The latest episode of the Tennis Quick Tips podcast has just come out! TQT 014, “Get a Better Tennis Serve with a Better Toss,” is all about improving that one stroke that we all know needs to be improved – the serve. In this episode, I talk about how your serve can get a whole lot better quickly if you spend time working on, and maybe one day perfecting, your toss.
Below is an edited version of the transcript for this episode that you can read through for notes and more information.
You’ve probably figured out by now that I love tennis tips. I’m always on the lookout for that little tip, trick or hack that is going to somehow magically improve my tennis game. And the tips I’m most interested in are the ones I bet you want to hear too – tips to improve my serve. So let's talk about a simple tip that can have a big impact on the quality of your serve.
So let's just all accept that what the tennis pros, coaches and experts of the world tell us is actually true. The serve is the most important stroke in tennis. But what, I ask you, is the most important part of the serve? I ask because guess what? There’s a huge list of things that go into hitting a serve. How’s this for a quick list of parts of the serve?
1. Have a proper toss
2. Use the right grip on my racquet
3. Go through the appropriate arm motion with my racquet
4. Hit the ball with the correct spin
5. Hit the ball to the right target
That’s six things I could potentially be thinking about and trying to get right every time I hit a serve. Yikes.
Now, if you listened to Episode Zero of Tennis Quick Tips then you know I didn't start playing tennis until I was an adult. And while I've played sports, worked out and been pretty fitness-obsessed for a good part of my life, I am not by any stretch of the imagination a natural athlete.
So when it comes to my tennis serve, I have to really study it and think about it and try all kinds of things out. It absolutely does not come naturally to me.
That's why I think it's safe to say that I have a pretty good opinion about which part of the serve is the most important to perfect. Certainly the part that is most important if you are a lower level player or are someone who is seriously working on your serve for the first time.
So, the part of the serve that I think is most important to contribute to the quality of your serve is the toss. If done properly and consistently, I think a good toss is the one thing that can really raise the level of your serve.
Why do I think the toss is so important? The toss is what puts the ball into motion. A good toss places the ball at the exactly right spot for you to hit it. A good toss sets off the entire timing of your serve. If your toss is done properly, all of the moving parts will all come together at exactly the right space and time to give you a fighting chance at having a good serve.
If that doesn’t convince you, think about what the very many bad things that can happen when you put up a bad toss. A bad toss produces an inconsistent serve, at best. Usually, however, it just produces a plain old bad serve. Your timing may be off resulting in you hitting the ball too early in your motion or too late. Your body can be thrown off balance if you choose to chase a bad toss rather than trying again for a good toss. You can fail to pronate (don’t worry what that means right now) or to apply any spin at all if your toss is wrong. The list of disasters that a bad toss can cause goes on and on.
So just what is a good toss? Again, I’m speaking here to lower level players, those working on improving their serve, or those players just hoping to make the serve less confusing. A good serve is one that goes up smoothly, in a pretty much straight, determinable line. The exact placement of this toss can change depending on where you’re trying to target your serve or what kind of serve you’re hitting. But, putting all of that aside for now, a good toss is one that travels smoothly and in a straight line.
A good toss is not a throw. A good toss does not have a lot of spin on it. A good toss does not curve.
So let’s try to picture this good toss. First, let’s think about the line your toss should travel along. I’m going to use the clock analogy that any pro teaching you how to hit a serve uses because, frankly, it’s easy to understand. Imagine there is a giant clock facing you, about an arm’s length distance from you. Noon is at the very top of this giant clock. If you’re a righty, you want your toss to go up along the line that is at about 1:00. If you’re a lefty, your toss should be at about 11:00. Got that?
Now, let me just note for the record, that if you can perfect this much of the toss, just getting the toss path to follow this straight line consistently, you’ll have done quite a bit to improve your toss. There are at least two other parts to the toss that you can think about. One is the distance you want your toss to go into the court. In other words, the toss doesn’t necessarily travel in a straight line up into the air that is perpendicular to the baseline. It should actually travel in a straight line that angles into the court, especially on your first serve. Then, there is the issue of how high your toss should go. And this, of course, depends on the timing of your service motion since your toss needs to travel high enough that you hit it at the exact right moment in your motion.
But, you know what, I’m not going to muddy the toss waters with that stuff right now. What I want you to think about and work on is just getting a service motion that travels in this straight line we’ve been talking about. Because just this one aspect of the serve may be very new for you and can make a huge difference.
So, I’m guessing by now you’re asking, “Just what are the mechanics of this toss you’re talking about? How the heck do I get this straight line toss?”
Well, let me tell you exactly how I finally got it. And what I’m about to tell you may seem so simple that it’s ridiculous. But this is one time where practicing some very minor changes can produce some very nice results.
So, first, and I happen to think this is critical to getting a good toss, when holding the ball for your toss, try holding it to the sides of the ball, instead of holding it in the palm of your hand or even resting on top of your finger tips. Try to picture the way you would hold a glass of water. You hold it on the sides of the glass, right? Not underneath. If you don’t believe me that this is a good idea, let me just tell you that this is how Roger Federer holds the ball to toss it and if it’s good enough for him, it should be good enough for all of us.
I actually wrote a whole post on this topic including some photos of Federer’s toss and some YouTube video links that go even more in depth on this. I’ll link to that post in the show notes for this episode so you can see that stuff. You’ll find those at tennisfixation.com/quicktips14.
Anyway, hold the ball on the sides as if you’re holding a glass of water.
Next, hold the ball down over your left thigh, assuming you’re a righty, at about waist high or just a little lower. Shift your weight to your front foot which, again, would be your left foot if you’re a righty.
Now gently toss the ball up as if it is, in fact, a glass of water and you don’t want to spill a drop. This is a very relaxed move. Not so much careful, as relaxed. Can you picture what this looks like? There’s absolutely no wrist involved in this motion, there is no finger roll, there is no spinning of the ball, and there is certainly nothing that looks like a throw here. You want the glass of water, i.e., the ball, to travel up in a straight line and come back down in a straight line so that not one drop of water spills.
I’m pretty sure that just picturing that visual will give you the idea and help improve your toss.
Okay, so you’ve got the visual. Now what? Well, the next step is of course practice. And the great thing about practicing your toss is that you can not only do it by yourself, you can do it at home. You don’t need to be on a tennis court. You don’t need a tennis racquet. Heck, you don’t even need a tennis ball.
So here’s a drill you can do at home at practice your toss. Take a pair of socks, wadded up into a roll, and practice tossing them up using this glass of water visual. So if you’re a righty, you start with the sock roll in your left hand, holding it with your fingers to each side, like it’s a glass of water. Your weight is shifted into your left foot and your hand starts somewhere down around your thigh, not necessarily resting on your thigh but just a bit lower than your waist. Now toss the sock roll up, trying to keep it in a straight line. If it actually travels in a straight line, you should be able to catch the sock roll without moving your feet.
That’s the “toss your socks” drill as I’ve decided to call it. The great thing is you can do this drill any time of the day or night, anywhere in your house. Lord knows I’ve done it all over my house, in my backyard, on my driveway. My neighbors already think I’m a crazy person so I don’t think anything I do surprises them, certainly not seeing me out there throwing a wad of socks in the air. And I do this drill all of the time even though I think my toss is not too horrible. But it’s a long way from perfect so I keep doing the drill.
Now, after you think you’re getting the feel of this drill, try taking it outside and onto the court with a real tennis ball and your racquet. First, just go threw the drill like you have been with your sock roll. Then, try adding this toss motion into your service motion. If this is a new way to toss for you, believe me, it’s going to feel really weird and really uncomfortable at first. But remember that, right now, you’re just trying to get a better toss. The serve will follow. And honestly, speaking from the experience of someone who has tweaked all kinds of little things in my game, if you diligently work on this new, better toss, it will only take about a week for it to become a natural part of your service motion. You’ll have trouble even remembering your old motion.
Let me give you one final piece of advice on this – once you decide to go forward with this new toss, or anything new you change in your game, just do it. Don’t look back. When you make a change to your game, especially to a part of your serve, things might look pretty bad for the first few matches. But just plow on. You will get through it and it will be for the better. I remember changing my serve at one time early in my tennis career and playing a match where I served something like seven faults in a row with my “new” serve. I mean I really remember that. It was horrible. But I kept right on going with my new serve and got over that huge road bump in my game somehow.
Here are links to the resources mentioned in this episode:
Got any great tips or drills for a better toss? Be sure to let me know in the comments below. And I hope you’ll subscribe to Tennis Quick Tips!
Thanks for listening and, as always, Happy Tennis!