The Secrets of Andy Roddick's Rocket Serve

I had an experience like that with a friend of mine who is a top junior coach in Northern California. He introduced me at a presentation I was giving to coaches and players that included some high speed video of Roddick's serve. As part of his introduction, he gave an impassioned warning about the dangers of copying Roddick's motion.

But after the presentation, he called me and got the Roddick DVD footage. A week later he called again to say that one of the elements I'd identified in Roddick was a "jewel" and that a college player he coached had tried it and suddenly made a big jump in his serving velocity. (More on what that "jewel" was later on.)

What's the Reality?

But let's go back to the original question, and ask what is really happening in Andy's motion. How does Roddick's serve actually stack up technically compared with Pete?

Pete Sampras' serve generated large amounts of velocity and spin, the marks of a heavy serve.

In the series on Pete's serve (tennisplayer.net), we saw that Sampras had a unique combination of ball speed and ball spin that probably made his serve "heavier" than other players of his generation. We found that there were players that served as fast or faster than Pete. We found players who served with as much spin or more spin. But we didn't find many players serving as fast as Pete with as much spin. His first serve averaged about 118 mph with total spin of about 2500 rpm.

Then Andy came along. We had the opportunity to do high-speed filming of his spin rates. This allowed us to compare Andy and Pete quantitatively. The results were surprising. My hunch was that Andy was hitting the ball harder but flatter. But the numbers showed something else. Andy was definitely hitting the ball significantly harder, but at the same time he was actually generating virtually the same amount of spin as Pete. Roddick, it appeared, was taking the "heavy ball" to a new level.

On the dozen or so serves we measured, Andy averaged about 130 mph with a spin rate of 2400 rpm. That compares to Sampras at 118 mph and 2500 rpm. It appears then that Andy is transferring more total energy to the ball. To do this, Roddick must also be generating more racket head speed. But the question is, how? Does this racket-head speed relate to his motion? Is it just his raw physical ability? Is his abbreviated wind-up the key? Or is it also something else about the technical shape of the motion itself that may actually be different than the other top players?

Roddick's serve has as much spin as Pete's--and a lot more speed.

Normally I'm leery when people say "I have the Gustavo Kuerten forehand." Or, "Can you teach me the Tommy Haas backhand?" Or, "I want the Andy Roddick serve," as if the signature strokes of certain players were somehow technically unique. The core elements in good stroke production are usually very similar from player to player. The problem is that these commonalities aren't always obvious to the naked eye. In the effort to find the secret of some pro player's stroke, lower level players end up copying the individual idiosyncrasies--and unfortunately--frequently exaggerating them. This is usually at the expense of the underlying fundamentals.

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