Same Toss for Different Spin Serves?

01
of 12

Disguising Your Spin

Pete Sampras Loading Up for a First Serve
Pete Sampras Loading Up for a First Serve. Simon Bruty / Getty Images

One common piece of advice about serving in tennis says that you should use the same toss regardless of which spin you intend to hit, primarily to disguise your intention. The player most often cited as a model of always using the same toss is one of the greatest servers of all time, Pete Sampras. On the following pages, we'll examine the disguise an unvaried toss provides, how Pete Sampras tosses, the practicality of using the same toss for different spins, and several examples of what top current players do.

It's certainly true that a toss can provide an early signal of which spin the server intends to hit, especially if the toss is at either end of the left-right range. A toss well to the left will almost always lead to a serve with significant kick, usually a twist; a slightly low toss well to the right will almost always be a heavy slice--unless the player has a very odd and inefficient way of hitting flat.

Tosses closer to the middle of the range also give clues, mostly of what the upcoming serve cannot be. A toss even slightly to the right cannot be hit as a twist serve, although it can be hit with a significant amount of topspin that will give it some kick. A toss even slightly to the left cannot be hit as a heavy slice, although it can be hit with some slice if the player leans to the left enough before swinging.

Immediately following the toss comes an excellent clue about which spin the player is hitting: the swing. The swings for the different spins are quite distinct. For most receivers playing at the level where serves are hit with significantly different spins, reading the server's spin from her swing should not be difficult, and that information would be registered before the ball is struck. How much advantage does the server gain, therefore, by trying to disguise the spin by not varying the toss? Against receivers who can't read the swing well, the toss might be a better or an additional clue, but such receivers are probably rare. In terms of time, it's basically the difference between signaling the receiver one second before the ball is struck and signaling a fraction of second before the ball is struck, both of which are followed by the ball flying the length of the court before the receiver has to hit it. Whether the receiver reads the spin from the toss or from the swing, she knows which spin is coming by the time the ball is on its way.

02
of 12

How Practical is Using the Same Toss?

Pete Sampras Loading Up for a Kick Serve
Pete Sampras Loading Up for a Kick Serve. Julian Finney / Getty Images

Even if the advantage gained by not varying the toss is small, why not capture it? As with any other gain, the key question is the cost: how easy is it to hit different spins with the same toss? Proponents of the same-toss theory often cite Pete Sampras as proof that it can be done--and extremely well. If you watch video of Pete's serve, you will see that he does almost always toss to his left, and he does hit those tosses with spins ranging from a 50-50 topspin-slice to a full twist. By watching closely, though, you'll see that the toss for his topspin-slice serve, his usual first serve, is typically around two feet to the left of his ground centerline, a vertical line rising from halfway between his feet, but the toss for his twist serve is more than four feet to the left of that centerline. Pete manages to hit a topspin-slice on a ball two feet to his left by leaning even farther to the left, thereby putting the ball to the right of his head, where it needs to be to hit that spin. He leans even more to the left for his twist serve, so much so that it looks as if he might fall over, but his toss is so far left, the ball remains slightly on his left, where it needs to be to hit a strong twist serve. It simply isn't true that Pete Sampras uses the same toss to hit different spins; he almost always tosses to his left, but his toss direction varies by at least two feet, as much distance as if he tossed between a foot to his right and a foot to his left.

To hit a topspin-slice (commonly called slice) serve, you have to brush up from the center of the ball toward 1:30 if the ball were a clock face. If you try to do this with the ball to the left of your head at the moment of contact, your head will get in the way of your shoulder, and your serve will fly much too far to your left; thus, the only way to hit topspin-slice with a toss to your left is to lean, like Pete, farther to the left so that the ball is on your right.

To hit a twist serve, you have to brush up from 7:00 on the ball's clock face toward 1:00. If you try to do this with the ball to the right of your head at the moment of contact, your serve will fly much too far to the right, and you won't get enough topspin. This problem can't be solved by leaning to the right, though, because to hit a twist, your whole upper body needs to be rising along with your arm from left to right; you have to start a twist by leaning to the left.

Hitting the other full kick serve, a pure topspin, wouldn't work either with the ball to your right, because your arm isn't long enough to swing a racquet straight up fully on a serve and still reach to your right.

If you want to try to hit a decent range of different spins with the same toss, therefore, you have to toss every ball to your left, because tossing to the right eliminates the twist and pure topspin. You could probably manage to hit a range of spins from twist to topspin-slice by tossing every ball around a foot to the left of your head and then leaning left by varying degrees to accommodate each spin, but you couldn't hit any serves with more than around 50% slice, the sidespin component of your twist might be limited, and you would meet your topspin-slice somewhat lower because of your lean. Whether these costs are worth the potential benefit described earlier is up to you.

Let's see what several of the best servers in the pros do.

03
of 12

Roger Federer's Toss for a Topspin-Slice First Serve

Roger Federer Hitting a Topspin-Slice First Serve
Roger Federer Hitting a Topspin-Slice First Serve. Lucas Dawson / Getty Images
Roger Federer has achieved widely held regard as either the greatest or second greatest (behind Rod Laver) player of all time, largely on the strength of his forehand and his serve. Roger hits first serves ranging from around 60-40 topspin-slice to 75-25 topspin-slice. For his 60-40 serve, Roger tosses the ball around six inches to the left of his ground centerline and meets it around a foot to the right of and a foot in front of his head.
04
of 12

Roger Federer's Toss for a Twist Second Serve

Roger Federer Hitting a Twist Kick Serve
Roger Federer Hitting a Twist Kick Serve. Matthew Stockman / Getty Images

Roger Federer's usual second serve has heavy topspin and some twist. His best second serve is the heavy twist, for which he tosses the ball around 3.5 feet to the left of his ground centerline and, while leaning quite a bit to his left, meets the ball around a foot to the left of his head.

The left-right variance between Roger's common first- and second-serve tosses is roughly three feet.

05
of 12

Samantha Stosur's Toss for a Topspin-Slice First Serve

Samantha Stosur Hitting a Topspin-Slice First Serve
Samantha Stosur Hitting a Topspin-Slice First Serve. Stephen Dunn / Getty Images
Samantha Stosur has one of the best first and second serves ever in women's tennis. For her usual first serve, a 65-35 topspin-slice, Sam tosses the ball directly above her ground centerline and meets it roughly a foot to the right of and a foot in front of her head.
06
of 12

Samantha Stosur's Toss for a Twist Second Serve

Samantha Stosur Hitting a Twist Kick Serve
Samantha Stosur Hitting a Twist Kick Serve. Clive Brunskill / Getty Images

For her second serve, which is usually a twist and probably the best twist serve ever in women's tennis, Samantha Stosur tosses around 2.5 feet to the left of her ground centerline and, while leaning quite a bit to her left, meets the ball around six inches to the left of her head.

The left-right variance between Sam's common first- and second-serve tosses is roughly 2.5 feet.

07
of 12

Andy Roddick's Toss for a Topspin-Slice First Serve

Andy Roddick Hitting a Topspin-Slice First Serve
Andy Roddick Hitting a Topspin-Slice First Serve. Cameron Spencer / Getty Images
Andy Roddick's exceptionally powerful serve is the main weapon that has kept him in the top ten of men's tennis for many years. For his usual first serve, a 65-35 topspin-slice, Andy tosses the ball directly above his ground centerline, and he meets the ball around a foot to the right of and a foot in front of his head.
08
of 12

Andy Roddick's Toss for a Twist Second Serve

Andy Roddick Hitting a Twist Kick Serve
Andy Roddick Hitting a Twist Kick Serve. Al Bello / Getty Images

For his second serve, which is usually a twist, Andy Roddick tosses around two feet to the left of his ground centerline and, while leaning more to the left than on his topspin-slice serve, meets the ball around six inches to the left of his head.

The left-right variance between Andy's common first- and second-serve tosses is roughly two feet.

09
of 12

Serena Williams's Toss for a Topspin-Slice First Serve

Serena Williams Hitting a Topspin-Slice First Serve
Serena Williams Hitting a Topspin-Slice First Serve. Ezra Shaw / Getty Images
Serena Williams owes much of her great success, including titles at all four of the Grand Slams, to her outstanding first and second serves. For her first serve, usually between a 50-50 and a 60-40 topspin-slice, Serena tosses the ball directly above her ground centerline and meets it roughly a foot to the right of and a foot in front of her head.
10
of 12

Serena Williams's Toss for a Kick Second Serve

Serena Williams Hitting a Kick Serve
Serena Williams Hitting a Kick Serve. Ryan Pierse / Getty Images

For her second serve, which has heavy topspin mixed often with a bit of slice or sometimes with a bit of twist, Serena Williams tosses around 18 inches to the left of her ground centerline and, while leaning more to the left than on her first serve, meets the ball directly overhead.

The left-right variance between Serena's common first- and second-serve tosses is roughly 18 inches.

11
of 12

Novak Djokovic's Toss for a Topspin-Slice First Serve

Novak Djokovic Hitting a Topspin-Slice First Serve
Novak Djokovic Hitting a Topspin-Slice First Serve. Clive Brunskill / Getty Images
Novak Djokovic's serve shares credit with his outstanding groundstrokes for his enduring top-five standing in men's tennis and likely growing collection of Grand-Slam titles. For his first serve, a 65-35 topspin-slice, Novak tosses the ball directly above his ground centerline, and he meets the ball around a foot to the right of and a foot in front of his head.
12
of 12

Novak Djokovic's Toss for a Twist Second Serve

Novak Djokovic Hitting a Twist Kick Serve
Novak Djokovic Hitting a Twist Kick Serve. Matthew Stockman / Getty Images

For his second serve, which is usually a twist, Novak Djokovic tosses around two feet to the left of his ground centerline and, while leaning more to the left than on his topspin-slice serve, meets the ball around six inches to the left of his head.

The left-right variance between Novak's common first- and second-serve tosses is roughly two feet.