As a veteran teaching professional, the top two questions that I am asked about the serve are: “How do I get more power”? and “How do I fix my toss?”
In the real world of the serve, the toss is the most misunderstood action. Players are so focused on striking the ball and the outcome that they neglect to pay due attention to the details of the toss. The toss is the single most important vehicle to a great serve and to gaining power. Without consistency, accuracy and dependability of the toss, our serve is sunk.
Simplicity in producing strokes and stroke segments is the key to success. There are numerous schools of thought as to what is the best way to produce every stroke and action in tennis. Arguably there is no best way to toss, but there are simple guidelines and principles that work for everyone. The point is to combine the actions of our strokes so that they fit efficiently and rhythmically together.
It is pretty standard for players to copy what they see done on television. This must be done with caution because it can be very dangerous to your tennis game to try to copy the touring pros. For example, I just reviewed a teaching video that showed the toss motion of eight ATP players. It stressed that their toss arm moved along the baseline, all the way down between the legs, and that the ball toss is located at 12:00. Most of this is very advanced stuff and if it is interpreted or produced incorrectly can have a disastrous effect on the serve and cause injury.
So, let’s go with a more mainstream system that will provide a great foundation for a successful serve technique. If we break the toss action down into understandable chunks then we can better focus on the parts. As I see it, there are three extremely important functions that the toss arm and hand provide. Of course there are many more details, but just for the sake of ease, we’ll concentrate on three Chunks followed by the details that make it successful.
►Chunk #1: The toss arm/hand is used to place the ball precisely where it needs to be for contact.
►Chunk #2: The hand and arm hold the non-dominant side of the body up in a strong manner and set shoulder angle (toss shoulder higher than hitting shoulder)
►Chunk #3: The toss arm is responsible for pulling out of the way quickly enabling the hitting side to swing fire with force. The faster the toss arm pulls away, the faster the racket can come through.
Let’s examine some details that make the chunks work:
Most players just use the toss arm/hand to launch the ball up to hit and pay no attention to how they are holding the ball or to the position or direction of the toss arm. This is understandable since the main focus is on hitting the ball and getting it in the box and not on HOW it is done.
►The ball is best held with a flat hand (this simply means that the fingers are not curled around the ball) with the thumb over the top. The wrist is laid slightly down so that when the ball is released it will go forward as opposed to traveling in a forward-back arc.
►The hand is at an angle to the ground not held with the top side of the hand flat to the ground. When you look at the toss hand, you will see more of the ball to the left side of the thumb than to the right side of the thumb.
►The toss arm is straight at the elbow and wrist. This is one of the major difficulties with the toss. The two arms have completely different functions. The swing arm is loose and whippy, while the toss arm is straight and has no flex. Our arms like to be balanced and doing the same thing on either side of the body. The massive difference in the tension and flexibility of the arms is tough to conquer. They are connected, but have two entirely different jobs.
►The toss comes from the shoulder and with weight shift and rotation. It is an entire body action not a single, stand-alone movement.
The toss arm/hand must hold the body up in a strong position to help pull the chest and racket side up to contact. Typically a player tosses up and the hand comes down immediately. Hold it up much higher and longer than you think necessary and you will begin to understand what it feels like to hit “up” to a ball.
►The toss shoulder finishes under the chin and finger tips stretched to the sky.
►The toss arm and side firmly hold that side of the body up. It is the counter force to pressing the feet against the ground for “loading” of weight.
►Shoulder angle is achieved. The tossing shoulder sets substantially higher than the hitting shoulder. This will enhance upward drive to the ball with the legs and chest.
“Pulling” the toss arm out of the way for power is a foreign idea to most players. Typically, the toss arm just drops when it finishes launching the ball.
►Upon completion of the toss and setting shoulder angle the toss elbow now needs to bend. If you keep it straight it will simply pull your body down.
►Initiate toss arm action with the back of the tossing shoulder. Sharply pull your toss arm to the outside and at a downward angle by driving the elbow, triceps and bicep down. This is similar to “elbowing” someone with the intention of hurting them. You’ve probably never done this but, come on … you wanted to once or twice in your life!
►With the initiation of the pulling action with the toss arm, the front leg is driving up, the back foot/leg drives the hip forward and the chest drives up to contact. The racket arm is still lagging behind.
►At this point all body and racket power is heading up. The racket can now get the best results possible. A common term for this is “slinging” the racket head. All upward and rotational forces are in action in advance of the racket head moving to the ball.
In summary, great toss technique will directly affect power on the serve and add to your consistency. A powerful deliberate toss arm is key to creating racket head speed for power. You cannot create power from a racket swing alone. Start with Chunk #1 and make sure that you are producing the most basic of the toss movements. If you progress through the steps, your toss will be consistent and you will gain the fluid power that has otherwise been elusive. Start today to measurably increase the speed and power of your serve.
Lisa Dodson is the developer and owner of Servemaster, a USPTA Elite Professional and a former WTA world-ranked player. She is currently the director of tennis at Shenorock Shore Club in Rye, N.Y. She may be reached by e-mail at Lisa@TheTotalServe.com or visit TheTotalServe.com.