| By Lisa Dodson

The serve toss is one of the most troublesome and misunderstood movements in the game of tennis. We experience difficulty in regulating and duplicating accurate tosses even under the best conditions. The most disturbing thing about the toss is how much it can get into your head and how destructive that can be for your entire game. If you have severe toss issues, keep reading.

Let’s just calm down
If you have ever had toss problems, you know how overwhelming it is and how easy it is to get emotional and negative. One way to calm down is to focus on exactly what has been letting you down: The technical aspects of the toss arm and hand. But, often this does not solve the problem and continued focus on the technical issues can make the problem much worse.

Below are some conventional ideas that may be helpful in controlling the toss.

1. Hold the ball lightly with straight fingers and the wrist laid down. This will help reduce spin on the ball and insure that it goes up and forward.

2. Toss from the shoulder, keeping the elbow and wrist straight.

3. Move the toss arm in the direction of the right net post (generally as a righty). Depending upon your style, your arm may move more parallel to the baseline.

4. Finish with your toss hand fully extended and fingers to the sky.

The toss should be easy, right? No, but it should be pretty straightforward if kept simple and isolated from the other movements in the serve. Unfortunately, that is an unrealistic view of the toss since it is incorporated into a whole-body action.

Why is tossing a ball so difficult?
First, we need to recognize that the serve requires your arms to do two completely different things, at the same time, on either side of your body. So you are constantly at odds with the other arm. Players underestimate how difficult this really is.

Most are completely unaware of what they are actually doing when serving, where their body parts are and how one movement effects a chain of events. Naturally, our arms like to behave the same on either side of our bodies and they counter-balance each other in movement. The serve motion dictates that the arms and hands do two very different jobs. That makes for some very difficult coordination and timing.

►The job of the hit arm is to be loose and whippy: The elbow bends fully and we dynamically throw the racket with a very relaxed and pronating wrist. This circular and powerful movement travels on a controlled path, but in a very free-flowing motion. Our hit hand is not releasing anything.

The job of the toss arm is just the opposite: It needs to be straight, almost rigid and controlled. The elbow and wrist do not bend and the movement is linear. Our toss hand has to release something. We’re also using our non-dominant hand and arm to do a very detailed and precise movement.

How do we fix a toss?
Most often, the big, undiagnosed problem is tempo and the understanding that the hitting arm is the key to success for the toss arm. Basically, if the hitting arm moves fast, then the toss arm will move fast, causing a poor toss and timing. So, knowing that the dominant hand and arm (hitting arm) dictates tempo and movement to the toss arm, let’s concentrate on the opposite arm.

Player A gets up to the line and sets up to serve. He is really nervous about his toss. Player A has a very fast downswing or take back and the toss and hit arms both stop when they become parallel to the ground. The toss goes crazy and so does Player A.

Is his problem really his toss arm? No, the typical thought would be to work on his toss arm and technique, but he really needs to work on is moving his hitting hand through the point (where he usually stops) and up into hitting position. This will naturally help the toss arm move in a fuller upswing which will improve the toss.

In order to coordinate the entire motion, he also needs to slow the downswing/take back. Remember when the hit hand moves fast, then the toss hand will move fast, all causing poor tosses and timing.

Most of the time, we do not want to focus fully on the toss arm. The toss arm will only be able to behave properly if the racket arm (the dominant arm) behaves and keeps moving into position. When hit arm tempo and movement improves, then perhaps it is time to deal with details of the toss arm and hand.

How do we help this player?
Player A needs the ball taken away, to slow down and to feel the proper tempo and movements. This player needs to go through a one movement motion where both arms and hands understand their jobs. Remember the toss arm finishes high and straight and the racket arm elbow is bent and the hand is behind the head. Eventually, all players can do this without a ball and do it easily. It should make sense that they can now put it into the service motion but, once again, it’s not that simple.

Player A can now hold a ball and can go through the motion while releasing the ball toss. The player needs to make sure that he is doing things as precisely as he did without a ball.

Player A can now attempt to hit a ball. He needs to keep his attention on the tempo of the downswing and the movement of the hit arm. If attention is diverted to hitting the ball, then he’ll struggle with the toss again.

So, what should the player do to fix the toss for good?
Focus on tempo. No one said fixing this would be easy but the most effective way is to keep focusing on the dominant hitting arm. Remember, if the downswing or take back is supposed to be slow but the racket arm moves fast and short, then the toss arm will move fast and short. Then, the toss breaks down and Player A blames the toss arm when actually it is the hit arm causing the problem.

Is it really that simple?
Yes, it usually is. Understanding the dynamics of the left and right arms are the key to a successful toss. The dominant arm always leads the non-dominant arm in tempo and timing so working together is essential. Also, taking the focus off of the problem allows it to be far less mental.

If your toss is in crisis, remember that it’s not all about your toss arm. We need to simplify what you are doing and make sure that your racket arm is “allowing” your toss arm to move properly. Stop concentrating on results, and start focusing on the basics of movement.

In order to improve, sometimes you have to get a little worse. Often, these times of tennis crisis make players take a closer look at what they are actually doing and give them tools to improve an entire game.

Lisa Dodson

Lisa Dodson is the developer and owner of Servemaster, a USPTA Elite Professional and a former WTA world-ranked player. She is currently the director of tennis at Shenorock Shore Club in Rye, N.Y. She may be reached by e-mail at Lisa@TheTotalServe.com or visit TheTotalServe.com.