It’s no secret that there is nothing exciting about the ball toss for the tennis serve. In fact, the important details can be somewhat tedious and are subsequently glossed over. The exciting part is that great toss technique will potentially add many miles per hour to your serve, amplify spin, increase accuracy and versatility. It will create efficiency in the motion that takes away strain, saves you from painful injury and gains you lots of cheap points.
There are many schools of thought as to the “best” way to toss. I’m a believer that there is no one single best way to do anything in tennis but that there are common factors in each style that lead to a high success rate. This is true with the toss.
So, the purpose of this article is to give you some easy to understand, very detailed information about the toss. You may not be able to tackle it all at once, but at least you can start to assemble the right details for success
First, understand this: Your toss will only be as good as how you treat it. If you are quick and careless you’ll get what you put into it. The toss needs to be consistent, dependable and accurate. Just like everything else, success is in the details. Chances are you have some sloppy habits and you just don’t know it.
Current information about the toss (and about the serve in general) is varied, confusing and sometimes downright impossible for a majority of players to attempt. For example, every article, YouTube clip and video series seems to be about how one of the top players does it. You have to remember that this is what these people do for a living and they are exceptional athletes who dedicate their lives to tennis. There are many pitfalls to following popular advice. Choosing the highest degree of difficulty may not be in your best interest.
Six important points to study before you ever toss again
On the whole, players tend to simply launch the ball with the non-dominant hand without much attention to detail. Follow these solid techniques for a higher rate of success. It may not be a replica of what your favorite touring pro does but if you want to look like anyone keep it simple like Roger!
1. Do: Hold the ball lightly on the fingertips of your tossing hand with the thumb over the top. As you look down at the ball you will see more ball to the left of the thumb than to the right (see photo to the right). In other words, the palm of the hand will not be facing the sky. The fingers are flat and the wrist is slightly laid back. The forefinger and second finger are the supporting fingers underneath the ball and the third finger has light contact. The pinkie may or many not be involved, but if it is, the touch is minimal.
Don’t curl your fingers around the ball, hold onto the ball with two fingers and rest your racket on the third finger/pinkie or hold onto the strings with the fingertips of the toss hand. Notice what you do because you may do something like this and don’t know it. Keep it clean and simple.
2. Do: Keep your elbow straight, even locked (see photo to the left) so that the entire action comes from the shoulder. Remember, the toss is a whole body action, meaning that it is created from turning of the torso and using the legs in conjunction with the swing. Since the shoulder attaches the arm to the torso, we want to use this powerful joint to do the lifting. A straight arm allows a straight traveling toss.
Don’t use bent fingers, wrist or elbow to toss the ball. Typically, this leads to a toss that consistently goes to the left, over or behind the head.
3. Do: Begin the downswing of the toss and hit arms with a slow tempo. The serve is a two-speed hit. This means that the drop and raise of the toss arm and the drop or take back of the racket are a slow, coordinated and deliberate speed. This slow speed allows all of the moving parts of the serve to be set for a ballistic and upward acceleration to contact. It also assures that the release point of the toss will be secure and stable.
Don’t drop and raise the toss and hit hands quickly. Most players are not aware that they do this. This causes the toss hand to move too fast for accuracy and usually results in a poor toss.
4. Do: Drop the toss hand down to a point between both legs almost touching the inside of the right thigh (right-hander) and then up in a straight line. The simplest technique is to move your toss hand down and up in the direction of the right net post (for righty, left net post for lefty) on both the deuce and add side. Moving your toss arm in this direction gets the body rotated and allows the ball to move in a straight line forward of the body and in front of the hitting shoulder. So, for a basic flat or slice serve, this toss technique is dependable and accurate. It also works beautifully for a topspin or kick serve toss (with some modifications)
Beware: On the flip side, some current information advises us to make the toss arm rise on a line parallel to the baseline (the toss hand is moving in the direction of the right fence). Many of the men’s ATP and college players are using this method of tossing as a part of gaining heavy rotation of the trunk and upper body. This may be great for rotation but lousy for actually getting the ball to go forward where it needs to be. So, depending upon your level, athletic ability and amount of time devoted to the serve, this technique may or may not be for you.
5. Do: Realize that the release point of the ball is pretty tricky. If released too early, the ball goes too far forward and if released too late it will go behind the head. This is a matter of inches so it’s pretty delicate. Make sure to release the ball around eye level. Generally, the fingers of the toss hand are spread open right after the release of the ball. You might think of the release as a “pop” opening of the hand. The ball toss should travel in a straight line up and down with no spin or arc, unless tossing for a kick or topspin serve.
Don’t underestimate the precision needed for a good release point. Curled fingers around the ball and a fast upswing of the toss arm cause major problems for a consistent release point.
6. Do: Continue the hand up to full extension, fingertips to the sky and the shoulder under the chin (see photo to the right). This enables the head to get up and to stay up. The toss arm leads the way up to the ball by holding the body firmly up and the eyes look over the toss hand at the ball. This big, strong stretch upwards sets the correct shoulder angle for maximum upward drive to the ball. Hold the toss hand up to a quick count of one, two and three while the legs, torso and hit arm continue to move.
For the simplest finish of the hand at full extension, you will be looking up at the “V” between the thumb and forefinger. Again, if you look at the pros, you’ll see a broad range of palm up, thumb up or top of the hand up to the sky.
Don’t: Stop the toss arm and hand immediately after release of the ball (just above parallel to the ground) This stunted upswing causes uncontrolled tosses, doesn’t give the player enough time to complete the swing arm action and fails to set proper shoulder angle.
That’s plenty of information for now. As always, take one thing at a time but try to understand the entire picture. The details of the toss will make or break your toss. Pay attention and you’ll be on your way to great serve technique. Have fun and work hard!
Next issue … what happens after the ball release, toss location and grip/toss combinations for specific serves.
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.