The tennis ball rises into the air and for a brief moment – like the one on top of a roller coaster – all is calm. And then, bam, the racket, swinging through the air, makes contact and the action begins.
The serve is the only time in tennis where the human hand, not the racket, dictates the direction and placement of the ball. And that makes starting with a good throw essential to win.
“You have total control over the service, so the coin toss is an important part,” said Craig Boynton, who coached John Isner and now coaches Hubert Hurkacz, who climbed from 35th to 9th in the table in 2021 as his service results improved. .
Aryna Sabalenka, ranked second on the women’s tour, noted in an email that “you can’t have a consistent serve without a consistent throw.”
The toss is arguably the most underrated aspect of a player’s game for the pros, says ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert. It looms even bigger at the club level for recreational players, where many players lose control, often use too much wrist, bend their elbow or let their arm float. “If you lose control of the toss, you lose your serve,” he said.
The ideal is to hit the ball in that split second when it stops moving at the top, said Jimmy Arias, the tennis director at IMG Academy, but there isn’t one perfect pitch.
Sabalenka and Taylor Fritz, ranked 23rd on the men’s tour, said they started throwing the ball higher in recent years as they learned to use their legs to push off more, yielding more height and power.
“You want to maximize the height you make contact with the ball during the serve,” explains Sabalenka. “As I got stronger, I was able to bend more and jump more towards the ball. That allowed me to throw the ball a little higher.”
Boynton said some big servers, such as Andy Roddick, had a faster move and thus a lower throw, while many Europeans learned a longer move that required more time and a higher throw. “Elevation is partly determined by how long your movement 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 specific movement and your timing.”
The goal, Arias said, is to find and throw a move that doesn’t have the player rushing or waiting. “Serving is all about the rhythm, and the toss dictates that.”
Among the current players, Denis Shapovalov, Alexander Zverev and Federico Delbonis have remarkably high tosses. “Delbonis throws it over the moon and has to wait five minutes for it to come down,” Arias said, which is fine, except he believed that when nerves creep in at big times, flipping the higher and waiting longer could cause problems.
Shapovalov, who changed his approach several times, and Zverev were both often plagued by double errors or battles for second serve.
“Zverev should drop it, but could go to a lower ball on his second serve,” Gilbert suggested, which would speed up Zverev’s movement and help solve his problem.
But that would be a radical change, which might be necessary for a club player or someone at junior level, but which is rare on the pro tour. At that level, players do not separate the toss for isolated practice. Fritz even laughed at the question. (To perfect his toss as he grew up, Gilbert worked on it while walking to school and sitting in a chair. “If you have to get out of the chair to catch the ball, your toss moves you.”)
While Boynton said it might be worth reviewing a club or junior player’s toss and practicing it separately from the serve, he wouldn’t make any major changes at a professional level.
“For the pros, it’s more about adjusting the timing and rhythm of all these moving parts,” he said, adding that he worked with Hurkacz last year to keep the throwing arm from accelerating, which helped generate a more consistent large storage.
Redoing a professional coin toss could be “very dangerous,” Arias said, but added that if it worked, the results could be remarkable. He pointed to Marin Cilic, who failed to reach his potential until his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, did Cilic’s serve again in 2013. Ivanisevic, who is second all-time in percentage of first service points won, had Cilic throw the ball further in front (and slightly lower). In 2014 Cilic won the United States Open.
A good throw isn’t just about height, it’s also a matter of location. Gilbert said an “elite toss” hits where you can hit your topspin, flat or slice.
He said Andy Roddick, Pete Sampras and Serena Williams were dominant servers in part because “every throw was perfect” and they hit the ball at 12 o’clock, with no sideways drift, so it was impossible to read before making contact. (Arias practiced “a million times” with Sampras, but couldn’t read his serve.)
“You have to throw it in the same spot every time and not give it away where you serve,” Fritz said, adding, “I would only move my throw because of the sun.”
But 56th-ranked Jenson Brooksby said that while a throw was supposed to be in the right area, he wasn’t aiming for perfection. “There’s a margin of error that doesn’t matter,” he wrote in an email.
Sabalenka and Fritz said top players disguised their serve well, but Brooksby said Roger Federer was the best on the men’s tour. Boynton also praised Nick Kyrgios, while Arias said Novak Djokovic was underestimated, explaining that he shortened the returnee’s reaction time by throwing the ball further in front of him.
“If you could teach a long jumper to throw the ball all the way to the service line, hitting the serve would be like [a player at the net] hitting “an overhead for him,” Arias said.