Why do Tennis Players Bounce the Ball So Many Times? [with the Rafael Nadal example]

What is a shot clock?

This one is all about how serving players behave with tennis balls, so if you have any questions around this, you might want to hang around for this piece. For one, why do tennis players bounce the ball multiple times before serving and secondly why do they check a few balls before opting which one to use to serve.

Instead of answering this directly, it would be interesting to dig into examples of star tennis players and their ball-bouncing habits.

There are a few intriguing examples of top players on the men’s and women’s tennis circuit with set pre-serving routines. Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams have intriguing ball-bouncing habits apart from some others.

Nadal’s Pre-Serving OCD?

Nadal has often gotten under the skins of opponents and fans alike with his pre-serve ritual which includes a few times of ball-bouncing.

Nobody is quite sure why he does it with critics having suggested it is to do with the idea of trying to off-put the opponent and to take the rhythm away from him but you don’t reach the top and be there for that long with that tactic alone.

Besides, over time, such tactics get found out and can easily be overturned, so it’s highly doubtful Nadal’s intention is to disrupt an opponent’s game with that. It’s something more.

Is it superstition then? Some might argue, it could be that. However, it is not just ONE superstition and in that might lie the answer.

His ball bounces belong to a set of them that consists of having pre-match cold showers at set times, not walking on sidelines, keeping a couple of bottles of water on the ground, touching his t-shirt over his shoulders and shorts a couple of times, his nose and adjusting his hair and a couple of others.

When combined with bouncing the ball almost a dozen times before serving, it all adds up to someone showing signs of an obsessive compulsive disorder.

Serena’s Superstitions to Blame for Losses?

There’re others too who have a similar routine going but at a lesser obsessive level.

Serena Williams, for instance, has tied her shoelaces in the same way all her life, apart from “using the same shower before every match, bouncing the ball five times before the first serve and twice for the second” according to this article here.

Interestingly, Serena has admitted in the past her rituals are annoying to her too, because of that nagging worry she would lose the match if she didn’t follow through with all of them.

Djokovic’s Bunch of Ball Bouncing

Coming back to why tennis players bounce the ball so many times, there are other, non-superstitious reasons too.

Novak Djokovic, for instance, bounces the ball a bunch of times as well, but the number isn’t the same every time. This could be down to the need to get into a zone whereby he has regained his full focus with the mind cleared of whatever happened previously and muscles loose enough to get into the right frame before serving.

And since this could be different at different times in a match, his pre-serving bounces aren’t consistent, but yes, he does take his time. It’s about getting that right preparation going and a chance to set up his best serve and rest of the point for Djokovic.

Experts reckon your pre-serve ritual which includes the continuous ball-bouncing assists the body to get into a position from which serving becomes easy and relaxed.

So, why do tennis players bounce the ball so many times?

One, it’s a force of habit, a ritual or probably a superstition. However, in some cases it is also about getting into the right frame of mind, clearing the cobwebs of the previous points and getting into the most relaxed position before going on to make that next serve.

What is the Serve Clock or the Shot Clock?

Over the years, effort has been made to make tennis matches more compact. With reducing attention spans, tournament organizers are scrambling to find themselves a way to ensure tennis matches don’t go on and on (read our piece on how long have tennis matches lasted historically)

In 2018, following time-wasting complaints from various quarters, the US Open had decided to experiment with a serve clock or a shot clock that restricted players to starting the next point within 25 seconds of the chair umpire calling the score after the previous point.

What happens if play doesn’t begin within 25 seconds of the previous point?

A code violation is called if the players aren’t ready to serve or receive the serve within 25 seconds of the score being called out by the chair umpire.

Interestingly, players who are known to take their time between serves, Djokovic and Nadal included, have gotten behind it as has Marin Cilic, who is another player known for the same ‘indiscretion’.

The Croat, former world number three and 2014 US Open champion reckons it was a good decision to bring in the serve clock because it brought in consistency in the timings.

He said:

“It’s what we needed in the game. It has been so much talked about, and I feel also for the referees, the responsibility is taken from them. Some referees were enforcing the rule, some are very lenient. It’s not very consistent.”

Djokovic also welcomed the move, saying he had more time to gather himself now in case of the previous point going for too long or if the crowd gets very involved since the chair umpire only starts the serve clock after he announced the score.

In response to this innovation, Nadal had said he thought there was subjectivity in when the serve clock was started before the next point but was happy to adjust to it without any issues.

Wimbledon is now planning to introduce the serve clock for 2020.

Gayle Bradshaw, the ATP VP of Rules and Competition, said an interview with Tennis.com, there has been a positive outlook towards the shot clock.

While it gave players more time than they previously thought they did, it also brought in consistency in enforcing the rules by taking away the umpire subjectivity. And that was a good thing.

He said:

“The majority of comments from players have been positives. Some of the guys have said they feel more relaxed now, because before they didn’t know what time they had.”

So now, moving on to our next question…

Why do Players Check Multiple Balls Before Their Serve?

This one is simpler to answer. According to Jan Magnus, of Tilburg University, Netherlands, who along with Franc Klaassen, of Amsterdam University, analyzed over a hundred, thousand points at Wimbledon in the early 1990s, players prefer newer balls with smooth hair for their first serve while for second serves they prefer slightly older ones which have roughed up hair.

The smoother ones, because of lesser friction, go quicker but with lesser control while the older, coarser balls allow for more control to reduce the probability of a double fault.

If you want to understand this in a greater depth, please check out our article on the multiple reasons why tennis players check multiple balls before choosing one here.

Stan Boone

I am the editor of Racket Sports World. I love my tennis, pickleball and most of the other racket sports played around the world and started this blog as my way to help other racquet sports fans even as I learn, explore and improve by connecting with them. Tweet at https://twitter.com/StanBooneTennis.

Recent Posts