the shot one is most likely to lose confidence about. "Of all the strokes," says Fox. "The serve is the most problematically psychological of the bunch ... the most prone to the yips."

Apparently from nowhere the fear cycle takes over: "When you get the 'Oh my God, what's wrong' thought, you start to do some very bad things," says Fox.

Which was what Jana Novotna did in the 1993 Wimbledon Final when she handed Steffi Graf the match after serving three double faults in four points, having been up a set and a double break in the final set. It was one of the greatest choking in tennis history, and in the prize presentation ceremony the devastated player burst into tears on the Duchess of Kent's shoulder.

That sort of fear is crippling and is something that players have to learn to actively conquer. "Most people never become the best they can become because they're afraid of failure,"says Nick Bolletieri, whose tennis academy has nurtured so many world class players and champions. He faults the parents and coaches who focus a youngster's serve on just putting it into play and implanting a mentality of not taking chances: "Champions don't wait for opponents to give them the match. ... You can't do in crunch time what you probably haven't done during training."
And that is probably where the secret to Venus Williams's serve lies. "When I step up to the line I really just kind of go through how I want to play the point and set the point up and just come to the line with a plan I want to execute," Williams says. "You gotta have the technique to make the shot so that when the pressure comes you know you have the technique to make it.That's when the technique really counts — under pressure." To be able to put the technique, tactic and, above all, confident mood together requires training, day in and day out.
"I've hit more serves over my lifetime than 99 percent of the population," Taylor Dent says. Most of us do not serve as well as him because we are in that 99 percent, but through training we can definitely build that confidence that would enable us to serve better than many.

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