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Keys to the Kick

Chris Lewit

Page 1

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The shoulder tilt, the extension of the arm, and the forward hip thrust.

Power Position

The shoulder tilt is part of the trophy or power position that every player must achieve. The power position is critical to every serve, not just the kick, and is the foundation for achieving maximum racket speed.

No matter how the student gets to the power position, he must get there! Some players bring the arms down-together up-together for rhythm, some delay the racket arm for more acceleration. Some take the racquet straight up. But regardless of the style of motion, every great serve gets to this trophy position.

Here are the check points. The left shoulder is stretched upward with chin tucked into the shoulder. The left hand is pointing towards ball with arm reaching upwards at an angle of 90 degrees or more. The eyes are locked on the ball--where they stay through contact. The racket arm is in the "L shape" or 90 degree throwing position.

The Power Position: the arm reaching upwards and the racket arm in the "L Shape."

Additionally, the elbow position is very important. The elbow should be as high as possible and held away from the ribs, ideally even with the line across the shoulders. Many players drop the elbow toward the ribs and this will ruin a kick serve. The elbow must be high and away from the body to promote the proper racket drop.

In addition, the elbow of the hitting arm should be stretched back behind the body. This position is sometimes overlooked, but it creates the optimal hitting position for a kick, and particularly a twist serve.

The shoulder coil helps to place the elbow behind the body. If the elbow drifts to the right--as often happens if the hips and shoulder are too open--the serve will slice rather than kick or twist. Often, if a player cannot get the requisite twist, the root cause is the poor position of the elbow at the power position and during the upward triceps extension.

I call the full racket drop for the kick the "buttscratch."

Buttscratch not Backscratch!

I know the idea of a "Buttscratch" may sound funny, but players very commonly do not reach down the backside far enough with the racket. "Backscratch" is really a misnomer and should be eliminated from the teaching nomenclature.

Players should really buttscratch instead. They should reach down so deep that the racquet drops below the waist to the butt level. When kids are told to backscratch, they dutifully follow that advice, but often they do not reach deep down enough, causing a reduction in racquet speed. In addition, they will often swing upward to the ball at the wrong angle, hitting the right or back edge of the ball more than the underside--the wrong racket path required to hit a kick serve. Oftentimes, a short backscratch results in a "hook" serve, causing a low trajectory slice rather than good arcing topspin.

In my experience, the buttscratch phase of the kick serve is the most commonly misunderstood component. Indeed, mastering this deep racket drop was one of the most important changes in mastering my own kick delivery.

Without the buttscratch, it's impossible to hit a great kick.

The buttscratch occurs quite quickly and is thus difficult to check with the naked eye (most likely why it is often overlooked). But it must be diligently developed when learning the kick. Video can be a tremendous aid here, but with practice, a coach can also train himself to see the quick elbow drop with the eye. Lack of a good, deep buttscratch is a very common stroke flaw that prevents full racket acceleration and maximum topspin generation.

Elbow Bend

The key to creating this deep buttscratch is to bend the elbow to the extreme. The player must have good flexibility in the arm and shoulder. If the player does not have good flexibility, the coach should manually stretch the arm to help the player feel the depth of the bend required--and then make sure the player gets on a focused stretching program.

The length of the buttscratch creates the runway for the "takeoff" of the racquet upward to the ball. The longer the runway, the more potential racket speed. This is a very important concept.

The elbow bends deeply and points to the sky.

The further a player drops the racket down, the more "runway" on the way up to the ball, and thus the more racket speed potential. Buttscratch to the extreme and watch your topspin production increase dramatically.

From the trophy position, the elbow rises and points up to the sky during both the buttscratch and triceps extension portions of the swing. The racket needs to accelerate up the runway and there should be no pause or hitch from the buttscratch phase to contact. Players who have breakdowns in rhythm during this phase will lose pace and spin on the serve.

Back Arch

As compared to the other two kick variations, the back arch is critical to imparting twist. If you are a coach who does not believe in back arch, you can develop a decent true topspin and topspin slice, but not a great twist action.

I personally believe in teaching the back arch at a very young age to strengthen the core and maximize the flexibility of my students. I want my students to be able to hit all three second serves effectively including the twist.

The convex shape is the indication that the player is arching the back.

One additional benefit of back arch--for all kick serves, not just twist--is that it helps lower the racket even deeper into the buttscratch, creating more runway and thus more potential racket speed. I also believe that the activation of the core muscles and the snapping of the arched back add a small amount of extra energy to the motion.

Look for the convex shape of the back if you are teaching or learning the twist. The back arch also helps to get the hand and racket further behind the body, which allows for a more extreme left-to-right swing path. This puts the racket in the right position for the upward swing and is critical in generating the twist sidespin.

Triceps Extension

The triceps extension is equally important for racquet speed. The arm must snap upward as fast as humanly possible, and this is especially true on the kick. I tell my players to "swing faster on the second serve than the first serve."

The movement is from a deep buttscratch to a full triceps extension. Imagine the movement as a 100 yard dash. The racket must sprint upward from start to finish as fast as possible.

The triceps snap should be a sprint.

If the player has a slow triceps snap, this technical movement should be practiced extensively until it is mastered. The elbow should remain pointed upward at the sky during the triceps extension. This is the axis point that allows good extension to take place. A still elbow also promotes good alignment of the racket on its upward path to the ball.

Wrist and Hand Actions at Contact

And now for the most difficult part in actually producing the spins. This is how the player addresses the ball with the wrist and hand. As the triceps extension reaches its apogee (high point), the wrist should loosen and violently snap up-and-out to accelerate the racket.

The wrist needs to remain sufficiently loose to accentuate this up-and-out snapping action. But this optimum looseness of the wrist is difficult to describe in words. What is "loose" for one player may not feel "loose" to another.

The wrist can actually be too loose, which can make the movement imprecise and cause miss-hits. That said most players tend to be too tight. Players should experiment until they are able to keep the wrist loose but still control the racket head.

The wrist should be loose--but not too loose.

3 Variations

The next technical point is how the hand "closes" to set the racket on edge at the start of the movement upward to the ball.

As the racket moves up to the ball, the knuckles of the hand should point basically toward the sky, and the palm should face partially downward toward the court. This is critical to develop spin. Many students swing upward toward the ball with the palm facing upwards, which makes it impossible to create the spin you need to hit a kick.

From this position the racket moves upward and, in the last few microseconds before the contact, snaps forward and out to the right. Slight differences in the path of the racket and the angle of the racket head are what create the three different spin variations.

In learning the differences in how to hit the variations, it is important to distinguish between tennis science and the art of tennis coaching. The differences in the exact angle of the racket at contact are relatively slight. In high speed video, for example, the racket head may appear to be tilted slightly more to the left for the twist, as compared to the pure topspin. But even this is difficult to see.

The knuckles point toward the sky with the palm downward toward the court.

But the images we use to create these differences in the swings are more extreme. By visualizing the different racket paths, the player learns to vary the spin. Different images allow the player to master the three variations --and go back and forth between them with confidence in match play. We can also see the differences by observing the angle of the arm to baseline after the contact.

True Topspin

To hit True Topspin, the player should imagine that the racket is traveling directly up the back of the ball--from 6 to 12 o clock--brushing the back of the ball and generating straight forward spin. The racket may not actually be in this actual position at contact, but it will go through this position in the last fractions of a second before reaching the ball.

On the true topspin, the elbow is also more centered under the ball during the triceps extension. As the hand and racket go upward and forward through the contact the racket arm will reach an angle of about 45 degrees to the baseline. The result, as we saw in the video of the bounce, is the ball will kick up straight off the court.

True Topspin: visualize swinging 6 to 12.

Slice Topspin

To hit the Slice Topspin, visualize that the hand scrapes the bottom right edge of the ball and that the racket travels from 5 o clock to 1 o clock. So the player is actually imagining making contact on the right side of the ball. This image, whether an accurate description of what happens or not, is very effective, and will impart the correct combination of sidespin and topspin.

As in the true topspin serve, the elbow is more centered under the ball on the slice topspin. But the arm will travel more straight forward after contact. As it extends it will reach an angle to the baseline that is more like 60 degrees. I call this serve the slice topspin because it not only bounces up, it also curves to the server's left and therefore away from the opponent as we saw in the ball bounce video.

Slice Topspin: the image of the swing
is 5 to 1.


The twist is, as we saw, the most extreme variation of the three kicks. This means the image that you want to visualize is also more extreme. To hit the twist, visualize the racket hitting the ball at 7 o clock and then traveling upward and across the ball to 2 o clock. So now the player is imagining making contact on the left side of the ball--the opposite side from the slice topspin. (With the true topspin in the middle between the two.)

On the twist, the elbow should also be pulled back more to the left of the ball than on the other two variations to get this 7 to 2 brushing feel. The arm will also travel much more to the player's right, finishing at an angle that can approach 30 degrees to the baseline. When you think about the images of the different swing paths, the angle of the arm to the baseline is consistent with each of the three variations.

The image for the Twist is swinging from
7 o clock and 2 o clock.

Hip and Shoulder Lines at Contact

All great kick serves have what I call a hip and shoulder drag. This means that the hips and shoulders do not rotate as much into the contact point as on a flat or slice serve.

At contact, the hip and shoulder line on the kick should be approximately 30 to 45 degrees to the baseline. If you look at all the great kicks in the pro game, the difference in this angle is clear. This is why it's so important to coil in the beginning of the motion. The body will only partially uncoil before the contact, so it's important to get the most uncoiling "runway" here.

Dragging or delaying the hip and shoulder rotation can be difficult to learn. Players are often accustomed to rotating their hips into the flat serve to get maximum power. In learning the kick serve, you have to aggressively hold back the right side of the body and "stay more closed."

Drag the hips so the angle is 30 to 45 degrees to the baseline at contact.

If the hips and shoulders open too soon, the serve will lose twist. But at the same time there are subtle differences in the amount of hip drag depending on placement. If the player is trying to hit a slice topspin, for example, the hips and shoulders will open slightly more.

The Leg Drive

The leg drive is a big deal on the kick, and on any serve for that matter. Players need to explosively squat and drive up to the ball.

I am looking for about 70 degrees of flex at the knees before the explosive extension of the legs. Some students can get stuck in the squat, especially if they try to go down further than are really capable. Care should be taken to squat and explode quickly so as not to lose any potential energy. There should be no delay.

Leg drive--a big deal on the kick, and every serve.

The leg drive should be forward and up, propelling the body off the ground, but also forward into the court. The body should land between 1 and 1.5 feet into the court. If a player is not landing this far into the court, then the leg drive is insufficient and needs to be increased. The landing should be on the left foot with the shoulders basically square to the net. The right foot should kick backward and upward for counterbalance.

The Extension

Extension at contact includes more than the triceps and arm. The whole body should be extended as much as possible at contact. This means a straight line could be drawn from the toes all the way up the fingers.

Full extension of the entire body means a maximization of height and leverage. The player has got to "get tall." Many younger players tend to bend forward and/or to the side at contact.

Extending at contact means a straight line from the toes to the fingers. Post-Contact Arm Actions

The arm and wrist should continue to move outward and forward (crossing the plane of the baseline) in an arc to the right of the body on all three kick serves. The turning of the hand and racket will also continue as a consequence of this acceleration to the contact, what is sometimes called the pronation effect. This, however, is a consequence of the movement of the racket to the ball rather than something players should try to consciously produce.

As this movement continues the wrist will eventually release further with the tip of the racket starting to point downward. The tip of the racket should now lead the arm downward towards the finish. The tossing arm should also release down, preferably into the chest, or alternatively to a point near the left rib cage.

The Finish

The racket should now travel back to the left side of the body, and the hand should finish near the left pocket. Some pros will abbreviate the finish or follow-through to the right side only. This technique can be acceptable, but can also be stressful on the shoulder joint.

The tip of the racket points downward and leads the arm to the finish.

Young players often exaggerate this finish and this can cause technical problems. For example, players will not throw the elbow and arm forward into the court far enough because they visualize finishing on the right side of the body. For technical and physiological reasons, I believe it is always better--after the arcing of the swing out to the right--to release the arm and racquet back to the left side.


So there you have it. As you can see, on the kick serve there is a massive amount of information to absorb and myriad technical elements to master. This is why I have always contended that the kick is the hardest shot to learn in tennis, and this is why so many players struggle to master it.

The hand should travel back to the player's left and finish near the left pocket.

Practicing and perfecting these technical elements is easier said than done. But if you can break the mechanical moving parts down and practice each element individually, you will slowly gain mastery of the kick. Practice each component until the movement is perfected; then link the movements together. The result will be a beautiful and effective kick serve that you'll own for life.

In a follow-up training article, I'll explain the developmental timeline and stages for teaching and learning the kick and share some unique exercises that I use to help my students master each of these mechanical elements. This article describes all the necessary ingredients; the follow-up will give you the step-by-step recipe for building a truly world-class kick.

Special Thanks to Michael Logarzo, Zach Niklaus, and Andrew Catania for a great job demonstrating how to hit a great kick serve.

Chris Lewit is the director of the Chris Lewit Tennis Academy, with locations in the New York City area. He has coached numerous nationally and internationally ranked junior players, including several current top American players. After playing #1 singles for Cornell University, Chris competed on the ITF and USTA pro satellite and futures tours. He is a member of both the USPTA and PTR, and a graduate of the USTA High Performance Coaching program. In addition, Chris has traveled internationally to study the game with some of the world's top coaches. This article was adapted from his forthcoming book, The Tennis Technique Bible, one of several current publication projects.

Click Here to learn more about Chris's teaching system, his book projects, and his teaching academy.

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