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Myth: Toss the Ball High on the Serve to Gain Time

BY VIC BRADEN 2/20/2001

When I was in my twenties, I ran into a photo of myself in the 'trophy look' position getting ready to hit my serve. Having played a ton of baseball, it suddenly struck me funny that the typical service pose is a rather weird position rarely seen in sports. With my tossing hand held high, my back arched beautifully and my racket pausing to calculate the accuracy of my toss, I was pretty sure I looked 'cool'.

Later, I was fortunate to run into the wife of Lester Stoeffen who told me how her husband came to be the model for one of the most popular serving trophies we still see today. Lester was one of the hardest hitters of his era and the sculptor wisely chose his famous serve to serve as a model for the rest of the world. Unfortunately, Lester's serving style didn't match the sculptor's idea of showing some dramatic action, So Lester was asked to hold his tossing arm up high while his racket was only half way through the swing. That pose is still being taught around the world.

If the tossing arm significantly precedes the racket arm swinging motion, the ball will have to be tossed higher to give the arm a chance to complete an approximate 450 degree flight path. Thus, the majority of players we tested were tossing the ball approximately six feet higher than their potential reach with the thought that they would have more time to strike the ball.

The problem is that the ball falls at the rate of gravity, 32 ft. per second/per second. That means the server must strike the ball on the way down. Depending on the size of the rackethead and the acceptable area on the racketface where the ball can be struck, a ball thrown only to the peak of one's reach and hit at the apex will provide the server with 10 to 15 times more time to strike the ball. The high toss will provide a server more time to prepare to strike a ball that is in the window of the racket face less time.

To be sure, the majority of the players use the high toss because that's the way they've been taught. A great contributor to tennis science, Dr. Howard Brody, calculated that one could get a few more topspin revolutions on the serve if the ball were struck on the way down, but he simultaneously stated that the number of revolutions gained weren't earth shattering. He also stated that his calculations weren't meant to measure the effects of the racket swing pattern and the issue of timing a dropping ball.

Some German and American scientists feel that the high toss gives the upper body a chance to coil in such a manner that it loads the musculature and facilitates a much faster swing. In the Coto Research Center, Dr. Ariel and I did not come to the same conclusion for the use of a light implement, such as a racket. We were, however, in agreement with Dr. Bruce Elliott's research showing that the proper internal rotation of the upper arm provided the greatest rackethead speed.

Pete Sampras leads with the left hand. Steffi Graf led with the left hand and one could see her service toss rise above the first balcony, but senior player, Roscoe Tanner hit the ball at the apex and is still hitting serves harder than many players active in today's Open tournaments.