Quite a long time ago now, I wrote an article focusing on the importance of not neglecting your serve. That message still stands strong, however, the next step up from that is mixing up your serve.
Many players do the same type of serve before every single point, and, perhaps this isn't exactly a bad thing. Chances are, if you do the same serve that many times, you will do so accurately and consistently.
However, if you're looking to upset the flow of the match, be a little more tactical, and catch your opponent off-guard a little more, then mixing up the serve a little could be very beneficial.
In this post, I'll dive into five different ways of mixing up your serve, how often to utilise them, and how to execute them (including targets to aim for)...
1. The Lob Serve
This is probably the most common type of serve and it's definitely my go-to, which is why I'm starting with it!
The lob serve involves hitting a high, arching cross court that makes contact high-up on the side wall of your opponent's half before dropping down to the floor and hopefully dying in the back.
Ideally, the lob serve should hit the side wall right where your opponent would want to try to volley it, restricting their ability to do so.
Of course, there's a reason that this is the most common type of serve, and that's because it gives you plenty of time to step across to the T and get in control of the rally right from the start.
It's interesting because, although the lob is generally seen as a defensive shot (during a rally), in a serve situation the lob is designed to elicit another defensive shot back from your opponent too.
If you can get it past your opponent without them being able to volley it and it landing deep and dead into that back corner, they will be forced to either play a boast or lift another weak straight drive out the back that you can hopefully pounce on and take early, keeping that pressure on them right from the get-go.
Positioning is pretty important when executing the lob serve. If you're a right-handed player and you're serving from the right, you should stand at the front of the service box with your right foot in the box, your left foot outside the box, and your chest and toes pointing towards the front wall.
Then, you can visualise where you're going to aim for on the front wall and think about where the ball is going to travel and land after that. This position will also help you get the necessary width to reduce your opponent's chances of volleying.
On top of that, the momentum from your swing through the ball in this position will then carry you in the direction of the T, so you can move there in one fluid motion after you have made contact with the ball.
Many players make the mistake of facing the side wall too much when serving from the right side, which often results in their body twisting and their lob serve being loose and easy for the opponent to volley. Try not to do this!
If you're serving from the left side, you should be directly facing the right side wall with your right foot in the service box and your left foot stepping forward outside of the service box.
This side is a little harder to find the angle from, with the most common error of lob serves being that they go out above the red line on the side wall.
This just comes with practice.
You will learn how risky you can afford to be with your height and pace before the ball goes out, and then you can implement this into your in-match serves.
That goes for both sides.
Please note that this serving advice is also the opposite if you're a left-handed player.
2. The Power Serve
The power serve allows you to apply more pressure on your opponent right from the start of the rally.
Unlike finesse-oriented serves like the lob, the power serve relies on sheer force and precision.
Again, you want to be hitting this serve with a good amount of width so your opponent can't volley it. The target on the front and side wall is, of course, lower than that of the lob serve, however, the foot positioning and stance is generally the same.
The volley in return of the power serve can be pretty dangerous because your opponent can just transfer the momentum of all that power into their own shot, and hit it even harder back at you, which will then put you on the backfoot instead.
The other pitfall of the power serve is that it often bounces very far out of the back corner, especially on a hot court, giving your opponent a lot of time to play their shot and put you under pressure.
Something I've also noticed is that many players, especially club-level players, use a power serve on every single point. However, they often do so without any real purpose or target in mind, rather than just blindly whacking the ball in a rush to get the rally started.
If you're more comfortable serving with a power serve in comparison to a lob serve, then at least make efforts to take a moment to think about those targets I mentioned further above before you hit your serve.
Make sure you're serving with purpose before every single point. It's not like you can get away with serving quickly before your opponent is ready, you will just have to play the point.
You may as well take a couple of seconds to compose yourself, position your feet, and think about where you want the ball to go.
However, in my opinion, the power serve is particularly effective if used sparingly (rather than every time you serve).
For example, most of the time I would advise playing the lob serve, but, if you throw in a power serve every now and again, your opponent may be caught off-guard and will scramble to return it.
It's very unlikely that they will be expecting it, and, they may have even positioned themselves a little differently if they're expecting you to play a lob serve, so, even though the rally is only just starting, your opponent might already be out of position, which can be a big advantage for you!
There's a common misconception that only club-level players use a powerful serve, but, if you watch some of the top professional players play, you'll definitely see them throw one in every now and again.
And, they wouldn't do this unless it was a wise strategy, so, the proof is in the pudding! However, it's worth noting that professionals don't necessarily always use the lob serve either, they often use something in-between, kind of like a medium pace, medium height serve that hits the target every single time.
There's another type of serve that you may see professionals throw in every now and again, and that's the body serve...
Photo credit: Steve Cubbins
3. The Body Serve
The body serve is exactly what it sounds like, a serve targetted towards the body of your opponent.
This one should be used even more sparingly than the power serve. In fact, anything more than once per game is too much in my opinion, but, I know some older and more crafty players who can consistently execute a good body serve again and again, and it definitely works against certain types of players.
I will leave it up to your discretion!
Obviously, your target is your opponent's body, so this one needs to be hit with a decent bit of pace if it is actually going to be effective.
However, hitting this serve accurately is definitely harder than it sounds. A body is quite big, but, to hit a ball from the serve box hard against the front wall, and get it to accurately go directly toward your opponent is quite tough.
So, just keep that in mind. If you're going to try it and you've never tried it before, perhaps in a friendly or during training is the best time to give it a whirl.
It is certainly quite a high risk shot depending on your opponent's style and standard.
There is a always chance you could serve out back into your own half and lose the point, this is more likely than you might think because you'll be hitting the ball pretty hard for the body serve.
Alternatively, you may just do a very loose hard serve that is perfect for your opponent to volley and put you on the back foot right from the start of the rally.
But, when hit right, the body serve forces your opponent to scramble and move fast to get out of the way, then, they will be forced to return it while in a rush and out of position, so, you've got a good chance of getting a weak shot back from them.
The best outcome is that the ball actually hits them and you win the point. Don't worry, it really shouldn't hurt them. I've been hit (somewhat embarrassingly) by a good few body serves in the past and it hurts my feelings more than my body.
If it does hit your opponent, chances are they will get a little riled up which could also provide you with another advantage in the following point.
With regard to when to play this serve, I would say that the body serve is most effective straight after a very long, hard rally.
The end of a rally is a big break, and, your opponent will probably be expecting you to be tired too. They're also likely to be doing everything they can to compose themself and they will be keen to sink back into a rhythm again.
You can capitalise on this with the body serve. It doesn't take too much extra out of you, and, it forces them to jump out of their position fast to dodge the ball, it's a great strategy for messing with the pace of the match.
The body serve definitely spices up the match a bit, so, I still think it's a viable option for any player to try out, even though it could be classed as pretty unorthodox.
4. The Serve Down The Middle
Another one that's even more on the riskier side is the serve down the middle.
In comparison to the body serve, the target for the serve down the middle is actually even closer to the server (or the middle line).
This is one of the reasons why it is so risky, there is always a chance of you hitting the ball back into your own half and losing the point.
There is also a risk of your opponent reacting and turning to volley your serve down the middle which could end up putting you under a lot of pressure very early on in the rally.
This is why the serve down the middle should be hit hard. Plus, the whole point of the serve down the middle is to catch your opponent off-guard, so pace is your friend here.
Just make sure you hit it low on the front wall so it bounces on the floor before hitting the back wall. If it hits the back wall first, it will bounce back out allowing your opponent to take their time, move forward, and put you under pressure too.
Now, something else I would mention about the serve down the middle is that, from a safety perspective, it's a little more dangerous. For this reason, I wouldn't recommend it for beginner players to try since you need to be pretty consistent at hitting your targets to execute one safely.
If you think about what your opponent will have to do when that serve comes down the middle, they will have to twist around to play a forehand if they're on the backhand side and a backhand if they're on the forehand side.
This means that their return has a good chance of coming back down towards the middle and the T, which, is also generally where you should be trying to position yourself after you serve a normal serve.
But, if you're going for a serve down the middle, it's important to be fully aware of where the ball goes and how your opponent positions themselves when they're about to hit it.
It's probably best that you don't move all the way onto the T after this serve, instead, just stay a little closer to the service box you just hit from.
There's always a chance of your opponent stopping and asking for a let if you're too far in the way, but, still make sure to keep your distance to minimise your risk of being hit by the ball.
The serve down the middle should also be used very sparingly, no more than once per game to keep your opponent guessing and on their toes.
5. The Backhand Serve
I was on the fence about including this, however, the backhand serve is still a different variation of serve and it does allow you to mix things up a little more.
Now, you will very rarely (if ever) see someone doing a backhand serve from the backhand side of the court (which is the left side if you're right-handed and the right side if you're left-handed), because it's quite difficult to execute and involves a lot more twisting of the body.
So, in this section, I am talking only about a backhand serve from your forehand side (hopefully this makes sense).
Anyway, the majority of pros use a backhand serve and I think there are a few reasons for this.
The first is that, since they are facing the direction that they are serving the ball to, they can visualise their target much better than if they were serving using a forehand and facing the wall.
Also, since they are facing the T as they serve, it's a lot easier to just take that extra couple of steps and be securely on the T before your opponent has a chance to return your serve.
The final reason a backhand serve is different from a forehand serve is because it allows you to access a different angle.
I spoke to my friend about this recently (as he uses a backhand serve 100% of the time from the forehand side), and, he says that he finds it a lot easier to accurately hit the target high up on his opponent's side wall and then the floor dead in the back.
For me personally, I use a forehand serve from the forehand side around 90% of the time because I find it easier to hit my targets that way. This is probably because I'm just so used to it, I've been doing it since I started playing squash.
I do dabble with a backhand serve every now and again, but I still struggle to do it consistently and accurately. But this is just me personally.
Perhaps it indicates a change that I need to make in my own game, because, on paper, the backhand serve has more benefits than the forehand serve!
However, it's also worth mentioning that it can be harder to access power from a backhand serve due to how you throw the ball up before you hit it.
But, power isn't a necessity with the generic squash serve, height is more of a priority instead. The best serve is one that your opponent can't volley, so height and tightness to the side wall are your friends most of the time.
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