Sports

The Strategy, and Importance, of the Service Toss

The tennis ball ascends into the air and for a brief moment — like the one atop a roller coaster — all is tranquil. And then, bam, the racket, whipping through the air, makes contact and the action begins.

The serve is the only time in tennis when the human hand, not the racket, dictates the direction and placement of the ball. And that makes starting with a good toss essential to winning.

“You have total control of the serve, and so the toss is a key component,” said Craig Boynton, who coached John Isner and now coaches Hubert Hurkacz, who climbed from 35th to 9th in the rankings in 2021 as his service results improved.

Aryna Sabalenka, ranked second on the women’s tour, noted in an email that “without a consistent toss you cannot have a consistent serve.”

Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus, whose strength enables a higher toss, serves against Tamara Zidansek of Slovenia during the 2021 US Open at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City.Credit…Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

The toss may be the most underrated aspect of a player’s game for the pros, says the ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert. It looms even larger at the club level for recreational players, where many players lose control, often using too much wrist, bending their elbow or letting their arm drift. “If you lose control of your ball toss, you will lose your serve,” he said.

The ideal is to hit the ball in that split second when it stops moving at the apex, said Jimmy Arias, the tennis director of IMG Academy, but there’s not one perfect toss height.

Sabalenka and Taylor Fritz, ranked 23rd on the men’s tour, said in recent years they had started tossing the ball higher as they learned to use their legs to push off more, generating greater height and force.

“You want to maximize the height you make contact with the ball on the serve,” Sabalenka explained. “As I got stronger I was able to bend and jump more up to the ball. That allowed me to toss the ball up a bit higher.”

Boynton said that some big servers, like Andy Roddick, had a quicker motion and thus had a lower toss, while many Europeans learned a longer motion that required more time and a higher toss. “The height is partially determined by how long your motion is.”

Sabalenka said players have their own ideal toss. “It takes a lot of practice to figure out what works best for you, your body, your particular motion, and your timing.”

The goal, Arias said, is finding a motion and toss where the player is neither rushing nor waiting. “Serving is all about the rhythm, and the toss dictates that.”

Hubert Hurkacz of Poland in action during his group stage match against Alexander Zverev of Germany at the Nitto ATP Finals tennis tournament in Turin, Italy, in November.Credit…Alessandro Di Marco/EPA, via Shutterstock

Among current players, Denis Shapovalov, Alexander Zverev and Federico Delbonis have notably high tosses. “Delbonis tosses it over the moon and has to wait five minutes for it to come down,” Arias said, which is fine except that he believed that when nerves creep in at big moments the higher toss and longer wait could create problems.

Shapovalov, who has changed his approach several times, and Zverev have both often been plagued by double faults or second-serve struggles.

“Zverev has to let it drop, but could go to a lower ball toss on his second serve,” Gilbert suggested, which would speed up Zverev’s motion and help solve his problem.

But that would be a radical change, which may be necessary for a club player or someone on the junior level, but which is rare on the pro tour. At that level players do not separate out the toss for isolated practice. Fritz even laughed at the question. (To perfect his toss growing up, Gilbert would work on it walking to school and while sitting in a chair. “If you have to leave the chair to catch the ball then your toss is moving you.”)

While Boynton said he believed it could be worthwhile overhauling a club or junior player’s toss and having them practice it separate from the serve, he would not make major changes at the professional level.

Serena Williams, often credited with a “perfect toss,” serves against Belarus’s Aliaksandra Sasnovich during their women’s singles first round match on the second day of the 2021 Wimbledon Championships at The All England Tennis Club in JuneCredit…Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“For the pros, it’s more about tweaking the timing and the rhythm of all these moving parts,” he said, adding that last year he worked with Hurkacz on not letting the tossing arm speed up, which helped generate a more consistently big serve.

Redoing a professional’s toss can be “very dangerous,” Arias said, but added that if it worked the results could be striking. He pointed to Marin Cilic, who had failed to reach his potential until his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, redid Cilic’s serve in 2013. Ivanisevic, who ranks second all-time in percentage of first service points won, had Cilic toss the ball further out in front (and a little lower). In 2014, Cilic won the United States Open.

A good toss is not just about height, it’s also a matter of location. Gilbert said that an “elite toss” hits the spot from which you could hit your topspin, flat or slice serve.

He said Andy Roddick, Pete Sampras and Serena Williams were dominant servers in part because “every toss was perfect” and they hit the ball at 12 o’clock, with no sideways drift so it was impossible to read before contact. (Arias practiced with Sampras “a million times,” but could not read his serves.)

“You need to toss it in the same spot every time and not give away where you’re serving,” Fritz said, adding, “I would only move my toss around because of the sun.”

But the 56th-ranked Jenson Brooksby said that while a toss must be in the right area, he did not strain for perfection. “There is a margin of error that does not matter,” he wrote in an email.

Sabalenka and Fritz said top players disguised their serves well, but Brooksby said on the men’s tour Roger Federer is best. Boynton also praised Nick Kyrgios, while Arias said Novak Djokovic was underrated, explaining that he shortens the returner’s reaction time by tossing the ball further out in front of him.

“If you could teach a long jumper to toss the ball all the way out to the service line, then hitting the serve would be like [a player at the net] hitting” an overhead for him,” Arias said.

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