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HAVING A GOOD serve in tennis is essential.

Each time that you serve you have the opportunity to be in complete control of the point. You can do this by hitting an outright ace, forcing your opponent to hit the ball out of play or into the net, or by forcing a weak return that will give you an easy shot to put away.

There are four main types of serves -- the flat, American twist, slice and spin (which is also known as the topspin or kicker).

Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each:

FLAT SERVE -- A few years ago, many players would blast their first serve as hard as they could. When the serve went in, it was usually unreturnable. Unfortunately, when the first serve missed, the second serve was hit very slowly, and was easy to return and put away.

The flat serve can be a tremendous weapon when a high percentage is going in. Serving to the corners or even right at an opponent can cause many weak returns and setups. However, the hard flat serve is difficult for most players to hit on a consistent basis as it isn't as easy to control as the other serves.

To hit it correctly, the ball should be tossed slightly in front and to the right of the server. This is especially effective for players six feet and over, as they are hitting down on the ball.

My advice is to occasionally use the flat serve. When the score is 30-0, 40-0 or 40-15, that is a good time to use it. Even if you miss the first serve you still have a safe lead, and have a chance to hit your second serve.

The flat serve is taught to most beginners. Of course, it is taught at a much slower pace than the hard, fast one.

As a player progresses, he or she may then attempt to hit the following three serves.

AMERICAN TWIST -- As used by Stefan Edberg and Boris Becker, this can be an extremely powerful weapon. The high bounce you get can pull the receiver off the court. And, if you are a net rusher, you will be able to hit the service return for an easy volley winner.

To hit the ball correctly, it should be tossed to the left of your head and behind you. You would then hit from left to right to impart the heavy spin that makes the serve so effective.

The American Twist is an especially good second serve as it can be hit with great pace and control and still clear the net with room to spare. Unfortunately, it isn't used nearly as much as it was a few years ago. This is due to the severe strain it puts on your back and elbow. Even Edberg, as great as he is, suffers occasional back problems that are directly related to the stroke and motion of the serve.

If you do use the twist, be sure that you have stretched properly, and that your back muscles are strong and supple.

SLICE SERVE -- This is often preferred over the flat and American Twist. Although the serve is hit almost as hard as the flat serve, the motion gives you a little more control.

The slice, which has the ball being tossed sightly to the right and in front of the server, is especially effective when serving wide to both the deuce and ad courts. This is due to the ball bouncing extremely low and moving away from the opponent.

However, you must be extremely careful when you toss the ball.

The ball clears the net at a lower height than the American Twist. Therefore, your margin of error is slightly lower.

The good news is that the slice serve does not create the problems that the American Twist does. Also, because you are tossing the ball into the court, you are able to lean into the ball in a more orthodox position.

SPIN SERVE -- This is very popular. To hit the serve correctly, the ball is tossed slightly to the left (some players prefer to toss it directly overhead) and behind the player's head. This motion allows the server to swing with great power and control. The ball clears the net continuously at a safe height, and lands deep in the receiver's box. This forces an opponent to make an extremely difficult return.

Another advantage of the spin serve is that the second serve may be hit just as hard as your first. The only difference is that you are hitting up on the ball, higher than on the first serve. This is done to allow for more margin of error to clear the net.

One problem that sometimes occurs with the serve is tossing the ball too far behind you. Even though you will still get your serve into play, it may not be pushy enough, as you will not be able to generate the same pace as when you throw the ball a little farther forward.

If you are not sure which serve is best for you, taking a few lessons from a qualified professional is highly recommended. He or she can be very helpful in determining which type of serve or serves are best suited for you.

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