The Tennis Ball Toss: Breaking Down This Critical Aspect Of The Serve

EEven veteran viewers of the US Open, which begins on Monday, will be surprised to know that there is no limit to how many times a tennis player can throw the ball when initiating his serve. Still, players swing the good and the mediocre on almost every shot they make, despite this being such a crucial element in determining who wins each point.

The toss is the graceful raising of the ball into the strike zone. It’s the always-crucial, sometimes-overlooked, hard-to-decipher ingredient in the game’s most important shot.

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Mark Kovacs, a sports scientist who has worked on the serves of John Isner, Coco Gauff and Frances Tiafoe, said a surprising number of players on tour don’t pay enough attention to the throw, its position and how it affects their serve. “It’s an important detail that’s often overlooked,” Kovacs said. “An unevenly placed throw not only makes the serve less reliable, it messes up biomechanics and can lead to injury.”

Tiafoe, 24, a rising American who is ranked No. 24 on the men’s tour, allowed The Times to examine his throw in a park in London’s Wimbledon area. Here’s what we learned about this component of elite service.

Placing the toss

A finely tuned serving technique can be compromised by adapting to a poorly placed throw. “With the razor-thin margins of today’s game, inconsistent shot placement could be the most obscure reason why a player loses serve at a critical juncture in the game,” said Warren Pretorius, whose company Tennis Analytics works with tour players.

Pretorius uses Roger Federer’s throw as the gold standard. His throws are so consistently accurate that they usually form a pattern barely larger than the tennis ball itself. Pretorius also cited Serena Williams and Nick Kyrgios as great servers with impeccable shot placement.

Tiafoe’s throws below vary by nearly 10 inches. This variation is not uncommon among even some of the best pros.

Pretorius found great diversity in throw distribution among the players he worked with. (He doesn’t work with Tiafoe.)

One player, a Grand Slam tournament winner that Pretorius declined to publicly name, had a streak of throws about the size of Tiafoes. Another Slam winner had placements that were even larger, around 12 to 14 inches.

Pretorius said inconsistencies in toss placements can cause the serve to be an inch or two or more off the line, which is the difference between an ace and a miss.

hold ball

When it comes to proper throwing technique, there are some common beliefs and then there are some personal preferences. A rule of thumb is that the ball should be held in the fingertips, not the palm, which would cause the ball to roll off the fingers at the trigger point, making the throw harder to control.

In terms of raising the ball, there are two popular options: the palm-up version favored by Naomi Osaka and Rafael Nadal, and the version used by Federer where the palm faces the back of the court and the ball lifted when he would toast with a glass.

In the air

The precision of the throw can be determined by how the ball leaves your hand. A ball that rolls off your fingertips too much – even more than Tiafoe’s – can be harder to control. Even after the ball is in the air, the throwing arm’s work is far from over: there are angles to be made and forces to be unleashed.

Like a rule change
Complicated toss

The modern serve has become more powerful and complex over the years, in large part due to a change in the foot fault rule in the 1950s. Before the rule change, the player’s front foot had to touch the ground behind the baseline until the ball was hit. Otherwise, the player was called due to an error. This rule made the ball toss a fairly simple and straightforward affair.

point of contact

The approach to how high to throw the ball varies between the game’s top servers. Kyrgios hits the ball very close to the top of his throw. Many others, including Tiafoe, throw the ball higher, sometimes four to six inches or more over the top of the racquet, and then drop it into the strike zone, the area where the racquet is when the arm is extended overhead .

Because players are now jumping into their serves, their throws must be placed to accommodate this, such as when a quarterback throws to a spot in front of a moving receiver. The main target for the server’s throw is what you see in Tiafoes below – lined up over his serving shoulder and directly in front of his head. This position allows him a full, powerful extension at contact.

The players’ strongest serves, called the flat serve, are most commonly used as first serves. They’re fast and direct, and Tiafoe hits his at over 130 mph.

But there are other serves, like the kick serve and slice, that add spin to the ball and can require players to change the position of their throws, adding complexity to an already complicated task.

Tiafoe can hit his flat serve and carve it off with the same throw, making it difficult for his opponent to see his intentions. But he has to change it for the kick (which most players use as a second serve). Returners can read the kick toss and anticipate the serve, but the ball’s tremendous spin makes it difficult to attack.

The pressure to hit every shot

The serve is the one shot in tennis over which a player has complete control. While the shot clock rule forces the player to begin the serving motion within 25 seconds of the end of the previous point, a player may begin to serve and then choose not to hit an erroneous shot. However, this rarely happens for various reasons.

“Players feel a social pressure not to stop the serve, even if the throw is a little off,” said Meike Babel, a former top 30 player on the women’s tour. Dropping the ball without hitting it can sometimes cause a stir.

At the 1998 US Open, Slovakian player Karol Kucera struggled mightily with his shot and repeatedly dropped it to the ground. When his opponent, the American Andre Agassi, had to serve, Agassi mocked Kucera by feigning difficulty with his own throw and dropping several onto the field. Perhaps in a bit of tennis karma, Agassi lost the match.

Dropping the toss can also send the wrong message. “I struggled with my throw, especially when I felt the pressure,” said Babel, “but I didn’t want my opponent to see that I was nervous. So I took it anyway.”

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