Taming your Toss

The toss is the most misunderstood aspect of the serve – misunderstood by players and teachers alike.

In order to serve tall – you don’t necessarily have to jump, or even be on your tip toes, but contact should be as high above you as is comfortable and as high as allows you to feel balanced.

Note – the pro’s jump to increase their service window – meaning they have a greater margin of error above the net if the jumping creates a taller hit.

But, and here is the but…… somehow most players assume an overly high toss will insure a tall hit.  On the face of it that makes sense, but look a little deeper and you may see on the adjacent courts (as well as at the Australian Open in certain circumstances) that the overly high toss does not guarantee a tall hit.  In fact, often just the opposite.  When the toss is overly high the player must wait for the ball to descend.  And this waiting may disrupt rhythm, and if waiting too long, the inevitable HITCH makes the motion feel yet worse.

So how do you tame the toss?

This depends on the orientation of the tossing arm, and the precise release point during the tossing motion.  Don’t worry about your wrist, or hand, or how you hold the ball.  To me that seems too technical.  The issue concerns where the arm is when the ball leaves the hand.

Second, tempo.  The two arms set up a rhythm, sometimes this has been called, “down together and up together.”  But more to the point, both arms will initially move at the same speed, such that to get control of your toss, you must reassess your initial tempo with the racquet hand – how fast or slow do you start?

Third, location.  Now it gets harder (or perhaps easier).  Toss in front, above you, behind you, slightly to the right, to the left.  There are many options.  But somehow each player has their own distinctive spot, but many may not know it.  On the best serves, the toss has somehow moved to the absolute best spot for contact.

P.S. – Steffi Graf had an overly high, inordinately high, amazingly high toss.  And the announcers in that time noted  just that, and said that for better or worse Steffi “got away’ with that toss.   And I guess that when Safina, Sharapova, Ivanovic and so many others were young they saw Steffi as the best player in the world and resolved (consciously or unconsciously) to copy that toss and that motion.  Unfortunately those players didn’t come to terms with the complexity of that toss and the double faults, loss of confidence, and so much more that has come from copying this serve.

Speaking of copying, Milos Raonic, the new phenom from Canada, said he has consciously copied Sampras – the announcers marveled at a serve they called fluid and free flowing – and it all started with the toss.

You be the judge.  And while you are at it – come to terms with your own toss.

The toss could be the most important aspect of the serve. In Building The Serve From the Ground Up we not only hit this nail on the head but many many more as well.

20 Comments

  • Eddie

    Reply Reply November 21, 2011

    Very interesting. Two things – I didn’t see the term “pronation” used during this video, but isn’t that what we’re talking about?
    Lastly, I’ve tried this myself and get positive results. However, where things start to get fuzzy is incorporating this wrist rotation into a 2nd serve slice. I’m guessing I have to start paying more attention to toss location.
    Anyway, thank you for the valuable analysis. I will bring it with me into my next practice session.
    Ed

    PS- Have any of your readers hit their leg with the racket edge since trying this?

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply November 21, 2011

      Eddie – I purposely avoid the “pro…” term – I actually dont like it – prone means face or palm down and somehow that word encourages a down hit or swing – no comments yet on hitting their legs – if you do that it many mean you have too much energy and speed in the follow thru – you want all that action at the hit
      Jim

  • david Bateman

    Reply Reply July 3, 2011

    Many important questions but no answers! Not even in your very good program about serving! I agree about the high toss. Never to be imitated and I cannot believe that coaches did not adjust these serious technical problems earlier in the players careers but interestingly I think that probably the better players do it for themselves. An innate good server! Look at Andy Murray who had serious technical flaws in his serve some of which have now been remedied but still not a killer serve.
    Anyway am I right?- release point past the eyes parallel to baseline but how fast do you begin? sS this a question of getting a good rhythm? Should the arms go down slowly and then the racquet accelerate into the hit. You get the impression form videos that no one speeds up at this stage.
    Look forward to hearing form you
    best

    David

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply July 3, 2011

      David – Novak would be a good answer to your question about tossing arm speed – his toss is lower than in years past and he does that by simply slowing his arm -but on this there are no absolute answers
      Jim

  • Bill Hutcherson

    Reply Reply June 27, 2011

    I am 78 and have played tennis ever since 13 yrs of age. I had a hip replacement 5 years ago but still get out on the courts 6 or 7 times a week.

    I just wanted to say a great big, “thank you” for all of your comments, teachings, videos and tennis wisdom… I particularly like the way you go out on a limb with your critiques of the current top players… and suggestions that even they could improve on.

    A job well done… and thanks again.

    Bill Hutcherson

  • Frank Loucks

    Reply Reply February 14, 2011

    Jim–For years I have had a very poor service toss and consequently a poor serve. Your colleague Brent Abel in one of his service videos mentions tempo and speed of the tossing arm. At that time I paid little heed to this and my service problems continued. It took a minor injury to my tossing shoulder to realize just what tempo is to the serve. Presently, to minimize the pain in my tossing motion I literally think absolute slow motion as I toss. What a difference. Now I can place the ball in a good hitting location and my service motion is fluid with the result that I have much more consistency, spin, and power on my serve. I can’t thank you guys enough for your astute knowledge of the game and passing that on to those of us seeking to improve our play.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply February 14, 2011

      Frank – thanks for the note, slow and easy is the trick
      Jim

  • Mike Hodge

    Reply Reply February 9, 2011

    Jim: Well done.
    Tempo is HUGE. Just starting out I got so immersed in the micro that I overlooked the tempo of both arms. My tossing arm used to shoot up so fast I looked like a jack in the box.

    One suggestion: I think you could do a great video explaining more in detail about the evolution of the parallel to the baseline toss motion compared to the traditional arm out in the court method and where most folks go wrong, etc. I know you have a lot of work to do. Just a suggestion. Thanks.

    • Jim McLennan

      Reply Reply February 10, 2011

      Mike
      that is a good idea and I will pursue it – it is a good story – somehow the players discover elements and the coaches are a number of years behind til they get on board
      Jim

  • Kevin Bryant

    Reply Reply January 25, 2011

    I was one who used to suffer from the “yips” with my service toss. The embarrassment of the yips was enough to motivate me to spend a lot of time and effort on fixing the problem.

    Videos of Sampras went a *long* way towards helping me cure my tossing yips. I *think* I figured out where a lot of his rhythm comes from. At least, for me, copying aspects of his toss gave me my first ever sense of rhythm with it.

    One thing Pete does is start his toss with his tossing hand up relatively high and *drops it down* (sort of a “back-swing”) before bringing it back up for the toss. Not only does he drop it down, I think he sort of bounces his hand off of his thigh.

    A recent improvement to my toss is to start that “high hand” out in front of me towards the net, but to rotate my shoulders as I drop my hand down, and then bring my hand up as I finish my shoulder turn, so as to have my arm parallel to the baseline (if not further back for a kicker) upon release of the ball. I got this idea from looking at Federer’s service motion, but I’m not really sure that he even does it.

    Both the dropping and the turning seem to add “rhythm” (for me), which almost seems to be the opposite of “the yips”. There are probably very few basket cases out there as big as I was, though. 🙂 Did I mention that I also take a big, deep breath right before the toss? (and right before calling out the game score) 🙂

    Practicing the toss prior to practicing the serve makes a lot of sense to me, and even as lazy as I am, I’ll almost always do it, letting the ball hit the ground after each toss, and making a mark in the clay where the ball hits. Until I can make the pattern for the marks pretty small, it’s a waste of time to practice the actual serve. It *does* get smaller with practice. 🙂

    Kevin

    • Jim

      Reply Reply January 25, 2011

      Kevin – as you put it “the high hand” is key to the swinging of the tossing arm
      well said
      Jim

  • Orlando

    Reply Reply January 25, 2011

    One important element of the tossing, often neglected, is how to hold the ball in your hand. I read and saw some videos about this key matter and they really help me to improve the whole tossing of the ball.

    • Jim

      Reply Reply January 25, 2011

      Orlando – maybe – sometimes coaches can be way over technical about aspects of how to hold the toss or how to toss it – rhythm is more a macro concept and holding the toss though perhaps useful is more a micro point of view
      Jim

  • barry

    Reply Reply January 25, 2011

    Jim i tried to leave my pinkie off the racket when serving & to a lesser extent when playing,i found this added to a more fluid relaxed shot.Thanks

    • Jim

      Reply Reply January 25, 2011

      Barry – generally this helps most on the serve, but any experiment that works is worth it to try
      Jim

  • Dr.Jorge de la Fuente

    Reply Reply January 25, 2011

    ZERO GRAVITY.This is how I call the moment when the tossed ball reaches the end of his ascending trayectory and stops briefly in a stand still. So I think that is the precise moment when your serve impact, should be. Why? Because your result will be more consistent instead of hiting an object in movement. Learn to toss your ball at the right altitude so you can hit it at Zero Gravity. And at the end of you Forearm Pronation, meaning by Pronation the act of moving your forearm from Abduction(Palm up) to Adduction (Palm down). In serving, you are really, doing only half pronation, because we are going from racket On Edge at the top of the swing(palm to the left) and ending with palm and thumb down (Reading the watch), at point of impact or snap. Actually this movement is the same that a Karate figther performs, when you see them extending the arm from chest level, towards the oponent chest. Rotating the forearm in a pronation manner. Thanks Jim

  • Jim Fox

    Reply Reply January 25, 2011

    Once again, I sure agree. I find it very helpful for my students to have them do the entire motion of the serve, including the tossing motion, without a ball. Then, like you say, I have them “place” (not toss!) the ball in the way of the racket. It really works.

  • Niall Patrick

    Reply Reply January 25, 2011

    Wow. Great piece. I really enjoy watching Milos’s serve it not only is big but it is placed very well. I was watching a match and the commentators put on the screen where his first and second serves land and was astounded of how consistent he was in placing the serve in the corners of the box. Does this placement have to do with the toss?
    -Niall

    • Jim

      Reply Reply January 25, 2011

      Niall – I want to study this Milos’s serve some more – perhaps he will get a wild card to the SAP in February
      Jim

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