Serving Is Mental. So Stop Thinking So Much.

Some of the best players in the world have struggled with one of the most basic shots in tennis at the French Open.

PARIS — Raffaella Reggi rose to 13th in the world in women’s tennis in the late 1980s despite a serve so balky she once recorded 28 double faults in a match in Rome. With the shrill voices of fans pleading with her to use an underhand motion still ringing in her ears, Reggi said she walked into the press room afterward and professed, “I have no idea how to serve.”

Watching a player repeatedly start points by hitting balls into the net or, in the German Alexander Zverev’s case, beyond the baseline, can be excruciating.

“I had some flashbacks,” Reggi said of Zverev’s double-fault-filled performance in his United States Open final defeat to Dominic Thiem.

It’s akin to actors forgetting their lines during a soliloquy. You sit there, helpless to assist, willing them to get back in the flow. If all the court’s a stage, double faults are a tennis player’s inner heckler lashing out.

Mary Carillo, the NBC analyst and former French Open doubles champion, said, “It’s almost always the same culprit: nerves.”

How the anxiety seeps into the technical execution varies. It can be a wandering ball toss that throws off one’s rhythm or a tightening of the limbs that makes it harder to bend the knees and execute the natural arm swing. The challenge for those struggling with their serves, Carillo said, is to fight the instinct to bend the ball into the box slowly and carefully and instead accelerate their racket head speed.

“More action at the point of contact gives more margin, not less,” she said.

The serve is the only stroke in the sport where the player exercises complete control of the moment. It is a stand-alone action, so when the moment goes awry, there is stand-alone accountability.

The 23-time major singles champion Serena Williams, who has one of the most potent serves in the game, said that on those rare occasions when her best weapon is misfiring, “My brain is like: ‘Oh, my God! I never miss this!’”

The embarrassment of being a professional unable to execute this elemental shot faithfully can be acute.

“I mean, in practice I make the serves,” said an exasperated Coco Gauff, who opened the French Open stalking the baseline between service points yelling, “Focus!” as she piled up 12 double faults in a victory against Johanna Konta.

In the next round, Gauff had 19 in a three-set loss to Martina Trevisan of Italy. The 16-year-old Gauff has averaged almost 15 doubles in her last four matches.

“It’s just confidence, just a mind thing,” said Gauff, who added: “I don’t really think it’s a technical thing. I mean, we talk to a lot of people. Sometimes I mess up and hit a bad toss. I mean, when I’m out there on the court, I know I double-fault a lot, but I try not to think of it.”


Whisperer Serving Tip: Lighten up on your grip to accelerate the racket head. Most players ‘choke the chicken under stress’ particularly on serve.