The Serve Toss

Chuck Kinyon

This basic tennis maneuver to start every point seems simple; but there are a lot of moving parts to consider.  The action is dissected in great detail by former Dartmouth tennis coach, Chuck Kinyon.

Not One Size Fits All

For the serve toss, the moving parts of the arm alone: shoulder, elbow, wrist and fingers pose a significant challenge.  The chain progression from the feet up, bring about another obstacle to getting the ball in just the right position to take a swing.

I don’t believe there is one simple solution to this difficult task.  Everyone is a bit different in how they approach the task.  You certainly need to start by developing a ritual to help consistency. When watching the pros, you see many different routines.  It is entertaining to watch and if possible slow down the action to see what is actually happening.

Correcting a Problem

If you are struggling with the toss, I feel that it is important to take out some to the complex movements and concentrate on getting the ball in a good position to hit.  To begin, get the feet in a comfortable position to be well balanced during the movement.  For a righty, set up with the left shoulder and racquet pointing toward the right net post. Hands and arms should be relaxed and in your normal ready position.

To practice, start by tossing the ball with no swing so that you can catch it without moving the feet. The tossing arm should travel almost along the baseline.  Sounds easy, but not so for most! You should be able to go through this motion 10 times in a row before being allowed to take a swing.  The next task would involve the upward swing at the ball but limit the movement of the feet completely (be still).  This will test whether the player has control of their body during the toss, or do they move to wherever the ball toss happens to be placed.

Where to Toss?

This will depend on the skill level of the player serving. If their feet are still, I believe the toss, if not struck, should come down and land on the brim of a player wearing baseball cap. 

Where should your feet go during the toss? There seems to be two ways to proceed.  One is the system where you extend up to the ball and your back leg swings around into the court as the racquet contacts the ball. The second is the body jumps up over the baseline landing in the court on the left leg. This second method is now the preferred by today’s pros and may require the toss to occur further in the court depending on the athletic stature of the player.

The next question would be where should the toss be when struck in relation to the body?  I believe that Roger Federer and most of the great servers can toss the ball in relatively the same place and hit a variety of serves.  This is important so that the spin and placement of the serve is not given away prior to the server contacting the ball.  The analogy of the baseball cap holds true for this judgement. I do understand that if you toss the ball further to your right (right hander) you can spin the ball out wide to your opponent’s right.  Likewise, if you toss the ball a bit to your left it is easier to spin the ball out to your opponent’s left.  But I maintain that the more you don’t give away what is coming the more effective your serve will become.

“Fault” to Catch Toss

Even though I told players many times that if their ball toss is not in a good place catch it and start over. There is no penalty. I agree with Brad Gilbert and others who say I don’t believe a pro player should need to do the toss/catch routine.  Once the ball is in the air the player should be required to take a swing. We are always looking for ways to shorten matches and this would be a simple way and add another challenge to the depth of our game.

Chuck Kinyon is one of the best known college tennis coaches in the country, having served as director of tennis for Dartmouth for 30 years.

One added thought from George: I believe the fingers should be taken out of the equation on the toss… either the ball sits in the palm or is held by the thumb and index finger when tossing.

What are YOUR thoughts on the mechanics of the serve toss or possible rule change?

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9 thoughts on “The Serve Toss

  1. After a couple of years of the tossing “yips”, I realized that old age neck arthritis was keeping me from getting my head up. Now I consciously look up before I toss, and the ball goes where I am looking.

  2. Good stuff. Had noticed more “bent elbow” tosses in recent years. The most interesting aspect of this slomo of Nadal practicing (reversed as a righty) to me, though, is how soon he takes his eye off the ball. 🙂

    As one with a history of tossing yips, I’ll share the “fix” that I lucked into a while back. Loosening my grip on the *racquet* allows me to get the job done. Weird, eh?

    Kevin, great slow motion video of Rafa’s serve! in addition to pulling his head down, i was anxiously waiting for him to load up with the raquet dip behind his back. good stuff, tks, george

  3. As one of Chuck’s pupils, he is constantly telling me to not move my feet and make sure I have the correct grip. His advice is to practice my serve without moving my feet, which for me is a hard chore.

  4. Your goal on the serve is to make a smooth, continuous swing. One way to do that is to toss the ball only as high as you can reach at full extension, so you hit the ball at its apex. If you toss too high, you may have to decelerate your swing, creating a hitch as you wait for the ball into the hitting zone. Moreover, hitting a falling ball is harder than hitting one that is cresting because the falling ball is moving faster through the hitting zone. If your toss is too high, you may be using excess wrist action in your release or you may be lifting your tossing arm too aggressively from the shoulder. A low toss will force you to rush your swing and will prevent you from hitting at full extension. If your toss is too low, I would be a little more aggressive with your lifting action and make sure your tossing arm keeps rising (from the shoulder) to full stretch after the ball has left your hand. Hold the ball
    lightly in the fingertips, then try to “lift” it without spinning it. The tossing arm can be a real spoilsport and the toss is not as easy as it looks. Learn to toss the ball into the service motion of the hitting arm instead of adapting the rhythm and form of the hitting arm to the toss. Think about how you want to improve on your toss as well as serve delivery. Then go out and practice until it becomes routine.

  5. A very common service motion misconception ( a visual misinterpretation actually) is the picture many players mistakenly hold ,of the top players rocking from the front to back foot to build momentum into the strike. This reverse weight shift creates a very complex kinetic chain and contributes to many of the tossing woes of the average player—(where in this swaying and twisting action do I release the ball upward )? To remove this variable and subsequently simplify the service toss ,try utilizing the Sampras & Serena model of locking the weight on the back foot for a full beat before beginning the service motion, then lifting the ball to the strike point as the weight presses forward to the front foot and leg . This action is more akin to a basketball lay up than a fall away jumper and can be the basis (solid foundation) for improving the toss

  6. there is no mention on the difference between a first and second serve, chuck’s technique on his second serve is perfect. he should talk about how he executes it. it is very different from the first serve.

  7. great photo of Chuck!….and we can’t wait to get you, George, back on the court!

    yes, and yes! george

  8. Alexander Zverev could benefit from a lesson on second serve from Chuck. I agree with Brad Gilbert…one toss only.

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