Section 01 – The Serve Ball Toss Explained

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Introduction

The ball toss for a serve can make or break it. A good toss can make for a good serve, a bad or inconsistent toss will generally lead to a bad or inconsistent serve. Many times a serve is missed before the ball is even hit!

An important element of the serve is the ability to manipulate the ball so that it can be hit from wherever the server wants to hit it. There are only a few requirements of the serve. One requirement of the serve is that the toss cannot hit the ground before it is hit. There is no limitation to how high the ball can be tossed. A player can toss the ball 20 feet in the air or toss it so low that it doesn’t even go over their head. A player can toss the ball behind their body to hit it or toss it 10 feet in front of them if they want. The player just cannot touch the baseline before contacting the ball so as long as they can jump that far and still hit the ball they can do it. For the most part, players toss the ball between 2.5 and 6 feet of their outstretched arm and from about level with their body to a couple feet in front of the baseline. Because there are no real requirements on the toss there are about as many types of tosses as players playing the game.

A toss can help to determine how fast a player can hit a serve. It can help determine how much spin can be put on the ball. It can make a ball land in the net or end up going past the service line. Another very important factor that a toss can affect is injuries. Many, many players who have elbow problems toss the ball into a position that causes arm and shoulder problems.

So what toss is right? As mentioned before there really is no right or wrong way to do things in tennis. Different tosses can work for different people. The toss I recommend gives the player a consistent serve by keeping the ball in the hit zone the longest and makes it more likely to make it to their preferred hit zone. It gives a more powerful swing by keeping the service motion smooth and quick. It also puts limited stress on the arm and shoulder. Before getting into how to toss the ball, we need to explore potential factors that can affect the ball toss and why the ball should be tossed a certain way.

Physical Laws Affecting Ball Toss

The racquet contacting the ball while serving is a very important “meet up.” If the racquet and ball do not end up at the exact same place at the exact same time, the serve will be missed. Think of it like trying to meet somebody to play a tennis match. There are 4 different dimensions that must be known to meet up and not miss each other. The “where” to meet up takes care of 3 dimensions. If the two players are familiar with the place, a name can just be given, like such and such park. The park has a very specific latitude (North and South direction).

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A very specific longitudinal position (East and West).

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The third dimension, depth, is automatically known thanks to the earth surface. The earth’s surface is, for the most part, unchangeable so the depth, or third dimension, is a constant. Unless you want to dig a hole and meet there instead.

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GPS works by this three coordinate system, if one of the coordinates is not known, the GPS would not work properly.

These three dimensions are all relevant as to whether or not a serve is successful. If the ball ends up to the left or right of where the racquet is, the serve will be missed.

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If the ball is tossed too far in front or behind the racquet, the serve will be missed.

If the ball is tossed too low or too high the racquet will miss the ball.

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Basically there are 6 different ways a serve can be missed. With an efficient toss several of the potential ways of missing can be eliminated.

Time and Its Affect on the Serve

serve_introduction_space_timeThere is one thing missing from allowing two people to meet up. That missing element is time. If no one mentions when to meet up they could not meet. How is time related to the toss? “Timing is everything” is a pretty popular saying for a reason. If the racquet gets moving too fast it will reach the hit zone before the ball. Generally most people won’t whiff on the ball, but will instead slow down the swing to allow the racquet to reach the ball at the appropriate time. This will usually cause the racquet to get out of sync with the body and cause the serve to be slower or inconsistent.  A swing starting too slow and then speeding up abruptly will generally cause a lack of consistency as the body will get out of balance.

There are numerous factors that can affect whether or not a toss is successful. A successful toss is one that consistently ends up where the player wants it to end up. Ideally, every time the ball is tossed it will end up in the exact same spot. There are numerous factors that can make the ball not end up in the same spot.

Factors to Consider While Tossing The Ball

Several factors beyond a players control will have various effects on the toss. These factors can have positive effects on your serve or negative effects. It really depends on how you handle them.

Gravity

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Another factor that needs to be considered while serving is gravity. Gravity will directly affect how high the ball will be tossed. The ball will keeping rising until gravity overtakes the force put on the ball by the server. The more force a player uses to toss the ball up, the higher the toss will be. Gravity will also affect the speed at which the ball will be moving once it reaches the players hit zone. The higher the toss, the faster the ball will be moving when it reaches the racquet hit zone as gravity will keep increasing its speed.

Wind

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Wind is a factor that generally adversely affects the toss. The more windy the conditions, the more likely the toss will be inconsistent. On a gusty day it is virtually impossible to have an accurate toss. The higher the ball is tossed, the more an adverse affect the wind will have on it. Its for this reason that most teaching pro’s will have students lower their toss on windy days.

The Sun

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The sun always seems to be problematic for serving. Many players do not like serving on the side where the sun can affect seeing the toss.

Human Factors Affecting Ball Toss

Several factors that negatively and positively affect the ball toss vary depending on the individual tossing the ball. How high the ball is tossed can have negative and positive affects on the speed and consistency of the serve. How far left or right a player tosses the ball will also have affects on the serve speed and consistency as well as serve placement.

Height

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The height that a player tosses the ball can have a huge impact on how long the ball stays in the hit zone and can also determine how often the ball lands within the hit zone. As mentioned above, the higher a player tosses the ball, the faster it moves through the hit zone. The faster it moves through the hit zone, the less time a player will have to contact the ball since it will spend less time in the hit zone.  Another factor the height of the toss can affect is accuracy of the toss in the hit zone. If a player can consistently toss the ball on the correct path it wouldn’t really matter how high they toss the ball as it will always go through the hit zone correctly.

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But most players can not consistently toss the ball on the correct path. Most of the time the toss will be off by a few degrees.

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This will move the hit zone to whichever way the toss is off. In the above example the hit zone will be moved the the right some.

The higher the toss, the further away from the hit zone the ball will be when it comes down.

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As you can see from the above example the toss will be further away from the hit zone if the toss is higher.

The height the ball is tossed is probably the biggest single factor that varies amongst recreational players. Most players will tend to toss the ball higher rather than lower.

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Toss Theory

So should a server try to put the racquet where the ball is or should they try to toss the ball where the racquet will be? This is a very important consideration that most people never think about. Most people just toss the ball and hit it, wherever it ends up. So for the most part players do the first, they put the racquet where the ball is.

The main problem with this thought process is that the player will have to alter their swing, to some degree, every single time they serve the ball. Just like with groundstrokes, the brain decides well before the swing has even started how it will swing. Any alteration that needs to be made after the brain has decided how it wants to swing will make the shot very uncomfortable. Think about when the ball hits some crack on the court and ends up taking a different bounce then was anticipated. It is very hard to hit the shot and most times the shot will be missed. Fortunately balls don’t take a lot of unexpected bounces. For the serve since many people have a hard time tossing the ball in the same spot they have kind of gotten used to having to adjust the swing all the time. This means it generally isn’t as uncomfortable as when the ball takes an unexpected bounce, but the end result can be the same. Now if the toss is just a little off, the player generally won’t miss the shot, but the serve will end up being much less consistent and powerful. Several professional players in the last decade have struggled with their service toss and have seen a dramatic drop in their rankings. Ana Ivanovic and Fernando Verdasco are two examples.

Ideally a player will always toss the ball where the racquet’s hit zone is. This allows for a smooth and consistent swing since there will be no last second adjustments of the racquet. To find exactly where you should toss the ball for your serve just do a practice swing without the ball and stop at the point where you would normally hit the ball.

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This is exactly where the ball toss should go. If you can consistently toss the ball where the racquet is you will be able to close your eyes and serve the ball because the ball will always go where the racquet is.

 

This is a great test to see if the toss is a problem with your serve. You may not be able to serve the ball into the correct box, but should be able to make solid contact. I always use this test on new students struggling with their serve.

How To Hold Ball

Even though there are several ways a tennis ball can be held, no matter which way someone holds the ball several factors are the same.

Ways To Have A Bad Toss

If the toss can consistently go in the same spot, the player will not even need to see the toss to hit it. In this way the sun can be eliminated as a problem.

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