Often the most benign things can be the most devastating. Take the serve for example. Granted the serve is a complex movement requiring physicality and timing, but the interesting thing is that so often the problem in the serve is not in the “service motion” per se but instead in the simple toss of the ball.
The toss can be a psychologically devastating obstacle to overcome. It seems so simple and direct and yet it often takes on a diabolical life of its own - an evil force intent on subversion and sabotage. Once that sinister force is awakened, it is hell bent on ruin. It is the equivalent to the “yips” that create that nervous little flutter in the putter. I have seen top players frozen in bewilderment and uncertainty at the beginning of a serve - totally unsure of how to put things into motion.
And yet we so seldom address the toss. I think it is one of those things that we feel is best left ignored as though exposing it to light will only deepen the hold of its roots. At the risk of throwing fuel on that smoldering irritant, let’s take a closer look at the service toss.
The Toss “Myths”
Although the toss may seem simple it is anything but. It is nuanced and complex, not just because of the action of putting the ball into the air but also because it represents the initial movements of the most explosive moment of the game. We can hardly cover everything related to the toss in this article but we will look at a few of the most familiar rules and see how they hold up to the examples we see from some of the top servers in the game. Are they hard rules or are they more “myth,” or perhaps something in between?
Rule 1: Down Together and Up Together
A very basic approach is to let the arms drop together then split apart before swinging back up together, eventually ending in the classic “Y” or familiar “Trophy Position.” Although this is favored by some (Navratilova and Federer to a lesser degree) it is certainly not a prerequisite of a great serve. Actually, more common is the style popularized by Pete Sampras. He would let the racquet arm fall into a dead-man dangle as he executed his toss and this is what we see in a great majority of the pros today (McEnroe, Fish, Gonzalez, Tursunov, the Williams, to name a few).
Those players who do bring the arms up together don’t always do the customary split (the “Y” or “Trophy Position”) - almost seeming to toss the ball with both hands instead, a la Roddick and Henin. Rather than extending the racquet to the back fence in the backswing they will keep the racquet more forward and to the right of the body in a very compact position without any loss of power or rhythm.
Even less common is the technique of lifting the racquet first then tossing the ball afterwards. Although rare, this “toss into the swing” style led the dashing Aussie star of the 60’s and 70’s, John Newcombe, to seven Grand Slam Singles titles. It begs the question: is this technique inferior or simply out of vogue? Regardless, we can surmise that a perfectly concerted drop and lift of the arms is much less the norm than the exception.
Rule 2: Toss the Ball Straight Up
A common exercise prescribed to develop tossing accuracy is to take a service stance and place your racquet down on the inside of the front foot with the shoulder of the racquet head butted along the big toe. The idea is to practice so that you can throw the ball straight up and have it land on the racquet face. This indicates that you have executed a straight toss.
The ball must be placed to the left of the hand in order to hit up on the ball, necessitating a slight arc to the trajectory of the toss.
The problem is that it is almost impossible to achieve a perfectly straight toss. Because of the anatomy of the arm and body you will always have some arc to the toss path since the arm naturally lifts in a circular motion. In truth, if you were to let the ball bounce it should land on the ground somewhere to the opposite side of your front foot. This is especially the case if you are going to hit up on the ball for overspin. In order to achieve overspin the ball must be positioned to the left side of the hand (right handed player) at the point of contact since this is the only time and place the racquet is making an upwards motion through the contact zone.
Rule 3: Touch the Ball to Your Thigh and then Lift
Another toss tenet states that it is critical to have a straight tossing arm for consistency. To assure the arm straightens and lifts with uniformity, it is often suggested that you let the arm relax totally until you feel the back of you left hand touch against the thigh of the front leg.
The two extremes: Roddick doesn’t come near his legs with the ball and appears to toss the ball up with both hands. Compare that to McEnroe’s deliberate rhythm and much fuller arm extension.
The concept is sound but in reality what we see from top servers doesn’t always confirm what we are told. Roddick for example barely lets his hands dip below his waist on the toss, preferring instead to simply lift out of a relatively high starting position. He doesn’t really lock out his arm until very late in the toss. This is more typical of the compact, explosive style of server like Roddick, Ivanisevic, Gonzalez and others. On the other hand, more “rhythm oriented” servers like Sampras, Sharapova, Fish, and McEnroe tend to favor the full drop technique. We sometimes refer to these servers as more rhythmic because their service motions take longer and are slower developing, giving them a more languid feel. It does not necessarily mean they have better consistency or timing. Roddick and Ivanisevic are good examples of more abbreviated, faster motions that are still very rhythmic and reliable.
The Hidden Form
So what can we gather when we compare what we see the pros do with what we are often told to do on the toss? First we can see that there is no real consistency among the pros when it comes to tossing the ball. Stances, weight shift, footwork, arm positions and movements, speeds and styles all vary and hold no direct parallel to many of the common rules. Although the evidence seems to indicate that the standards we have accepted appear to be more myth than rule, it may not be that simple. None of these rules are wrong; they simply don’t cover everything. I would contend they are good guidelines - and perhaps they don’t address some of the most essential conditions. Here are a couple of less noticeable things that I think almost all good servers share.
Deaden the Hands
The preparation of the serve is much more of a body action more than a hands action. It is important to keep the hands very relaxed but not so loose as to become “whippy.” This is a “feel” aspect of the serve that is not quite so easy to see but is a definite part of the form.
It is critical to stay as relaxed as possible without losing “shape” or form to your motion. The arms should feel like “dead weight,” as though the tossing arm is incased in cast - relaxed but solid. The arms are lifted by the core of the body, using the back and shoulders. The ball and the racquet should not be swung up by the hands. Sometimes even the phrase “toss” the ball can covey a dangerous image. This gets many recreational players more oriented to flicking the ball with the wrist. Instead, experienced players often like to think of lifting their front shoulder up to the side of the face in order to toss and they just let the arm and the ball follow along for the ride. The wrist never gets involved in the ball “toss.”
Seles (left) has little body integration in her serve. She gets a quick “hands” action from down low which results in a “toss which is too far left and in front, resulting in a weak “arm” hit. McEnroe (above) is much slower at the bottom and develops his acceleration later. This engages the body and forces more extension on top. The result is not only better ball placement but better generation of force through contact.
Second is the relationship between the tossing side and the hitting side. When the tossing side is extending the hitting side should be contracting. As you release the ball and extend the tossing arm, the racquet arm should be collapsing or bending into the body. Then, when the hitting arm is extending to the ball the tossing arm should be contracting into the body. I find that many tossing problems are actually a result of not letting the hitting side collapse properly during the release of the ball as this will cause a “top heavy” loss of balance and may prevent a smooth follow-through on the toss.
Many recreational players are too eager to get racquet speed and they swing the racquet back too forcefully. This disrupts timing, rhythm, balance, and coordination both in the hit and the toss. Even great players, Patrick Rafter and Lindsay Davenport, I feel had some difficulty with the toss and service action because of this.
Rafter could get a bit “top heavy” and lose balance because of overextension of his right side during the toss.
This underscores how sympathetic and interconnected the two sides of the body are. Often times it is something happening on one side that is responsible for another thing going wrong with the other. We must be careful where to look for our answers.
The service toss is one of the most elegant and graceful movements in the game of tennis. Ironically it is also inexorably intertwined with the most powerful and explosive movement of the game. It is also, in my opinion, the most idiosyncratic part of the game. Nowhere do we see more individual expression of style than on the toss. This can make it difficult to identify a suitable model - but the upside is that you have a lot of options.
Although the traditional cues can point us in the right direction, ultimately the toss is dependent upon feel, timing, rhythm, balance, and coordination. It must also be remembered that the toss can never be properly addressed without taking into consideration the entirety of the service motion - the two parts are simply too interconnected - and the secret for one may lie in the riddle of the other.
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