Turning your 3-wall Serve Lethal

    The serve often ends up being the most important element of three-wall handball, particularly when you have otherwise evenly matched opponents. A devastating serve works for you in numerous ways, including accruing easy points through unreturned serves or easy putaways, demoralizing your opponent and conserving energy.
    The serve also sets the tone for the ensuing rally and says something critical about a player. Players who do little more than put the ball in play on the serve are likely to be less aggressive during a rally as well. They’ll often rely on retrieving, wearing down an opponent and scoring on an opponent’s hand errors.
    Players whose serves have a distinct purpose are likely to be more offense-minded, focused on getting ahead in a rally quickly and continuing to press that advantage. 
    For this reason, the goal of a serve is not to put the ball in play: It is to go on offense. 
    At the very least, a majority of the server’s second shots should be taken with his or her strong hand in the front half of the court. At best, a majority of your second shots should press an advantage that keeps your opponent off balance and scrambling to make a defensive return. For these reasons, a good serve can be defined rather loosely. A good serve is any play that puts the server on offense for the next shot. 


    The first priority in improving your serve is assessing your current service game. Consider videotaping a match and answering the following questions on each service:

  • Which serve did I use?
  • Was I able to hit an offensive shot off my opponent’s return?
  • If not, which of the following mistakes did I make:
  • Poor accuracy, such as hitting the side wall, not hitting it deep enough or poor balance.
  • Poor power.
  • Poor decision-making or poor choice of serve.
  • Taking insufficient time to prepare to hit the serve.

    Answering these questions will give you a baseline of serve effectiveness and a certain sense of where you need to concentrate to improve your service game. Let’s address each question in turn, because embedded in each is the key to developing greater effectiveness from the service box.

Service mistakes

    Service mistakes come in several categories, the most serious being a lack of accuracy. The most egregious inaccuracy, other than an out serve, is hitting a serve that bounces and then hits a side wall or otherwise sits slow and high, allowing your opponent to step into the shot and use an aggressive motion.
    Another form of inaccuracy is not hitting your serve deep enough. The problem with an insufficiently deep serve is that your opponent has time to read it after the bounce and can step forward into the swing. Again, your opponent will be able to hit the ball hard from a position of good footwork while you are in the front court. 
    Poor power is a problem many players face, particularly as age becomes a factor. Power is a great weapon but not nearly as important as an accurate serve. A player with limited power can still have a deadly serve, provided he or she makes a good service choice and has great placement.
    Players with limited power get into trouble when they try to hit the serve as hard as they can, thereby sacrificing accuracy.
    Poor choice of serve includes a number of fundamental mistakes that can be corrected with greater service planning.
    First, it is important not to repeat the same serve over and over. The returner can start to anticipate even a well-placed, powerful serve. Care should be taken to mix service choices so your opponent is never quite sure what is coming next. This might mean hitting serves up the left or right side, as well as short or deep in the court. 
    Second, players are often quite skilled at returning the ball from a specific side or with a specific stroke or motion. Some players have an outstanding overhead swing, making a serve that needs to be struck from over the shoulder less effective. Many players have developed consistent defensive shots with their off hand but may be less comfortable hitting defensively with their strong hand. Some players have an excellent punch shot or driving sidearm motion, making low serves less effective. 
    It is in this area that pregame observation and experimentation during the match can be helpful. Your opponent may struggle to read a hook or have less confidence returning from his or her strong side.
    A third mistake servers make is a lack of options. This can be corrected by increasing your arsenal of serves.
    A lack of decision-making or failing to take sufficient time to plan and visualize the serve is a frequent mistake and often is responsible for inaccurate and repetitive service choices. You have 10 seconds to put the ball in play, and you’d be surprised how much planning can take place in 10 seconds.
    If you find yourself calling the score and then immediately stepping up to serve without pausing, it is likely you will hit an overused, unplanned, one-dimensional serve that your opponent has seen many times and has little fear of facing.

What makes a great serve?

    The bottom line of what makes a great server is how you feel when you are standing at the receiving line in a closely contested match.
    A great server takes his or her time and knows before committing to putting the ball in play the serve he or she intends to hit.
    He or she stands in the same place, bounces the ball the same height, strikes the ball with similar power and takes the same motion every time a specific serve is hit. 
    He or she has the same pre-serve routine on every serve. 
    He or she has a variety of options from multiple positions in the service box. 
    He or she takes note of what is working and what is not working with a specific opponent, on a specific day or at a specific point in the match — and adjusts accordingly. 
    He or she knows how to spin the ball in both directions, applying a natural or reverse. 
    He or she can, to some degree, mask or shield the serve such that it takes an opponent a split second longer to recognize and react to the serve. 
    Finally, he or she prioritizes placement over power. While the truly great servers have both power and placement, all great servers know where to place the ball, and it is always deep and off, but near the wall if that is the intended serve. 
    Consider what other people might observe about your own service game. Ask questions of your opponents to gain greater insights. This knowledge can be compared to the analysis you made from your video. For instance, with video you can see how your opponent reacts to your serves as a gauge of effectiveness.
     There are many types of serves hit from a range of positions in the service box. The types of serve you decide to hit and the percentage of times you use various serves should depend on your success. Serves can generally be grouped into four categories:  short serves, deep serves, overhand serves and specialty serves.

Short serves

    Short serves need to be hit such that the ball travels low and clips the side wall close to the floor relatively soon after passing the short line — the ball cracks out — or takes a second bounce close to the side wall and as short as possible.
    Short serves are tough to hit due to the motion and power required. Risk also is involved, as a poorly executed short serve is an easy shot for the returner. A poor short serve happens if the ball bounces and then hits the side wall, or if your opponent reads the serve early and easily gets into position to make a shot.
    However, these serves are devastating because they require an opponent to respect the short ball by moving their normal return of serve position farther into the court. This can make your deep serve far more effective, as a deep ball will bounce close to an opponent’s feet and require an off-balance or scoop return. Short serves are also a great way to make aces.
    The key to the short serve is twofold. First, you will need to strike the ball using a fundamentally solid kill-shot stroke but make your point of contact high enough so the first bounce is just over the short line. The height of the bounce will depend on your power; it is common to strike the ball when it is about a foot high.
    Second, your forward foot (the left foot for a right-handed player) will need to step directly toward the angle you want the ball to take toward the front wall. In short, step toward the line you want the ball to take. 
    You can experiment with hitting these short serves to the right and left from two positions: the left third of the service box and the right third of the service box. One way to practice is to throw the ball rather than hit it, altering your swing height and step until you find the right position. 

Deep serves

Forcing an opponent deep on a serve, especially to their off hand can increase the offensive players’ chances.  Photo by Keith Thode.

    The deep drive serve is the go-to serve for most three-wallers for several reasons. 
    First, a good deep serve needs to be returned from deep in the court, giving the server plenty of time to adjust to the returned ball and make a shot while the receiver has a maximum distance to cover in order to retrieve an attempted kill shot.
    Second, the deep serve is tough to return effectively because the ball needs to be struck by the receiver soon after the first bounce. It will often require the receiver to hit off his or her back foot. An effective deep serve will land within a couple of feet of the long line and miss the side wall.
    Deep serves become devastating if you can add spin. Because players are often taking the ball soon after the bounce, a hook serve will create numerous hand errors even if your hook changes direction only slightly.
    Deep serves can be hit to either side, though the traditional deep serve is to the weak hand of your opponent. If you can control the spin, hooking the ball so it runs along the wall and “out the back door” is an effective means of acing your opponent. 
    A hook that moves toward the wall is also effective but should be used with caution, as this serve can become an easy return if it hits high on the side wall and your opponent can step in to hit it. A hook that moves toward the wall can be hit so it lands farther into the court (for instance, 3 feet from the side wall), which is also effective because your opponent is expecting the ball closer to the wall. 
    A deep serve to the strong-hand side makes a great balance to the weak-handed direction. Even when used sparingly, this serve requires your opponent to stay more central in the court and keeps him or her from getting into a groove returning from one side only.
    Another deep serve that is effective when used sparingly is hit directly at your opponent’s feet with spin. You can hit this serve from the left third of the service area to avoid screening the ball. When hit properly, this serve is often a surprise and can handcuff even top-level opponents.
    What makes this serve so difficult to return is how close it comes to the receiver’s body, and the fact that the majority of players are accustomed to moving laterally when they return the serve. As with other deep serves, the ball must land close to the long line.

Overhand serves

    For players with a strong overhand, an overhand drive serve is very effective and requires opponents to return the ball using an overhand stroke. If your opponent is weak from this position, an overhand drive or lob is often a better option than a drive serve. 
    The overhand serve can be hit from any position in the box, but again it will be critical to keep the ball from clipping the side wall.
    Kendell Lewis used a very effective overhand drive that bounced at about the 35-foot mark. He hit this to either side, requiring the receiver to respect both corners and keeps him from cheating to a side.
    Power and height add to the deadliness of this serve, as the receiver must guess whether it will clip the side wall, charge in rapidly to hit it on a short hop or retreat well behind the long line to hit a return from the back foot.
    Softer overhand lobs can also be effective, but these serves need to be hit from a position right along the side wall. Otherwise the receiver can step into the shot and take it in the air, leaving the server in a defensive position.
    Andy Schad hit a very effective lob along the left wall. His serve could be hit hard or soft and typically bounced about the 35-foot mark right at the spot where the wall meets the floor.

Placing a deep overhand serve near the side wall can cause the opponent headaches on the return.  Photo by Keith Thode.

Specialty serves

    Specialty serves are also useful and important to have in your arsenal, depending on the opposition.
    Some receivers, particularly in doubles, will step well into the court to cut off an overhand drive or lob serve. This can make it easy to get out of your service rhythm and start making the classic service mistake: trying to hit your serve as hard as you can and losing accuracy. 
    Two specialty serves are worth mentioning:

  • The two-wall deep serve to the center of the court. This is useful if you are playing doubles against opponents whose weak sides are both in the center of the court — a lefty playing the left and a righty playing the right.
        Though more effective in four-wall, this serve requires your opponents to return from the weak side and can create confusion if your opponents fail to communicate properly. 
  • The deep two-wall serve to the opposite corner. This serve is struck similarly to a Z-serve in four-wall but hit slightly deeper and at a more shallow angle so the ball never hits a third wall.

    Similar to the two-wall serve, this Z-serve needs to be hit so it lands deep in the court and moving quickly toward the wall it will narrowly miss. For a right-hander, this serve is best hit into the left corner and crossing to the deep right.
    What makes this serve so effective is that it makes your opponent move first to one side and then to the opposite side of the court. For a righty, your opponent will first move left, only to then realize the ball will be on the right side of the court. Since most three-wall players also play four-wall, the instinct will be to wait for the ball to come off the side wall. But when hit properly, the ball never hits that third wall, and your opponent is left wondering what happened.
    This is another serve that is most effective when used only sparingly. If your opponent reads the serve, he or she can move quickly into a position that will allow an overhand stroke that can be struck with power.

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