eSeasoned watchers of the US Open, which begins on Monday, may be surprised to learn that there is no limit to the number of times a tennis player can toss a ball when starting his serve. However, players swing on almost every throw they make, good or average, even though it’s a crucial element in deciding who will win each point.
A toss is the graceful lifting of the ball into the hitting zone. It’s the always crucial, sometimes overlooked, and barely decipherable element in the game’s most important shot.
Images from top left clockwise: Martin Bureau/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images; Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images; Anne-Christine Bogolat/AFP – Getty Images; Glenn Kirk/AFP – Getty Images; Alister Grant/Associated Press; Tertius Piccard/Associated Press; Andy Brownbell/Associated Press; Mark Schiefelbein/Associated Press; Adrien Dennis/AFP – Getty Images Images taken clockwise from top left: Adrian Dennis/Agence France-Presse – Getty Images; Martin office/AFP – Getty Images; Andy Brownbell/Associated Press; Anne-Christine Bogolat/AFP – Getty Images; Glenn Kirk/AFP – Getty Images; Mark Metcalfe / Getty Images
Mark Kovacs, a sports scientist who has worked on dispatches for John Isner, Coco Gauff and Frances Tiafoe, said a surprising number of players on the tour don’t pay enough attention to the lot, its location and the effect on their serve. “It’s an important detail that often gets overlooked,” Kovacs said. “An inconsistently placed throw not only makes the transmission less reliable, but it also throws off biomechanics and can lead to injury.”
Tiafoe, 24, a rising American who ranked 24 on the men’s tour, allowed The Times to examine his throw in a park in London’s Wimbledon section. Here’s what we learned about the Elite Service element.
A delicate serving style can be thrown off by having to adjust to a poor throwing position. “With margins so thin in today’s game, the inconsistent placement of the draw can hardly be the reason why a player loses serve at a critical point in the match,” said Warren Pretorius, whose company, Tennis Analytics, works with tour players.
Pretorius uses Roger Federer’s throw as the gold standard. His throws were consistently so accurate that they usually form a pattern barely larger than the tennis ball itself. Pretorius also appointed Serena Williams and Nick Kyrgios as great butlers with an impeccable toss situation.
Tiafoe’s throws, below, vary by about 10 inches. This difference is not rare, even among some of the best professionals.
Pretorius found great variety in the distribution of throws among the players he worked with. (It does not work with Tiafoe.)
One player, a Grand Slam winner, Pretorius chose not to be named publicly, and had a bunch of toss around the size of Tiafoe. Another slam winner had larger placements, about 12 to 14 inches.
Pretorius said inconsistencies in throw positions can cause the serve to be inches, two inches or more off the line, which is the difference between an ace and a foul.
holding the ball
When it comes to proper ejaculation technique, there are some beliefs and then there are some personal preferences. One rule of thumb is that the ball should be held with the fingertips, not the palm, which can cause the ball to roll off the fingers at the point of release, making the lot more difficult to control.
In terms of how to lift the ball, there are two common options: the palm-to-sky version favored by Naomi Osaka and Rafael Nadal, and the version used by Federer, with the palm toward the back of the field and the ball raised as if raising a glass in toast.
Up in the air
The accuracy of the lot can be determined by how the ball leaves the hand. Controlling a ball that rolls a lot off fingertips – even more so than a Tiafoe ball – can be more difficult. Even after the ball is in the air, the action of the tossing arm is still far from complete: there are angles to make and the force to launch it.
How to change the rule
The lottery has been made
Modern transmissions have become more powerful and more sophisticated over the years, due in large part to the change in the foot fault rule in the 1950s. Before the rule change, the player’s foot had to remain in contact with the ground behind the baseline until the ball was hit. Otherwise the player is called for an error. This rule made ball tossing fairly simple and straightforward.
The method for determining how high the ball will be varies among the game’s top servers. Kyrgios hits the ball near the top of his throw. Many others, including Tiafoe, toss the ball up, sometimes four to six inches or more above the top of the racket and then let it fall into the hitting zone, which is the zone where the racket is when the arm is extended over it.
With players now jumping into their serve, their throws must be positioned to account for this, such as when a quarterback throws somewhere before the moving receiver. The primary goal of the servant’s throw is what you see below in Tiafoe – aligned over his shoulder and just in front of his head. This position allows him to have a full and powerful stretch when connected.
The players’ most powerful serve, called the flat serve, is used mostly as the initial serve. They are fast and straight, and Tiafoe hits his car at over 130 mph.
But there are other transmissions as well, such as the kick and chip serve, which add spin to the ball and can require players to change the location of their throws, adding more complexity to an already complex task.
Tiafoe can hit his flat serve and chip with the same lot, making it difficult for his opponent to read his intentions. But he has to change it for the kick (which most players use as their second serve). Returners can read the kick throw and predict the serve, but the ball’s massive spin makes it hard to attack.
pressure to hit every throw
The serve is the only shot in tennis that the player has complete control over. While the shot clock rule forces the player to start the serve within 25 seconds of the end of the previous point, the player can start serving, and then choose not to hit a foul. But this rarely happens for several reasons.
“Players are feeling social pressure not to stop the service movement even if the lottery is a little off,” said Mike Babel, a former top 30 player on the Women’s Tour. Sometimes letting the ball fall without hitting it can cause a bang.
At the 1998 US Open, Slovakian Karol Kucera struggled so hard with his fling that he repeatedly fell to the ground. When it was time for his American opponent, Andre Agassi, to serve, Agassi make fun of them kuchira By pretending to have a hard time throwing it and letting many fall to court. Perhaps in a bit of tennis karma, Agassi lost the match.
Leaving the slander can send the wrong message, too. “I had a hard time throwing, especially if I was feeling stressed, but I didn’t want my opponent to see I was nervous. So I hit it anyway,” Babel said.