Holding Back on Serves

By Larry Hodges

Suppose you have a tricky serve that gives your opponent all sorts of problems. But suppose it's also one of those serves that he can get used to, and only works by either surprise or by the opponent's not being used to it. Should you hold back on this serve for key points in the match?

To start with, you won't really know if the serve is effective unless you actually try it out against an opponent. Sometimes you may know from previous matches. Either way, you should use it early on to establish whether the serve is effective.

The idea behind holding back on a serve is that 1) if you use it too often, the opponent will get used to it, and so 2) hold back on it until you reach a key point. The thinking is that if you use it early in a game, and that games ends up not being close, then you've "wasted" that serve.

There is logic behind the above, and yet many players way overdo this, holding back on their best serves - i.e. some of their best weapons - except when it's close. This is like a looper not looping until it is close, or a hitter waiting until its close before hitting.

If you have a serve that really bothers an opponent, use it. Just as you don't know if you are "wasting" it in a game that might not be close in the end, you might find yourself using this key serve to come back at the end of a game that you might have been winning instead. Would you rather be up 10-8 or down 8-10 when you use this key serve? Do you really think using it at the very start of the game is going to strongly affect how they return it at the very end? And yet, by using it early on, you'll often find yourself up 10-8 and using it; if you'd held back, you might be down 8-10 instead.

If you have a serve that really bothers an opponent, use it regularly in rotation with your other serves, and put yourself in a position where you use the serve at the end of games to win that game, not just when you are down (and where you might "waste" the serve if your comeback falls short). If you are in a competitive match, and can win one "free" game on the strength of one serve, use it! And don't kid yourself into thinking that your opponent will magically become strong against this serve as long as you use it somewhat sparingly. His returns may become more effective, but that's true of any shot you may throw at him.

It's better to use your winning shots (and serves) and win then to hold back on them and hope to come back and win with them at the end.