The least practiced and paid attention to aspect of the serve?

It's one of the great contradictions of our sport that arguably the most important stroke, that is also the most easily practiced (just you and a basket of balls), is often the most ignored.  

And more often than not, the efficiency and effectiveness of the serve hinges so often around the contact point area and therefore the ball toss, or ball placement ('toss' conjures up images of a jerky throw, whilst placement suggests something more precise, smoother and controlled).

There are 3 aspects of contact point that relate directly to the location/accuracy of ball toss as shown in this video of world number 67 Taylor Fritz delivering a second serve at the Surbiton 100K last week.

 

1.  Height

Typically most top players contact the ball on the fall (ie: as it's dropping from the apex of the ball placement) so the ball requires a placement high enough to enable this.  Taylor has a relatively low ball toss, but a careful look shows he still makes contact on the fall.

2.  Distance front to back

Contact ideally should be made inside the baseline for both 1st and 2nd serves, though to facilitate more spin a second serve ball toss will be placed further back to encourage more vertical path of the racket (for a top/slice spin).

3.  Distance side to side 

A tricky one.  12 noon (in line with heel of front foot) to 1pm would be considered within a range of acceptability.  Ideally, you are looking for a contact point that enables 'shoulder over shoulder' (cartwheel rotation) rather than shoulder around shoulder as this creates more vertical velocity through the hips, a higher contact point, and promotes greater internal rotation of the hitting shoulder (this action contributes to 40% to the generation of racket velocity at impact in the male high-performance serve).  [Bruce Elliott & Machar Reid, 'Tennis Science']

Elliott and Red however, are keen to point out that 'coaches of young players alike must be careful to appropriately time when they emphasise the importance of internal rotation in the service action.  For example, research has observed that increases in internal rotation velocity occur primarily after puberty.  Therefore, young players should attend to other aspects of the service action and lay the foundations for appropriate internal rotation velocity development prior to puberty, so that they can most effectively use this aspect of the serve when they mature.'

A couple of photos below showing a slight contrast in body position at contact of Fritz to a younger, physically developing 14 year old (albeit it different angles)

Finally, a few keys for an accurate ball placement:

  • A smooth rhythmical service action is helpful, especially when score-board pressure and muscular tension come into the equation
  • Release at eye level
  • Straight arm and lift from the shoulder
  • Imagine holding on to a tube of balls or a plastic cup/ice-cream cone to limit last second wrist flick which can send the ball anywhere!

Above all, have fun getting out there and practicing your serve - no hitting partner required!