One of the hardest shots in the game to master is the serve. And one of the hardest serves to master is the Kick Serve. The Kick Serve is often tremendously difficult to learn for most players.
I have many students coming to me from New York City and around the country who are struggling to build a killer Kick. Here are some of the key points I share with them. I have also published extensively on the serve and Kick Serve techniques, and I recommend reviewing some of my free videos and articles at TeamLewit.com for further research.
I have a lot of success adjusting my students grip to more of an Eastern Backhand. This helps accelerate the learning process and can jumpstart a Kick Serve when the player is really struggling to get enough spin on the ball.
A strong Eastern Backhand Grip, as opposed to a typical Continental, forces the player to relax and accelerate the lower forearm and wrist—one of the keys to generating spin—and the grip also closes the racket face slightly leading up to impact, which helps add spin too.
Sometimes players need a strong Eastern Grip in the beginning to learn the proper lower arm and wrist movement, but then can revert to a more classic Continental Grip once the movement is mastered. Other players will like the feel of the Eastern Backhand Grip on the serve and can build all their serves off of that one grip. Rafael Nadal is a famous example of a player who uses a very strong Backhand Grip for all of his serves.
I have found that players who never adjust their grip properly can sometimes struggle for a long time trying to learn good spin, and sometimes give up completely; or they think they have a kick serve, but it’s actually pretty weak and flat. A strong Backhand Grip is definitely one key to learning a killer Kick Serve!
High speed video studies clearly show that the body is relatively more side-on at impact for a Kick Serve than for a slice or flat or power serve. Staying sideways while accelerating upward with a strong triceps extension is a very important key to the Kick Serve.
In my experience, most players open up their shoulders too early and this sabotages a good Kick Serve swing pathway. Players often learn the Flat Serve first and their bodies are wired to open up and rotate the shoulders. On a good Kick Serve, the shoulders do rotate, but not as quickly and at impact the more sideways torso alignment and shoulder position is critical. This alignment provides for relative shoulder and triceps isolation during the acceleration phase up to the ball and promotes the left-to-right swing pathway critical to impart sidespin.
When accelerating up to the ball, many players will jerk their shoulders and head downward. This is a very common phenomenon.
On a good Kicker, racket speed is paramount to achieve the spin necessary for a big, high bouncing serve. However, the torso must remain straightened and the body tall during the acceleration phase.
Another element to consider when accelerating is that mishits are bound to occur. Frequently, players will be embarrassed by their mishits and start to consciously or subconsciously swing less aggressively up to the ball in subsequent serve attempts. Coaches should encourage players to keep swinging fast and not to be discouraged by some mishits, which are unavoidable when learning a Kick Serve.
The bottom line is that acceleration of the arm and racquet must be violent and whippy, with the body sideways and tall, and the head up and still.
There is a myth that players shouldn’t be taught to jump on the serve; that jumping is a byproduct of the kinetic chain. I disagree and always work on jump training with my students. The leg drive should be actively developed and can be enhanced with proper training, especially at a young age.
Players need to practice loading the back leg and pushing up aggressively from the ground, hitting the ball while in midair, and landing inside the court on the front leg. When jumping, players should be careful not to lose their balance or posture while airborne. In addition, players need to maintain that critical sideways position during the jump through impact and then allow the body to uncoil more fully post-impact.
Most players with good Kickers finish with the elbow high and the arm very relaxed. This is sometimes referred to as “The Dirty Diaper” position because the hand looks like it’s holding a dirty diaper! All jokes aside though, the position is important because it reveals whether the arm, especially the lower arm, was loose and quick during the acceleration phase. Many players will finish rather abruptly on the right side of their bodies. This can be done safely, however, I prefer to see a finish towards the left side because it takes less stress off the arm, especially for young children.
Players should remember that the Kick Serve is most effective on the ad court when used to attack the opponent’s backhand with an angle serve. A Kicker can be used as a first serve too—not just as a second delivery.
I like to tell my students that the Kick Serve and the forehand are like a brother and sister, or cousins. They are family and go together like peanut butter and jelly. Players should be taught to actively setup an aggressive forehand with a good Kicker. It’s a one-two punch!
It’s also important to remember that a Kicker to the backhand will only be effective if the player also develops a good Surprise Kicker. The Surprise kicker is a Topspin Serve that goes to the forehand instead of the backhand, which is typically the target. I teach my players to toss the ball slightly left—over their shoulders—to fool their opponents and make them think they are going to the backhand—but then to hit the Surprise Kicker at the last possible moment—catching the returner off guard.
Don’t overdo it! A basket of 60-80 balls per session is more than enough. It’s about quality—not quantity. The Kick Serve can be a stressful movement on the shoulder and the back, especially for young children. Players should be limited to a safe amount each day and rest days should be included in every practice week.
It’s important for any player learning how to hit a Kick Serve to maintain a core/lower back and shoulder injury prevention program, and to work on their flexibility. The toss should not be too extreme to the left side of the body. A toss too extreme can cause injury by hyperextending the lower back (lumbar spine) and putting the shoulder in a precariously weak position. Remember: Thoracic extension, or bending of the upper back, is safer than lumbar extension. Keep that lower back straight and the spine healthy!
There is more to the art of serving than just blasting aces with power. Follow these guidelines to build a killer Kick for yourself or someone you coach. Train smart and safely to develop a Kick Serve that will last a lifetime and won’t cause any injuries down the road. Now go get Kicking!
Chris Lewit, a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player, coaches in the New York City area and also runs a high-performance boarding summer camp in Southern Vermont. He specializes in training aspiring junior tournament players using progressive Spanish and European training methods. His best-selling book, Secrets of Spanish Tennis, has helped coaches and players worldwide learn how to train the Spanish way. He may be reached by phone at (914) 462-2912, e-mail ChrisLewit@gmail.com or visit ChrisLewit.com.