The 1-Step Serve

While on tour, the very gnarly to return against Pro Jerry Hilecher would walk along the back of the service box, as his service motion. When he’d almost reach the right sidewall, he’d toss the ball you couldn’t see and serve up a hidden drive in front of himself that looked like it came out of his right hip, as it began speeding along that right sidewall toward the rear corner. The walking drive was very, very hard to even see, let alone return. 

Sometime back in the 90’s the 2-step serve was first done by Tim Sweeney, a “photon” drive server. The photon action would cause the ball to bounce and then magically spin right in place before it would take off in an even faster gear, rocketing into to the backcourt. In the blink of an eye, lightening fast National Champion Michael Bronfeld would dive to a corner to return a photon. Ask him about his Brian Fredenberg match and his many dives just to keep Brian’s photons in play. 

Which Service Motion, Equipment or Contact Made Photon Better?

It’s not certain whether the 2-step motion contributed heavily to those super-fast photon serves … or was it the pressurized ball of the era, or the racquets back then, or where the server placed their strings on the dropped ball? When asked, Egan Inoue, another phenomenal photoner, answered that he placed the racquet strings on ball closer to him and a little <up>, too, on the outer rim of his sweet-spot. That spin and ball speed combo was just amazing to witness.

Feetwork to Serve

Feet work to serve ball has evolved, but to be effective it still must be based on these fundamental principles:

1) balance;

2) step up stance setting;

3) connecting press back

4) preparation (load back and loop up);

5) identical ball tosses;

6) weight transfer;

7) rotation of lower and upper body;

8) arm action from backswing to downswing to outswing;

9) final foot of magic, when racquet waves thru ball, determines its direction, revolutions and mph;

10) recovery or rebalancing; and

11) relocating

Now that’s a big build up to THE simplest form of feetwork we have to serve. It’s the one step (1-step) service motion. Now the 1-step far exceeds the plant and whack or two-footed plop and pop that’s like a jump stop, with an arm-only swipe used by some as their rally stroking method and it’s pretty much restricted to high lob serving. How the feet and legs interplay is a MAJOR KEY to the motion. The 1-step let’s you efficiently be the biped you are. It’s like how a baseball hitter learns to load their hips in one fluid motion, by getting down their stride to the pitcher to interplay both legs, as push open off back foot after stride starts rotation. Now as racquetball server, as you step up, continue pulling hand back and windup upper body. Front foot press back converts to untorque legs and then open hips. Torque wrist as arm/wrist/hand guides racquet head out thru ball. Contact magic happens due to commitment to swing, racquet flow thru ball, and untorquing arm/wrist even when lofting up a lob. Of course the action is far more exaggerated for a drive serve when *how* the racquet strings are placed on the ball determines its angle or trajectory, speed or pace and spin or action, as the ball curve can almost be at a non-constant angle, as it’s very unpredictable.

1-Step Technique

Today we’re going to review the technique for the one step (1-step) serve motion. (Notice that I didn’t limit it to the 1-step drive serve motion, as it’s also used for lobs, too) The 1-step is where you get set, step up (forward), wind up and … unleash your serve, via a simple motion, with great disguise, power on demand, a remarkable variety of serve options and an ability to impart useful spin or action on the ball. The 1-step motion is done from a stance supporting a medium to low contact stroke, like what you use for a cracking rally passing shot. In essence, that is what many drive serves are … from a set play stance, you step up, toss-n-hit, move into the ball and precisely place your pre-chosen passing shot-type serve in your backcourt target spot.

The 1-Step Service Motion Purposes 

There are lots of purposes for serves and the 1-step can fulfill just about all of them. Waist high to knee high (or just below) is routine contact height for the 1-step. Strategically the 1-step provides the hitting platform for pretty much any serve, when unleashed from the very simple stance and with a coordinated, simple stroke motion. Manifold drive serves can be hit. While looking like you’re about to hit a drive serve, a surprise lob could be subbed in to the 1-step motion. To 1-step, simply balance, step up and, as you finalize prep and load back, toss ball forward, connect legs (with front-to back-to front), drop down (bend knees), and all-in-one execute your body and arm motion attacking your ball toss. Two of the biggest advantages of the 1-step motion are its repeatable consistency and, due to the routine more upright server posture, legal screening or somewhat hiding the ball on its way back into the backcourt is a byproduct of the server standing taller vs it being a deliberate tactical ploy. After the serve is away, that more upright posture, as well as usually not being as far forward in the service box as the 2-step motion, allows the 1-stepper to *get out of the box* quicker, too. Getting back in good position in center court is important. Covering the receiver’s return is the second part of any serve strategy.

… for better understanding …

Here’s a Quick Primer on The Screen Serve Rule

The Screen Serve is a “served ball that first hits the front wall and on the rebound passes so closely to the server, or server’s partner in doubles, that it prevents the receiver from having a clear view of the ball”. As the ball crosses the short line, the point is can you, as the receiver, see the ball as it passes by on either side of the server? If the server is inside the 3′ out drive serve lines on each wall and the served ball angles and hits within a couple feet of either back corner, it’s probably not a screen. In self officiated play, only the receiver can make the screen call. Even in competition, the referee often defers to the judgment of the receiver as to whether they can see the “screen” well enough to have an advantage returning. If the receiver believes they are screened, they raise their non-racquet hand as a signal to the ref and then the ref decides. First, the receiver must start in the center to get the screen call. 

 The 1-Step Forehand Motion 

Most players serve with their forehands. Pretty much everyone learns to serve that way, by facing their forehand sidewall, in a pre-sidearm throw prep, with the racquet drawn back. Then they step up, load back, push forward and throw the racquet head out, thru the ball and hit the ball across in front of them. In early reps, players raise their racquet in their windup prep motion and initially they learn to serve by hitting these crosscourt drive serves. A right-handed player serving to another righty’s backhand uses that crosscourt motion. The point is the drive is easier to hit across your body than it is to hit away from your body down along the wall that you face. You have to train up hitting a down the line serve, like when a lefty serves down along the left wall to the left, rear corner or a righty serves to the right, rear corner. It requires an in to out action, striking the part of the ball closer to you and then flowing the part of the strings that struck the ball to directly point at your front wall target spot. That front wall spot, to keep the ball along the wall, is a little under halfway between where you make ball contact and the sidewall in front of you. The basic object is to either crack out the down the line (DTL) serve directly in the back corner or to make the ball bounce twice before it gets to the corner. Eventually learning to hit a serve that just barely clears the short line and glances off the sidewall or cracks out will be in your plans. That crack-out stroke action would be a little more inside-out or further from you on the front wall and by making contact with the part of the ball that’s closest to you.

Serve with Feel

Finding or confirming these angles and sorting out your mechanics is done while playing and definitely during repetitive practice. When it comes to serving in competition, your feel for both your front wall target spot and the stroke that finds that spot from your 1-step motion and its balance, efficiency of action and reliability empowers you to go for it and have many serve options.

The Basic Steps to 1-Step

First, set your back foot by stepping back like you’re about to hit a low contact stroke in a rally. Also, begin to lift your racquet. Here are the individual steps to execute a 1-step, full body serve:

  1. Set feet a little under shoulder width apart in initial neutral stance
  2. Load: begin to wind hips away (turn waist), along with initially beginning to lift racquet over back shoulder, with elbow flexed, and also raise hand holding ball waist high
  3. Load up inside of back foot with piston down or pressing down
  4. Time ball toss with initial move forward, (as you’ll move in to attack tossed ball after you’ve moved and turned into your set stance)
  5. Lift front foot, step up, and plant lightly … in stance adjustable to ball contact height
  6. Finalize pulling racquet hand back and winding back upper body
  7. Begin to work against front leg with right away key kick back off inside of front foot which brings alive and releases body spring to allow coming, leg drive, hip flip and core turn
  8. Push forward off inside of rear foot
  9. At same time as front foot is settling accepting push, loop arm in downswing (to begin to level off and point racquet backwards)
  10. Turn back knee and flip connected hip  starting upward  flowing body rotation 
  11. Walk away from racquet hand unweighting racquet, which means slide sideways toward front of stance, as racquet head is fully leveled off
  12. Drive elbow forward as wrist torques or twists loading up for final explosive snap thru the ball (note that now is when covering opponent will be able to move to cover expected shot. If they move before this, PASS UM!)
  13. Keep pushing to open via forward turn up thru untorquing hips toward opening waist to front wall
  14. Core bridges beginning shoulders fling, as non-racquet side crunches, freeing and fueling racquet side rotation
  15. Racquet head drives forward in shallow arc, as lower body keeps rotating, racquet flows thru butt pointing at target, and racquet arm subtly, but critically begins separating from bend at elbow
  16. Core-powered shoulder fling, with chest assist, accelerates arm sling created by shoulder action either abducting (arm out from midline) for BH or shoulder adducting (arm moving in) for FH.
  17. In sweeping, committed motion, arm flow keys serve’s power + accuracy
  18. Guide racquet out in hand-eye coordinated, strings-to-ball-goal swing arc
  19. As contact arrives, to snap, arrowing arm begins to roll or spiral first in the elbow and forearm, then adding wrist at last second, as both interweave powering racquet head spiral thru ball
  20. Racquet face angle and its force thru contact shapes shot trajectory
  21. Following focused ball contact, with the stroke’s fastest motion so far, by far, the slapping of the racquet face across or completely thru the ball flows into the follow-through first pointing strings to target and going on to point racquet hand knuckles at target wall
  22. Racquet head keeps turning over post impact, as arm wraps around you finishing low, by turning thru to Palm Down for the FH or toward, though less completely to Palm Up for the BH
  23. Racquet finishes behind you off-shoulder high
  24. Extricate yourself from box, as fast as possible
  25. Shift from front foot to back foot, balance up and gather yourself, as you body pivot ball side, while picking up (seeing) and reading receiver’s return cues (tactics and shot choice)
  26. Use front foot first step crossover (front over back) or crisscross (front behind back), as either are fastest feetwork start to cover court more than ~6′ to get into coverage or to pursue the ball
  27. Use downshift-and-go; after tapping on your brakes in center (powering down with knee bend). Get in crouch, readying to improvise tracking down expected ball when receiver’s elbow starts forward (after starting their downswing and racquet point back)
  28. Racquet shields you as you cover while anticipating: 1) cutting off return thru the middle; or 2) doing two step out to blanket wall, cutting off DTL return (with back foot step to wall and front foot diagonal step up to swing; or 3) either retreat fast to shoot in backcourt or advance even faster to front court to cover low return attempts

Nuances of 1-Step Motion

Due to its simplicity, the 1-step motion is tailor-made for drive serves meant to: (a) dart to the back corners; (b) crackout right past the short line; (c) or, for example, optionally angle to bounce and then graze sidewall at 37′ to take its second bounce right up against the back wall; that serve gets around receiver’s hard charging cutoff of ball angling to back court. The 1-step can also produce an array of drive Z’s, jam serve angles and lobs for tactical placements in both singles and doubles. All that it takes is practice and stick-to-ed-ness to find your favorite serve options.

The 1-Step Backhand

In addition to the routine forehand, the backhand offers two qualities which makes it worthwhile to learn how to serve both hard, with backhand drives that pressure the receiver, and also soft, with less powerful drives and off-speed lobs, too. The lighter hit off-speed drive and off-speed lob can also be hit with cut or inside-out racquet flow to shape a serve angling right along the sidewall and into your backhand rear corner. Serving with your backhand fortifies your backhand stroke so it becomes a weapon you may count upon to return serve or to shoot rally backhands to gain an advantage by occupying lots of space, with its bigger swing arc than the forehand. By capitalizing on its versatile shotmaking, one-wall passes and kill-shots, a multitude of sidewall shots, ceilings and aggressive high Z  defensive shots can be struck with your 1-step backhand service motion.

Backhand Power Drive Serve

The backhand drive serve, particularly back behind you toward your forehand, rear corner is very hard to see and hard to read what action the serve stroke puts on the serve. A righty crosscourt backhand is actually powered by the same type of spin as a lefty forehand. And it’s the same type of righty forehand spin when a lefty serves backhands crosscourt to the left, rear corner. Hitting across your body also generates lots of stroking force.

An Aside: Tactical Serving Attacking Receiver’s Strength

It’s counterintuitive that the lefty server would attack the righty forehand with their lefty forehand crosscourt serve. The righty receiver takes it as an effrontery because the serve is directed at their major strength, their forehand. Yet it’s a great challenge to return the lefty forehand serve, which seems to just keep breaking away from the struggling receiver as they pursue the serve angling further and further into the sidewall. The point is that serving with the 1-step and using your forehand or backhand to attack both corners should be in your serving bag of tactics.

1-Step Serving Versatility

The 1-step motion can adapt to produce a vast array of hard and off-speed drive serves, medium speed lob serves and a variety of sideways angles or width and vertical angles from contact at as high as chin high down to shin high.

 Crosscourt Tactical Serves

When serving across your body, the serve is both hard to see for the receiver and it’s also the way to hit your serve or rally shot your very hardest. That goes for hitting your backhand crosscourt (like serving a crosscourt forehand to your backhand corner as your most powerful forehand stroking form). A crosscourt backhand (or forehand) is potentially the hardest serve because it calls upon so many sources of force. Here’s how-to engage those forces: pull your racquet from behind where it starts in prep. Loop the arm and racquet down. Then push the arm out into the slot that arcs out and thru ball impact zone. Ultimately the fast-moving outward flowing centrifugal, reaching away force is even surpassed by powerful inwards pulling force, as you finish centripetally pulling in toward you when crushing the ball. And, as you complete the stroke, flow the racquet to finish in toward your body. The racquet continues pulling inward on into your follow-through that flows around behind you after first flowing in the direction of your crosscourt serve. Even an inside-out motion still finishes with an inwards finish.

In to Out Backhand Serve

Imagine grabbing a Smart car small tire and tossing it toward the front wall with all the force you can muster from your backhand, frisbee toss stroking motion. Now that’s a crosscourt motion. Although it’s not as powerful as the outside-in crosscourt serve, the inside-out serve, for instance, as a righty backhand serve to the left, rear corner, can still be hit hard when using the 1-step motion to attack a righty backhand return or to catch a lefty off guard who’s expecting a serve to their backhand side. A really tricky doubles serve and a way to work on racquet control is to hit a backhand serve inside-out aiming to catch the crack on the sidewall in your target zone between the dashed receiving line and about 5′ from the back wall. When to hit inside-out: as the other team’s doubles opponent on the same side as your back to the wall partner begins to tactically, unwisely move up toward the receiving line hoping to crowd your partner’s movement into coverage or pressure your serve, NOW it’s time to attack them. With your backhand, go for that crack on the sidewall next to the doubles poacher and throw a wrench in their works, their team return coverage. That player will probably have to leave your serve for their partner who will start out of position when covering your serve. Of course, hitting that same serve angle with your crosscourt forehand is doable with your 1-step motion, too. Tactically it places the served ball in the middle in deep court and your partner may stay closer to the sidewall in coverage, a formation seen more and more often in doubles positioning. You don’t have to give up the pinch, just the straight in and crosscourt to the far, rear corner.

Now Let’s Pour Over Some More Details About the 1-Step

The 1-Step drive allows you to take a little extra time to produce a powerful, adaptive stroke optionally from higher or lower contact, with lots knee and hip turn that travels up into core untwist, shoulder spin and massive potential arm whip. While the 2-step motion supports a faster, lower lateral move which adds lots of potential force, it’s not as versatile as the 1-step motion. Again the 1-step … 1) allows you to transition from an apparent drive serve to a lob serve motion; 2) allows you to speed up your service box escape when serving from a more upright stroke form; and 3) allows you to make contact with your serve at multiple contact heights to deliver a variety of serve heights to thoroughly test your receiver’s return skills. With the 1-step, you can still create a very low, grass-cutter service angle. Or you can make higher contact looking for a deep corner first bounce to fly the ball out of that back corner along that sidewall. Similarly thigh high to waist high contact can produce higher drive Z and jam fly serve angles that challenge the movement and higher contact shot-response skills of both singles and doubles receivers. For instance, a leaning drive Z that is served into the target front corner to then diagonally cross the court, bounce, contact the far sidewall about 6′ out from the back wall then angle diagonally back to die right up against the back wall about 6′ out from the sidewall. Jam fly serves or as it’s been coined wrap around serves can go into the front wall at a higher level and retain that height as the jam caroms off the first sidewall, veers to the middle in back, contacts and pops off the back wall and flies out to the far sidewall still at waist high challenging the receiver to have to move and shoot medium height to low for a way too tempting kill-shot return; also having to counter jam spin to shoot DTL.

1-Step Test of Receiver’s Return Height Control

A higher incoming served ball tests the receiver’s ability to shoot either the aggressor’s tendency to shoot a bunch of kill-shot returns or to control the shot height and avoid either a back wall setup or a left up ball in mid court when attempting a high contact to lower wall target spot for a passing shot angle.

Rotation Friendly Form

As mentioned earlier, the more upright approach, simpler feetwork by getting your feet organized and then setting the front foot and pressing back starts the back to front highly coordinated lateral turning action. By pressing back with the front foot, as you step up, it releases the trail side to initiate a bottom up, back to front sideways boosted, full body turn into the ball. It creates a very balanced stroking base and builds rotation that is transferred up thru the core into the upper body and the arm slingshot effect out and forcefully thru contact. By setting the legs to allow turn and not over closing the feet, it’s a motion that’s very knee and lower back friendly. It can be done again and again, with less fatigue to deliver precise placements, match after match, even in demanding back-to-back tourney formats. A slightly open stance is optimal to ensure back leg drive and optimal body turn. Even a partially closed, half a tennis shoe further out to sidewall front foot isn’t as body pivot friendly. The in-between parallel feet position or golfer stance, sans cleats, is a poor, imbalanced stance. A 45 degree angled stance is not good form, as it blocks the knee and back turns. Court drilling builds your comfort zone with your feet placement and finding and training up what works best for you. 

Freewheeling Arm Motion 

The established, solid stroking base sets up the upper body crunching core and augmenting chest and upper back to fling the shoulders and then momentously sling the racquet arm at the racquet shoulder joint. Then the triceps, forearm and wrist unleash and uncork great arm momentum creating extremely adaptive serve options.

Drill Arm Motion

 Start by rhythmically drilling your arm motion. From your full backswing, with racquet well overhead, perform a flowing downswing to arc and point back and then sweep in arc out and thru contact. The racquet head flows out toward your sidewall and then continues arcing thru the ball, on to your wall target and then low around you. But, first, before the follow-through, the integral, final, potentially explosive back-to-front forearm, wrist, hand and racquet handle spiral must be perfected so it works like clockwork and is reliable and trusted. Do it in exaggerated super-slow motion. Learn the position of the racquet head throughout its full flow so you can control it thru the impact zone and so that you can recapture the flow should it wander during a match. The racquet head starts by pointing upwards. It flows in the initial arcing downswing to point back and on into a Palm Up position for the forehand (FH) or Palm Down for the backhand (BH), with the elbow still bent. Then, while arcing out to the ball and arrowing the arm, the forearm first spirals, as the racquet face begins turning from facing up for the FH or out to sidewall for the BH. The wrist joins in to spiral, too, and supercharge the racquet head turn. The racquet head points out at the sidewall thru contact. Note that the forearm/wrist spiral action works optimally when the hand is below the elbow. Control over the racquet head’s *spin* is how you manage your racquet head thru ball contact to create the trajectory visualized for your pre-selected serve and felt service motion to achieve your chosen serve placement. A trick I use to train up racquet head control is waist high to low target practice. I drop and hit while shooting from behind the short line toward a spot low on the front or sidewall. You’ll find that once you can control that high to low action, you can develop a flatter swing to produce your felt front wall target when executing medium or lower contact drive serves. Those serves can be hit from contact just mere inches off the floor up to about 3′ high, depending on your pre-picked contact height, your toss, and how the front foot step up sets your contact-adjusted stance width. Being fallible, if your toss or stance isn’t just right, adjust and pick your doable serve angle width-wise. Once you’ve dropped the ball, you have to serve it.

Drill 1-Step Foot work

The interplay between the front and the back foot is what creates balance, stability, stroking power potential and target control. From set back foot, piston down or march in place, and then step up. Press back, release and push off to acceptant front foot, including encouraging turn up thru knees –> then hips –> then core –> then chest and shoulder turn –> into arm slingshot –> to whip arm with body weight predominately on front foot thru contact.

Drill 1-Step Foot work Steps

(1) Turn and face sidewall

(2) Feet narrow

(3) Cock back waist/hips

(4) Piston down back foot

(4) Sneak step up low with front foot

(5) Press back right away

(6) Final load back

(7) Quick push off

(8) Untorque knees on up

(9) Flip hips

(10) Rotate core

(11) Bridge off side

(12) Fling shoulders

(13) Sling arm

(14) With shoulder motion, move arm to midline for forehand or away from midline for backhand

(15) Spiral arm, wrist and racquet

(16) Make contact with forearm and wrist-powering strong hitting platform of arm, wrist joint, hand and racquet

(17) Post contact shift front foot to back foot

(18) Move to D-up using best, practiced feetwork for this serve situation while always being cognizant of the receiver’s movement and shotmaking cues.

Practice Getting into Coverage After 1-Step Serve

After the serve is away,  bounce the box (escape) while looking to gobble up any left up slop returned by the receiver you’re closely watching. Train up feetwork to find your best method for principles of balanced movement to center, ready stance to cover and efficiency actions to track and crack their return, with chance taking prioritized because you’re in attack-mode. You’re the server. The ball’s in your court.