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Better Serving Is Literally A Toss Up

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

The serve is clearly the single most important stroke in the game of tennis. Why? Well, it is the only stroke that you can completely control... if you are capable. Second, a great serve can win points outright. Third, a serve that is well placed can setup a point. But most important, is the nature of the game's scoring. If you never lost your serve, you cannot lose a set (in a tiebreaker you don't lose a game, but you still must lose your serve in what is known as a mini-break).
I think in the modern game of tennis that uses faster surfaces and powerful racquets, the serve and return of serve are becoming increasingly important.
Despite all of these important factors, many players do not practice their serves sufficiently. Personally, I serve 100 serves every day, in addition to any other play or training I may be doing. The reader should know that I spend only 30 of these practicing the first serve but 70 on my second serve.
The attributes of a good serve are as follows (presented in order of importance):

  1. Get the serve over the net.
  2. Get the serve in the box.
  3. Place the serve.
  4. Spin the serve.
  5. Serve with pace.

Unfortunately, many players try to immediately jump to pace without developing the previous four attributes.
The idea is to be consistent in your serve first. If you never missed a first serve, the percentages show that you would almost invariably win the point... regardless of the pace associated with this first serve. Still, as one moves up the levels of the game, one has to have a powerful serve to win. This is true in both the men's and women's sides of the game. But, this should be a building process that commences in the order presented above.
Whether you are looking to serve bigger, smarter or with greater variety, one of the most important things you need to consider is your toss. Without a good and consistent toss, there will be no reliable serve. In watching lots of matches (professional, college, high school, recreational), I have learned that an inconsistent toss is one of the principle reasons that a player's serve can "go south." But how often do we pay attention to this part of the serve?
Generally, one can describe a toss from one of several different perspectives: toss height, toss placement with respect to the body, and rotation of the ball during the toss. Each of these factors is important to understand when one starts to work on her/his serve.
Let's start with how high one should toss the ball. I have a theory. The best serves on the tour are those that are either fairly high or comparatively low. The tosses that are in the middle lead to what are usually average or mediocre serves. Pros on both tours will use very high tosses, and some have a more economical, low toss.
Some years back, I had the opportunity to observe the former touring pro, Roscoe Tanner serving at a club in California when he was a teaching pro there. Roscoe has one powerful serve! It was powerful years after he had left the pro tour. What makes it even more difficult to handle is the fact that it is almost impossible to "read." (The fact that Roscoe hits left handed helps, too!)
Roscoe uses an extremely low toss for his serve. His motion is so compact that when you see him serve it seems as though the ball is upon his opponent before he even tosses the ball. Although he uses lots of knee bending arm strength to impart the pace, his feet do not really leave the ground. I suspect that he developed this practice, in part, when the rules of tennis mandated that at least one foot be on the ground during the serve (Don't ask me when they changed this rule. It was way before my journey into tennis.)
Although Roscoe's timing must be perfect for his serve (he has no time to really adjust before he makes contact with the ball), there are clear advantages to his approach.
First, the ball is likely to be less affected by any wind conditions. Playing lots of tennis, here in New England, I can testify that there are often times a breeze that can play havoc on a player's serve... especially, in the spring and fall months. Second, a low toss is usually helpful when the sun is in a disadvantageous position. You may not have to adjust the toss as much when the sun is directly in your eyes at the moment of impact. In fact, you may find that the process of serving with this low toss is so compact and short in duration that you really don't have to adjust the toss at all. Finally, if you have bad body parts like knees and back (as do I) the low toss will take some strain off of these.
The fairly high toss is more likely to be seen on the tours today. This is because most women and men on the pro circuits are going airborne on their serves. They literally jump up to the ball at the moment of contact. This action allows them to hit up, and then, snap down with their wrists during the serve. The net consequence of all of this is more power.
I would encourage any modern player to try and develop an airborne serve. The vast majority of pros on both tours execute their serves in this manner. If you are a senior player, or find going off the ground when you serve problematic, I would then recommend the low toss serve pioneered by Roscoe Tanner.
If you are truly looking for pace in your first serve, I am certain that one of these two "extreme" approaches will yield the power you seek. Really, the middle ground toss or the toss that is high and the player simply waits for the ball to descend are most likely to yield the least amount of power. When it comes to the serve toss, "moderation" is not the best course of action.
As a final note regarding toss height, I would also add that the low toss does not lend itself easily to a "kick" serve. I have seen decent kick serves executed with a low toss, but these are rare. Kick serves normally require the high toss to really impart the necessary topspin and sidespin. Parenthetically, the low toss does allow for effective slice serves.
The second way of looking at toss is where it is placed... in front, to the side, or directly above (or even behind) the body. Simply put, tosses that are in front of the body usually result in more powerful serves that cross low to the net. Tosses that go to the side of the body are not advised, unless one is hitting a slice serve. The toss that is directly above the head, or perhaps, behind the body usually is what is needed for the "kick" serve that bounces higher and usually to one side.
When he was at his prime, Pete Sampras could hit all of his serves with virtually the same toss! I have never seen a player since who could execute flat, slice and kick serves so deceptively! Most of us who love this great game have to adjust the toss to hit different types of serves. Such is the case with my serve. I know that I am telegraphing my intentions to the opponent, but I am willing to sacrifice deception for consistency... Pete Sampras, I am not!
Lastly, the toss of the ball can be viewed from the perspective of its rotation. In my professional photography of the men and women on the pro tours, I became aware that those who serve best usually toss a ball that has virtually no spin to the ball as it goes up. Those with less consistent serves seem to impart more significant spin to the ball as it goes up. My serve improved dramatically when I worked on my tossing motion and developed a relatively spinless toss.
So, what do you need to do with respect to improving your toss? Well, my first suggestion is to "discover" your best serve heights and "spots." To do this, you need to spend some serious and explorative time practicing your serve in different ways. Experiment with different heights. I think older players with the body symptoms typically found in this age group will greatly benefit from lowering their toss. The younger player who is looking to increase power may best benefit from a higher toss that forces her/him to literally reach up and jump up to make contact. (As a note of caution, if you elect to go airborne on your serve, try to make contact with the ball at the peak of its path... do not allow it to drop back down).
Once you have experimented and discovered your unique spots for first and second serves, video record yourself serving. Use lots of different camera angles. Why? Well, you will see if there is any major hitch (lack of fluid motion) in your serve motion, and you will see if the tosses are likely to "telegraph" your intentions. Finally, you will have a record for future comparison. Should you find your serve taking a "vacation," you can video record yourself serving again and compare this footage to this earlier recording. The comparison may help you discover what needs to be corrected to bring the serve back.
Whenever you serve (whether in practice or in matches) make sure you visualize the "spot" where you want the toss to go before you begin your service motion. This will greatly improve the likelihood that you will hit the proper "spot." Also, it will keep your mind from focusing on double faulting, if it is your second serve. (How many times have you thought about double faulting... and then, fulfilled your premonition?) Decreasing or eliminating any rotation of the ball during your toss will take a little more time. The elements to achieving this that need to be followed are:
  1. Hold the ball at your fingertips.
  2. Keep the palm of your hand up through the entire toss motion. Think of your palm moving upward as if it were contained within a pipe.
  3. Try to relax your arm as much as is possible.
  4. Keep the elbow from bending as you toss.

A great way to practice this aspect of tossing can be done while sitting in a chair. I learned to decrease the ball rotation on my toss by practicing this motion while watching TV. I literally would do the serve toss while seated. People would come into my office at the college where I teach, and see me seated at my desk tossing the ball up, trying to keep it from rotating on the way up. (I always had to explain myself!!!)
I found that by holding two balls in my hand when I practiced the toss (as the pros did years back when two handed backhands were a rarity) forced me to learn to use my fingertips appropriately. I do not hold two balls during a match because I do use the two handed backhand, but in practice, I will start my serving in this manner... just to make sure I use my fingertips properly. Whether you are looking for a more powerful serve, a better second serve or more consistency in all serves, working on your toss will pay big dividends. The great part is that you can work on this part of your game... off the court!
I am sure that if you increase the frequency that you practice your serve, discover the right spots for your service motion(s), and develop a toss without spin, you will in no time become a tennis overdog!

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


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