All original content copyright © Mike Hopley
Singles serving tactics are completely different from doubles serving tactics. Whereas in doubles the low serve is objectively best, in singles it’s hard to pick one serve to use as your default.
Use high serves and low serves most of the time. Flick serves should be reserved for when you spot a weakness, or when you see that your opponent is rushing your low serve. Drive serves should normally be avoided.
As the server, you can choose whether to start the rally with forecourt or rearcourt play. Where is your opponent weaker? Where are you stronger?
If your net play is better than your opponent’s, then try a low serve. Conversely, if your opponent is good at the net but weak in the rearcourt, then use a high serve.
Test your opponent’s responses. Compare the outcome of low serves vs. high serves.
Explore your opponent’s response to high serves. Few players are able to play a powerful smash off a high serve, and many have difficulty making consistent contact with a vertically falling shuttlecock. You may find that your opponent frequently mishits the shuttlecock when you play a high serve; if so, keep using it!
The high serve is probably the best choice for most players, because your opponent is likely to be weak in the extreme rearcourt, and you have plenty of time after serving to get ready for the next shot.
A high serve may be an unwise choice against a player with a violent smash, or with accurate, deceptive drop shots. At the international level, high serves are the most common serve in women’s singles, but are used only infrequently in men’s singles. Nevertheless, high serves are occasionally used even in world-class men’s singles.
High serves should always be played towards the middle, not towards a corner.
This is the most common serve in high-level men’s singles, because it avoids the threat of a powerful smash.
The low serve may be played either forehand or backhand; both are used at the highest level of play, although the backhand version is more common. If you choose the backhand version, however, make sure you can also play a good backhand flick serve!
Play a low serve if you want to guide the rally towards starting with net play. Do not play this serve unless you can react quickly after serving! You must be able immediately to cover both the front and the back of the court.
The low serve should be played straight to the service T, or directly at the receiver. Avoid playing this serve wide, because you offer your opponent better angles of return and will have difficulty covering the straight replies.
The low serve is sometimes played deceptively, by beginning with a high serve action. Attempting this deception often leads to errors on the low serve; even international players tend to become disturbingly inconsistent when attempting this deception.
The problem is simple: good high serve technique differs greatly from good low serve technique! The low serve requires a short, precise swing with a flat pushing action; the high serve requires a long, unrestrained swing where the racket comes from underneath the shuttle.
These hitting actions are too different for an effective compromise. As a result, attempting this deception will weaken at least one of your serves: either the low serve will become inconsistent, or your high serves will become too flat (because you tried to make the high serve preparation look more like a low serve).
Furthermore, this deception is not especially useful. When you prepare to play a high serve, your opponent need not rush to move backwards; he has plenty of time, and can therefore wait until he is sure of your serve. This deception might catch out a few lazy players, but in the long run it’s not going to fool anyone.
In my view, this deception is harmful. All it achieves is to make your serves less accurate.
Players often opt for this deception because they are worried about their opponent anticipating the low serve. A better solution, however, is to use a flick serve.
The flick serve is mainly useful as a variation on your low serve. The purpose of this variation is to prevent your opponent from gaining an early advantage by anticipating your low serve.
Unlike the high serve deception described above, this service variation does not affect the accuracy of your low serve. Moreover, because flick serves place your opponent under movement pressure, this deception actually has a purpose other than vanity.
At high levels of play, the flick serve is usually aimed wide to the corner, and not towards the middle. This is because playing the flick serve wide creates greater movement pressure.
The flick serve must be played with enough height to prevent your opponent intercepting it in the midcourt; and it must land in the back tramlines. If you fail to get enough height or length, then your opponent can play a violent smash.
Many players will have difficulty achieving this when serving backhand; you will need to develop good technique to generate enough racket head speed. In the meantime, consider using a forehand serve instead.
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