The strategy and importance of the service throw
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The tennis ball soars through the air and for a brief moment – like atop a rollercoaster – all is quiet. And then, bam, the racket, whipping through the air, makes contact and the action begins.
The serve is the only time in tennis where the human hand, not the racquet, dictates the direction and placement of the ball. And that makes starting with a good pitch essential to winning.
“You have total control of the serve, and so the throw is key,” said Craig Boynton, who coached John Isner and now coach Hubert Hurkacz, who has risen from 35th to 9th in the standings in 2021 so that his service results were improving.
Aryna Sabalenka, ranked second on the Women’s Tour, noted in an email that “without a consistent pitch, you can’t have a consistent serve.”
The draw is perhaps the most underrated aspect of a player’s game for the pros, says ESPN analyst Brad Gilbert. It is even more important at the club level for recreational players, where many players lose control, often using too much wrist, bending their elbow, or letting their arm drift. “If you lose control of your ball toss, you’ll lose your serve,” he said.
It’s ideal to hit the ball in that split second when it stops moving at the top, said IMG Academy tennis director Jimmy Arias, but there’s no perfect pitch height.
Sabalenka and Taylor Fritz, ranked 23rd on the men’s tour, said in recent years they started throwing the ball higher by learning to use their legs to push off more, generating more height and strength.
“You want to maximize the height at which you make contact with the ball on serve,” Sabalenka explained. “As I got stronger, I was able to lean and jump more towards the ball. This allowed me to throw the ball a bit higher.
Boynton said some big servers, like Andy Roddick, had a faster stroke and therefore had a lower throw, while many Europeans were learning a longer stroke that required more time and a higher throw. “Height is partly determined by the duration of your movement.”
Sabalenka said players have their own ideal throw. “It takes a lot of practice to figure out what works best for you, your body, your particular movement, and your timing.”
The goal, Arias said, is to find a move and throw where the player isn’t rushing or waiting. “Serving is all about pace, and the draw dictates that.”
Of the current players, Denis Shapovalov, Alexander Zverev and Federico Delbonis have particularly high throws. “Delbonis throws it over the moon and has to wait five minutes for it to come down,” Arias said, which is fine, except he thought that when nerves seep into the big moments, throwing it higher and the longer wait could create problems.
Shapovalov, who changed his approach several times, and Zverev were both often plagued by double faults or second serve struggles.
“Zverev needs to drop but could go for a lower toss on his second serve,” Gilbert suggested, which would speed up Zverev’s movement and help solve his problem.
But it would be a radical change, which may be necessary for a club player or someone at junior level, but which is rare on the pro circuit. At this level, players do not separate the draw for isolated practice. Fritz even laughed at the question. (To perfect his throw growing up, Gilbert worked on it by walking to school and sitting in a chair. “If you have to leave the chair to catch the ball, then your throw moves you.”)
Although Boynton said he thought it might be useful to revise a club or junior player’s throw and have it practiced separately from the serve, he would not make major changes at the professional level.
“For the pros, it’s more about fine-tuning the timing and the rhythm of all these moving parts,” he said, adding that last year he had worked with Hurkacz to not leave the arm of launch speed up, which helped generate a more consistent big serve.
Re-throwing a professional can be “very dangerous,” Arias said, but added that if it worked, the results could be dramatic. He pointed to Marin Cilic, who hadn’t reached his potential until his coach, Goran Ivanisevic, re-served Cilic in 2013. Ivanisevic, who ranks second all-time in first serve percentage won, asked Cilic to throw the ball further forward (and a little lower). In 2014 Cilic won the US Open.
A good throw isn’t just about height, it’s also about location. Gilbert said an “elite pitch” hits the spot from which you can hit your topspin, flat or sliced serve.
He said Andy Roddick, Pete Sampras and Serena Williams were dominant servers in part because “every pitch was perfect” and they hit the ball at noon, with no lateral drift, so it was impossible to read before contact . (Arias trained with Sampras “a million times,” but couldn’t read his serves.)
“You have to throw it to the same spot every time and not reveal where you are serving,” Fritz said, adding, “I would only move my throw because of the sun.”
But Jenson Brooksby, 56th in the standings, said while a draw had to be in the right zone, he was not looking for perfection. “There is a margin of error that doesn’t matter,” he wrote in an email.
Sabalenka and Fritz said top players disguise their serves well, but Brooksby said on the men’s tour, Roger Federer was the best. Boynton also praised Nick Kyrgios, while Arias said Novak Djokovic was underrated, explaining he shortens the returner’s reaction time by throwing the ball further in front of him.
“If you could teach a long jumper to throw the ball to the service line, then hitting the serve would be like [a player at the net] hit “an overhead for him,” Arias said.
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