Tackling the Temperamental Toss

Making a Straighter Line

Tossing a tennis ball up a few feet so you can hit your serve seems as if it should be the easiest part of the whole game, but many players find it one of the more elusive skills.

The biggest source of difficulty stems from the fact that the most natural tossing motion, swinging the ball upward with a straight arm, requires an early and exactly timed release that can break down under pressure. If your arm is straight and you rotate your shoulder joint upward to execute the toss, your arm acts like one of the vanes on a windmill, with your shoulder as the hub.

Someone standing on your baseline, watching you from the side as you swing the ball forward, then up, would see the ball describing part of a circular path in the air.

Depending on when you release the ball, it could go forward, straight up, or back, which can also put it to your right or your left, depending on how the circular path is oriented. It's generally a good idea to release the ball relatively late, so that your tossing hand is closer to where you want the ball to end up; a shorter toss has less room to go astray. With a circular tossing motion, though, the later you release the ball, the more it will go behind you. To get a circular tossing motion to result in a straight toss, you have to release the ball early, but not a moment too early. Many players manage to do this well most of the time, but when they get into tense situations, their timing goes off, and their tosses fly unpredictably, with disastrous consequences for their serves.

The solution is to use a tossing motion that may seem somewhat awkward at first, where you start the ball just in front of the leading edge of your right leg (for a right-hander). Instead of swinging the ball out, then up, in a circular path, slant the ball upward and forward on a straight line toward your intended point of contact for the serve.

It sometimes helps to imagine that you're guiding the ball up through a pipe that goes to your point of contact. Your arm will look and feel mostly straight during your toss, but you'll naturally bend your elbow slightly in the early part of the tossing motion in order to move the ball in a straight line.

With this straight-line tossing motion, you can release the ball with your tossing arm extended as far upward as you wish, and the ball will not drift behind you. You don't have to worry about exact timing, because with the ball moving on a straight line, it will always be moving in the same direction no matter when you release it.

Does the slant-it-up-and-forward toss guarantee perfect results?

Yes!

You'll be earning millions in short order! (We wish.)

Okay, even if you can't have perfection, you can have a pretty reliable toss, especially if you keep in mind these other important tips:

 
  • Hold the ball in your fingertips, and release it by opening your whole hand at once, like a big flower suddenly spreading its petals.
  • When you practice your toss, do your normal windup with your serving arm. The windup motion changes your body's balance and momentum. A toss you practice without your windup won't work quite the same with one.
  • With your tossing arm fully extended, the distance from your hand to your point of contact is only a racquet length or so, plus however far your leg thrust lifts you off the ground. If you release the ball below full extension, add some inches to your perception of your toss, but remember that the ball's flight will barely need to exceed four feet even if you launch quite powerfully with your legs.
  • Contrary to a popular myth, you will need to vary your toss slightly for different types of serves. Tosses for kick serves will be less forward and less to your right than those for topspin-slice or slice serves.
  • For most serves, you should toss the ball roughly to the height that the tip of your extended racquet reaches when you execute a real swing, including any extra height you get by leaving the ground. You'll meet the ball after it drops several inches from the tip's height to that of the sweet spot. The "perfect" toss would go just to the height of your sweet spot, but tossing it several inches higher, then letting it drop leaves you a safe margin to avoid tossing too low, for which there's no way to compensate. For twist and topspin serves, a longer ball drop can enhance your topspin.