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Journal of Sports Sciences

ISSN: 0264-0414 (Print) 1466-447X (Online) Journal homepage: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/rjsp20

Coordination and variability in the elite female


tennis serve

David Whiteside, Bruce Clifford Elliott, Brendan Lay & Machar Reid

To cite this article: David Whiteside, Bruce Clifford Elliott, Brendan Lay & Machar Reid (2015)
Coordination and variability in the elite female tennis serve, Journal of Sports Sciences, 33:7,
675-686, DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2014.962569

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2014.962569

Published online: 30 Oct 2014.

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Download by: [UGR-BTCA Gral Universitaria] Date: 15 December 2015, At: 13:31
Journal of Sports Sciences, 2015
Vol. 33, No. 7, 675686, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/02640414.2014.962569

Coordination and variability in the elite female tennis serve

DAVID WHITESIDE1, BRUCE CLIFFORD ELLIOTT1, BRENDAN LAY1 & MACHAR REID2
1
School of Sport Science, Exercise and Health, University of Western Australia, Crawley, Australia and 2Sports Science and
Medicine Unit, Tennis Australia, Melbourne, Australia

(Accepted 1 September 2014)


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Abstract
Enhancing the understanding of coordination and variability in the tennis serve may be of interest to coaches as they work
with players to improve performance. The current study examined coordinated joint rotations and variability in the lower
limbs, trunk, serving arm and ball location in the elite female tennis serve. Pre-pubescent, pubescent and adult players
performed maximal effort at serves while a 22-camera 500 Hz motion analysis system captured three-dimensional body
kinematics. Coordinated joint rotations in the lower limbs and trunk appeared most consistent at the time players left the
ground, suggesting that they coordinate the proximal elements of the kinematic chain to ensure that they leave the ground at
a consistent time, in a consistent posture. Variability in the two degrees of freedom at the elbow became signicantly greater
closer to impact in adults, possibly illustrating the mechanical adjustments (compensation) these players employed to
manage the changing impact location from serve to serve. Despite the variable ball toss, the temporal composition of the
serve was highly consistent and supports previous assertions that players use the location of the ball to regulate their
movement. Future work should consider these associations in other populations, while coaches may use the current ndings
to improve female serve performance.

Keywords: biomechanics, coaching, compensation, perception-action, motor control

Introduction frontal and sagittal plane trunk rotations


(Bahamonde, 2000; Elliott, 2006; Martin, Kulpa,
A procient serve is a crucial part of a tennis players
Delamarche, & Bideau, 2013). During the nal
stroke repertoire as it can be used to gain an advan-
stages of the serve, vigorous internal rotation at the
tage at the start of each point (McGinnis, 2013).
shoulder and wrist exion augments racquet head
Skilled execution of the serve involves concatenation
speed (Elliott, 2006; Marshall & Elliott, 2000;
of the lower limbs, trunk and serving arm to generate
Tanabe & Ito, 2007), while pronation and extension
racquet head speed and transfer momentum to the
at the elbow act to orientate the racquet in a manner
ball (Bahamonde, 2000). While the notion of coor-
betting impact (Bahamonde, 2005; Elliott,
dination has been explored variously in past tennis
Marshall, & Noffal, 1995). Additionally, the direc-
research, variability in specic coordinative joint
tion of the ball toss ultimately produces an impact
rotations (e.g. concurrent extension of the hip,
location forward of, and lateral to, the front foot
knee and ankle during leg drive; concurrent upper
(Chow et al., 2003; Reid, Whiteside, & Elliott,
extremity joint rotations during forwardswing) is yet
2011). From a coaching perspective, these studies
to be comprehensively examined and may provide
provide relevant information regarding mechanics of
coaches with useful information.
the service action and how players generate racquet
Investigations of the serve have primarily focused
velocity and intercept the ball. There exists scope to
on discrete values such as joint ranges, discrete kine-
extend this work by exploring other aspects of the
matic peaks and phase durations. This research has
service action, namely the role of coordinated joint
conrmed that exion at the knee and ankle pre-
rotations and movement variability, as they relate to
cedes the vigorous extension at these joints that pro-
performance.
pels the player into the air (Fleisig, Nicholls, Elliott,
Recent work has petitioned the exploration of
& Escamilla, 2003; Reid, Elliott, & Alderson, 2008).
movement variability in sports biomechanics
While the player is airborne, momentum is then
research (Bartlett, Wheat, & Robins, 2007).
transferred to the serving arm through transverse,

Correspondence: David Whiteside, School of Sport Science, Exercise & Health, University of Western Australia, 35 Stirling Highway, Crawley, Perth 6009,
Australia. E-mail: davidwhiteside@gmail.com

2014 Taylor & Francis


676 D. Whiteside et al.

Documenting the variability of movement patterns 1990), pistol shooting (Scholz, Schoner, & Latash,
within the serve may uncover how tennis players 2000) and dart throwing (Smeets et al., 2002). Since
coordinate joint rotations to produce accurate, high mechanical compensation is an inherent biomechani-
speed serves. Despite a long history of research cal response to the demands presented when enacting
describing movement variability and its functional a particular movement task, it does not follow a con-
relevance to human movement (Hatze, 1986; sistent pattern. Therefore, variations in joint rotations
Winter, 1984), movement variability in sporting (or other mechanics) are no longer considered to be
motions was often considered noise (Bartlett et al., indicative of movement system ineptitude. Rather,
2007). While this viewpoint has been tempered by movement variability is now considered critical to
contemporary movement research, consistency in the stabilisation of the performance parameters that
some parameters related to performance is still con- directly govern the outcome of the task (e.g. launch
sidered critical to success. parameters in the serve). In other words, variability in
In hitting and projectile tasks, the launch para- the movement system is not detrimental so long as the
meters critical to success relate to the trajectory and critical end point parameters remain stable. This
orientation of the end-effector (i.e. the racquet, bat, notion is reected in recent tennis research, where
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club, in hitting tasks, or the hand in throwing tasks), Whiteside et al. (2013b) showed that increased varia-
as its terminal location, orientation and velocity will bility in coordinated elbow and wrist joint rotations
ultimately determine the outcome of the task. did not reduce serve accuracy. Given the whole-body
Indeed, a single study on the tennis serve has nature of the serve, other mechanics may also con-
reported that consistency in speed and location of tribute to the compensatory process but are yet to be
the serving hand around impact is positively related characterised.
to serve speed and accuracy (Antnez, Hernndez, Movement variability in sporting actions is not
Garca, Vallo, & Arroyo, 2012). Other launch para- restricted to the magnitudes of discrete joint rota-
meters that directly govern the outcome of the serve tions. Research in other striking skills has highlighted
include the impact height, ball projection angle and the importance of consistent temporal patterns (i.e.
racquet velocity, the combination of which are the times at which specic movements occur) in
thought to determine serve outcome (Whiteside, interceptive (batting) skills in cricket (Renshaw,
Elliott, Lay, & Reid, 2013b). Though these launch Oldham, Davids, & Golds, 2007) and baseball
parameters are known to be important, the coordi- (Katsumata, 2007), as well as the volleyball serve
nated joint rotations that regulate their consistency (Davids, Kingsbury, Bennett, & Handford, 2001).
are not well understood. It has been suggested that these athletes utilise infor-
Contemporary motor control research in sport mation from the incoming ball (i.e. its location) to
describes a particular form of coordinated joint rota- regulate the initiation of key propulsive movements,
tion, referred to as mechanical compensation. In hence ensuring that they intercept it at the appropri-
human movement, this mechanism helps to regulate ate moment. Similar strategies have been found in
the performance parameters that ultimately deter- the tennis serve, where players regulate their move-
mine the outcome of the task (Dupuy, Mottet, & ments such that their arrival in the trophy position
Ripoll, 2000; Kudo, Tsutsui, Ishikura, Ito, & coincides with ball zenith (Reid, Whiteside, &
Yamamoto, 2000; Smeets, Frens, & Brenner, 2002). Elliott, 2010; Whiteside, Elliott, Lay, & Reid,
More explicitly, inadvertent variations in a given 2013a). Likewise, the timing of peak forward racquet
execution parameter (e.g. a joint angle) are counter- velocity is considered critical to accuracy in the rst
acted by the actions of other execution parameters serve (Antnez et al., 2012). Ultimately, coordinated
(Davids, Glazier, Araujo, & Bartlett, 2003). In this joint rotations and/or temporal consistency may be
way, errors that are introduced into the movement thought of as techniques that players exploit to sim-
system during performance can be managed, thus plify complex sporting movements. With this in
preventing any negative inuence on the task out- mind, it is expected that tennis players simplify
come that they would otherwise produce. those aspects of the serve that are most important
Mechanical compensation has been highlighted in to performance. At present, the particular methods
numerous projectile and striking sports including employed to do so are somewhat unclear as this
golf drives (Horan, Evans, & Kavanagh, 2011), free topic is yet to be comprehensively examined in the
throw shooting in basketball (Button, MacLeod, tennis serve.
Sanders, & Coleman, 2003; Mullineaux & Uhl, It has been suggested that, in learning movement
2010), underarm throwing (Dupuy et al., 2000; skills, inexperienced performers initially reduce the
Kudo et al., 2000), overarm throwing (Wagner, skill complexity by restraining degrees of freedom
Pfusterschmied, Klous, Von Duvillard, & Mller, (Anderson & Sidaway, 1994; Stergiou & Decker,
2012), table tennis forehands (Bootsma & Van 2011). These degrees of freedom are then gradually
Wieringen, 1990), tennis forehands (Knudson, released as players become more familiar with the
Coordination and variability in the tennis serve 677

Table I. Mean ( standard deviation) age, physical and menarchial characteristics of participants.

Group N Age (years) Height (cm) Mass (kg) Experienced menarche Time since menarche

Pre-pubescent 12 10.5 0.5 143.5 5.9 36.5 3.7 No N/A


Pubescent 11 14.6 0.7 166.9 4.7 56.7 3.8 Yes 618 months
Adult 8 21.3 3.8 169.2 4.8 61.9 4.2 Yes >4 years

task and explore alternative solutions to the move- and were arranged into pre-pubescent, pubescent
ment problem (Gentile, 2000; Newell, Deutsch, and adult groups based on their age and menarchial
Sosnoff, & Mayer-Kress, 2006). In this sense, chil- status (Table I). At the time of testing, players in the
dren are often considered novices owing to their pre-pubescent and pubescent groups held a top 8
motor inexperience (Guarrera-Bowlby & Gentile, national ranking for their respective age groups,
2004). Indeed, the popular ten year (10,000 h) while the adult players possessed a professional
rule (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Rmer, 1993) (Womens Tennis Association: WTA) ranking
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virtually precludes any attempt to categorise children higher than 325. This cohort was the same as that
as expert performers. This position is offered partial used in a previous study (Whiteside et al., 2013a).
support by Newells constraints model (Newell,
1986), which states that organismic factors (e.g.
Protocol
anthropometry, strength, anticipatory ability) inu-
ence performance. As such, more physically and The protocol was completed at an indoor biomecha-
mentally mature adults are expected to exhibit nics laboratory, where a full-size tennis court was
more skilled performance than children. However, constructed. Sixty retro-reective markers, 14 mm
elite child athletes present a unique cohort whose in diameter, were afxed to each player according an
motor prociency may exceed their age-related established, calibrated anatomical systems (CAST)-
expectations and whose practice regimes are often based, full body marker set (Besier, Sturnieks,
meticulous and intensive. Consequently, these ath- Alderson, & Lloyd, 2003; Chin, Elliott, Alderson,
letes may not conform to traditional descriptions of Lloyd, & Foster, 2009; Lloyd, Alderson, & Elliott,
child motor performance and deserve investigation 2000). Three hemispherical markers, composed of
in their own right. With movement patterns expected ultra-light foam (radius 7 mm), were placed on the
to change throughout development, it seems neces- racquet and three more on ball (Whiteside, Chin, &
sary to separate performers according to level of Middleton, 2013) to create coordinate systems
development when investigating movement in devel- therein. Prior to the serving protocol, dynamic cali-
oping populations. bration of a 5.5 (deep) ! 4 (wide) ! 4 (high) m
At present, there exists scope to supplement exist- capture volume yielded a mean residual calibration
ing tennis literature with research focused on coor- error smaller than 0.002 m.
dinated joint rotations and variability in the serve. Each player completed a standard 10 min warm
Therefore, the aims of this study were to examine up and used their own racquet to complete the
coordinated joint rotations and variability in the protocol. Verbal conrmation of preparedness
lower limbs, trunk, serving arm and ball in the tennis prompted the initiation of the test protocol in
serves of elite female players at three stages of devel- which players performed maximal effort at (i.e.
opment. It was expected that functional movement power) serves. Players were instructed to aim for
variability in the distal joints would manifest during a familiar 1 ! 1 m target (Elliott et al., 1995;
serve performance to preserve a successful outcome, Martin et al., 2013; Reid et al., 2008; Sakurai,
though its disposition would change with age. Reid, & Elliott, 2012) bordering the T of the ser-
However, the temporal composition of the serve vice box (right-handers: deuce court; left-handers:
was expected to be comparatively more consistent advantage court) and to hit all serves with the same
as players stabilised the timing of critical postures effect (i.e. to emphasise speed as opposed to spin).
with respect to impact. Five blocks of eight serves were performed with a 2
min rest period separating successive blocks.
Three-dimensional (3D) marker trajectories were
Methods recorded using a 22-camera VICON MX system
(VICON Motion Systems, Oxford, UK) operating
Participants
at 500 Hz. The global reference frame originated at
The relevant Human Ethics Committee approved the centre of the baseline, where positive x pointed
this study prior to recruitment. Thirty-one elite rightward along the baseline, positive y pointed to
female tennis players provided informed consent the net and positive z pointed up. Five of each
678 D. Whiteside et al.

players fastest serves landing in the target area were hand. Ball zenith represented the peak vertical dis-
selected for analysis. placement of the ball during its toss. The subsequent
nadir of vertical racquet displacement was the rac-
quet low point, which is usually coincident with a
Data processing player leaving the ground (Bonnefoy, Slawinski,
Gaps in the raw marker trajectories were interpolated Leveque, Riquet, & Miller, 2009). Impact was
using a cubic spline within the VICON Nexus soft- dened as the frame (i.e. 0.002 s) prior to racquet-
ware. A second-order polynomial extrapolation spe- ball contact. The duration of the serve was consid-
cic to tennis limited the distortion of kinematic data ered as the time period between ball release and
around impact (Knudson & Bahamonde, 2001; impact. Leg drive was dened as the period from
Reid, Campbell, & Elliott, 2012). Data were subse- ball zenith to racquet low point, while racquet low
quently ltered using a Woltring lter (Woltring, point to impact was considered the forwardswing
1986) with the optimal mean squared error of phase of the serve.
2 mm determined by a residual analysis, and then
modelled using the University of Western Australias
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full body (Besier et al., 2003; Lloyd et al., 2000), Variables of interest
racquet and ball (Whiteside et al., 2013) models. To gauge inter-limb coordination during leg drive,
Joint rotations were expressed using the Euler ZXY the relative bilateral exion-extension motion of the
sequence. Trunk rotations were expressed relative to ankles was compared, as was the relative bilateral
a virtual anatomical reference frame (x pointing for- exion-extension motion of the knees. The relative
ward towards the net, y pointing up and z pointing transverse (twist) and frontal plane (shoulder-over-
right) originating at the global origin. To maintain shoulder) trunk rotations prior to impact indicated
consistency in the statistical analyses, kinematics for how players manipulated the trunk during this time,
the left-handed players were inverted where appro- while relative extension and pronation denoted the
priate such that all players could be considered same for the elbow in the serving arm. The location
together as right-hand dominant (Campbell, of the ball during the toss was expressed relative to
Straker, OSullivan, Elliott, & Reid, 2013; the front toe (Chow et al., 2003; Reid et al., 2011),
Whiteside et al., 2013b). and its spatial variability measured at both ball zenith
and impact. Finally, the timing of both ball zenith
and racquet low point (expressed as a percentage of
Relevant events of the service action
the serve), and also duration of forwardswing pro-
Figure 1 denotes how the service action was deemed vided an insight into the temporal pattern of the
to begin at the instant the ball was released from the service action.

Figure 1. Key time points of interest in the tennis serve.


Coordination and variability in the tennis serve 679

Assessment of variability in joint mechanics and the ball Statistical analyses


toss
Four split plot analyses of variance (SPANOVAs)
Angle-angle plots provided a qualitative insight into were used to examine between group (i.e. differences
relative joint rotations. The variability of these traces between each group), within group (i.e. differences
was quantied using the coefcient of correspon- between each time point) and interaction (i.e.
dence a vector coding technique that assesses the group ! time) effects in the coefcient of corre-
repeatability of several variablevariable traces spondence. The same procedure was used to com-
(Tepavac & Field-Fote, 2001). Unlike alternative pare the variability volumes in each group at ball
vector coding methods that consider only vector zenith and impact. The ranges of motion at the
direction, the coefcient of correspondence is advan- ankles, knees, trunk and elbow were compared
tageous in that it also considers vector magnitude between groups using one-way analyses of variance.
(Wheat & Glazier, 2006). Ultimately, the coefcient Where signicant main effects existed, Bonferroni-
of correspondence quantied the magnitude of corrected post-hoc tests were employed to nd the
variability in coordinated joint rotations using a source of the difference. In total, 13 analyses of
value between 0 and 1 (0 = no variability; 1 = max- variance were performed, thus inating the risk of
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imum variability). Akin to previous work (Horan encountering type I errors. To account for this, the
et al., 2011), the average coefcient of correspon- signicance level was adjusted sequentially for each
dence value 5% of the relevant event represented test according to the correction method proposed by
the variability at that time point. Holm (1979). The p-value was not sufcient to
The 3D (x , y and z ) standard deviations of ball reject the null hypothesis in the eleventh test, indi-
displacement at ball zenith and impact were calcu- cating that all signicance in this study was reported
lated for each player across their ve trials. The using a p-value of 0.0125. The temporal variability of
mean and standard deviations of these standard ball zenith, racquet low point and forwardswing
deviations provided a gauge of ball toss variability duration were interpreted descriptively.
for each group (Davids et al., 2001; Reid et al.,
2010). Further, each standard deviation was doubled
(effectively creating error bar representing one stan- Results
dard deviation either side of the mean, in each
dimension) and then multiplied (2x ! 2y ! 2z ) Ankle mechanics
to yield the variability volume: a singular quantity The representative traces in Figure 2 represent how
of the balls 3D spatial variability for each player, all groups utilised simultaneous plantar exion at
across their ve serves. both ankles and simultaneous extension in both

Figure 2. Mean coefcients of correspondence and representative angleangle plots for the ankles and knees.
Note: *Signicant difference between ball zenith and racquet low point in all groups.
680 D. Whiteside et al.

During leg drive, the back knee extended through


a signicantly (F2,28 = 15.954; P < .001) greater
range in the pubescent (MD: 22.46; CI: 10.97
33.95; P < .001) and adult (MD: 22.59; CI:
10.0235.15; P < .001) groups compared with the
pre-pubescent group, though range of motion
(RoM) at the front knee was not signicantly differ-
ent between groups (F2,28 = 4.364; P = .022).

Trunk mechanics
The variability of concurrent frontal and transverse
plane trunk rotations revealed a signicant main
effect for group (F2,28 = 10.530; P < .001), wherein
relative trunk rotations were signicantly more con-
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Figure 3. Mean ranges of exion-extension motion at the ankles sistent in the pubescent (MD: 0.08; CI: 0.030.13;
and knees during leg drive. P = .001) and adult (MD: 0.08; CI: 0.020.13;
Note: *Signicant difference between groups. P = .005) groups compared with the pre-pubescent
group. A post-hoc decomposition of the signicant
main effect for time point (F2,28 = 67.672;
knees during leg drive. The coefcient of correspon- P < .001) revealed that relative trunk motion was
dence for ankle motion displayed a signicant main signicantly different at all time points (most vari-
effect for group (F2,28 = 16.499; P < .001), which able at ball zenith, most consistent at racquet low
post-hoc tests revealed to be a product of signicantly point, in between at impact).
higher overall variability in the pubescent group The range of trunk twist rotation did not differ
compared with the pre-pubescent group (mean dif- with age (F2,28 = .383; P = .686); however, the range
ference (MD): 0.14; 95% condence interval (CI): of shoulder-over-shoulder rotation was signicantly
0.080.20; P < .001). From a temporal perspective, (F2,28 = 13.744; P < .001) larger in the pubescent
the bilateral coupling of ankle plantarexion was (MD: 20.12; CI: 9.4530.74; P < .001) and adult
signicantly more consistent at racquet low point (MD: 18.04; CI: 6.4329.65; P = .001) groups
compared with ball zenith and independent of compared with the pre-pubescent group.
group (F1,28 = 151.111; MD: 0.25; CI: 0.210.29;
P < .001).
The range of plantar exion at the back ankle was Elbow mechanics
signicantly (F2,28 = 10.913; P < .001) smaller dur- A main effect for group (F2,28 = 7.606; P = .002) was
ing leg drive in the pre-pubescent group compared discovered for the coefcient of correspondence of
with the pubescent (MD: 14.12; CI: 5.1023.14; the relative elbow joint rotations (exion and radio-
P = .001) and adult (MD: 15.24; CI: 5.3825.11; ulnar pronation). Further analyses revealed that the
P = .002) groups. Likewise, the range of plantar pubescent group was signicantly more consistent
exion at the front ankle (F2,28 = 17.299; P < .001) than the adult group (MD: 0.12; CI: 0.040.21;
was signicantly smaller during leg drive in the pre- P = .002) over the period in question. Additionally,
pubescent group compared with the pubescent post-hoc analyses of the signicant time effect
(MD: 17.83; CI: 8.1227.53; P < .001) and adult (F2,28 = 70.069; P < .001) showed that variability
(MD: 21.91; CI: 11.2932.52; P < .001) groups was signicantly different at each of the three time
(Figure 3). points (becoming progressively more variable
between ball zenith and impact). Importantly, an
interaction effect was also noted (F2,28 = 24.089;
P < .001) and was found to relate to the fact that
Knee mechanics
the coupled elbow joint rotations only became sig-
Regarding the coefcient of correspondence for nicantly more variable between racquet low point
bilateral knee extension, the main effect for group and impact in the adult group (MD: 0.47; CI: 0.31
was not signicant (F2,28 = .162; P = .852), although 0.64; P < .001) (Figure 4).
a signicant main effect for time revealed that rela- The range of exion-extension at the elbow
tive knee extension was signicantly more consistent between ball zenith and impact did not differ
at racquet low point compared with ball zenith between groups (F2,28 = .953; P = .398). However,
(F1,28 = 86.376; MD: 0.26; CI: 0.200.31; during the same period, the range of radio-ulnar
P < .001). pronation was signicantly (F2,28 = 12.116;
Coordination and variability in the tennis serve 681
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Figure 4. Mean coefcients of correspondence and representative angleangle plots for the trunk and elbow.
Note: *Signicant difference between the time points in all groups. Signicant difference between racquet low point and impact in the
adult group.

compared with ball zenith (MD: 1672 cm3; CI:


9592386 cm3) (Table II). Descriptively, ball loca-
tion was most consistent in the vertical direction at
impact compared with the left-right and forward-
backward directions (Table III).

Temporal variability of the ball zenith and racquet low-


point events
Qualitatively, although the timing of racquet low
point was comparatively more consistent than ball
zenith in all groups, both events displayed impressive
temporal consistency. The duration of forwardswing
was equally consistent, displaying an average stan-
dard deviation <.04 s in all three groups.

Figure 5. Mean ranges of motion at the trunk and elbow between Discussion
ball zenith and impact.
Coaching texts often stress the importance of coordi-
Note: *Signicant difference between groups. nation and rhythm in the serve (Bollettieri, 2001;
Elliott & Saviano, 2001; Yandell, 1999). Developing
the understanding of coordinated joint rotations and
P < .001) greater in the adult group compared with movement variability may help coaches to conceptua-
the pubescent (MD: 17.33; CI: 8.1226.55; lise specic aspects of coordination and translate them
P < .001) and pre-pubescent (MD: 17.78; CI: to practice. The present study extends the understand-
4.1423.18; P = .002) groups (Figure 5). ing of the service action in these respects, across three
developmentally different groups of elite female
players. For example, prepubescent players were
Spatial variability of the ball toss
observed to extend their ankles and knees through a
The variability volumes were not signicantly smaller range than pubescent and adult players during
affected by group (F2,28 = .371; P = .694). leg drive. More universally, the variability of lower limb
However, a main effect for time (F1,28 = 23.065; and trunk postures, in all players, decreased between
P < .001) revealed that the spatial location of the ball zenith and the moment that they left the ground.
ball was signicantly more variable at impact Thereafter, signicant increases in the variability of
682 D. Whiteside et al.

Table II. Two-way mixed ANOVA results for ball variability volumes at ball zenith and impact.

Within group Between group Interaction

Group Ball zenith Impact F P F P F P

Pre-pubescent 1596 1273 4373 2179


Pubescent 1520 860 3264 2476
Adult 2509 1997 3006 2336
Overall 1805 1396 3627 2330 23.065 <.001* .371 .694 3.431 .046

Note: *Signicant difference between time points.

that the range through which these joints extended


Table III. Mean ( standard deviations) within-individual stan-
was signicantly reduced in the pre-pubescent group
dard deviations (n = 5 serves) for the spatial and temporal para- (AnkleBack 47; AnkleFront 37; KneeBack 51)
meters of the ball toss. compared with the pubescent (AnkleBack 61;
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AnkleFront 54; KneeBack 73) and adult


Pre-
Standard deviation Direction pubescent Pubescent Adult
(AnkleBack 63; AnkleFront 58; KneeBack 73)
groups. This may offer a supplementary explanation
Ball zenith location x 7 3 6 2 7 3 for why a reduced leg drive magnitude has been
(cm) y 6 3 6 3 8 2 reported in prepubescent females (Whiteside et al.,
z 5 2 6 3 6 2
2013a). Given that lower limb motions contribute
Impact location x 11 4 9 3 10 5
(cm) y 12 5 10 5 12 5 signicantly to the force required in the tennis serve
z 5 1 5 3 3 1 (Kibler, 1995), junior coaches should be mindful of
Ball zenith timing 2.4 2.6 1.4 0.8 1.4 0.6 this potential limitation in the immature service
(% of toss) action. More explicitly, it has been hypothesised that
Racquet low-point 1.3 0.9 0.9 0.7 0.5 0.4
leg drive is a precursor to trunk rotations
timing (% of
toss) (Bahamonde, 2000), pre-stretching of the shoulder
Forwardswing .04 .03 .02 .02 .03 .01 (Bahamonde, 1997) and racquet speed (Reid et al.,
duration (s) 2008), all of which would then be limited in the pre-
pubescent serve.
Note: x = leftright; y = forwardbackward; z = updown.
In all three groups, variability in bilateral exten-
sion at the ankles and knees decreased signicantly
trunk and/or elbow joint rotations appeared to be a between the start (ball zenith) and end (racquet
functional response to the varying impact location, low point) of leg drive. With racquet low point
thereby allowing these players to achieve a suitable representing the time at which players generally
racquet-ball impact as the ball location changed from leave the ground (Bonnefoy et al., 2009), it
serve to serve. In other words, the timing at and pos- appears that players of all ages act to sequentially
ture in which these players left the ground was rela- reduce variability in lower limb motion up to this
tively consistent; however, while airborne, their trunk time. In doing so, players may nd it easier to
and elbow mechanics generally became more variable. produce a more consistent vertical propulsion. At
Practically, these ndings encourage coaches to incor- both ball zenith and racquet low point, the pub-
porate deliberate (though not extreme) perturbations escent group exhibited signicantly more variable
of the service action to cultivate appropriate coordina- relative ankle motions than the pre-pubescent and
tive joint rotations and perception-action coupling in adult groups and may represent an intermediate
the tennis serve. stage of motor development. To this point, their
disparate ranges of motion at the ankle denote how
the pre-pubescent (less RoM) and adult (more
RoM) groups used different motor patterns at the
Lower limb mechanics
ankles, each of which was highly consistent in its
During leg drive, the angleangle traces illustrate own right. In the pre-pubescent group, reduced
simultaneous plantar-exion at both ankles and ankle involvement (i.e. freezing) may be indica-
simultaneous extension at both knees. This is not tive of a deliberate attempt to reduce the complex-
surprising and demonstrates how elite players are ity of the movement, allowing these players to
able to coordinate bilateral extension at the lower develop a more repeatable action. In contrast,
limb joints to propel their bodies off the ground additional years of practice and greater lower
(Bahamonde, 2000; Girard, Micallef, & Millet, limb strength may have afforded the adult players
2005; Reid et al., 2008). It should be noted, however, more masterful coordination of the ankles through
Coordination and variability in the tennis serve 683

a more expansive range, providing a different Serving arm mechanics


explanation for their consistency. The pubescent
During forwardswing, the range of elbow extension
group may represent an intermediate and explora-
did not differ with age; however, the adult group
tory phase of motor development where the
rotated through a signicantly greater range of pro-
degrees of freedom (i.e. ankle plantar-exion)
nation (45) compared with the pre-pubescent
have been fully released but lack mastery, resulting
(28) and pubescent (31) groups. What might
in more variable performance. These movement
be interpreted as a liberated degree of freedom (pro-
discrepancies may also help to explain why the
nation) may have been responsible for the adults
magnitude of prepubescent and pubescent leg
unique and signicant increase in elbow joint rota-
drive has been reported as being 2122% and
tion variability prior to impact. Where previous work
1516% smaller than professional female players,
in adults has suggested that pronation prior to
respectively (Whiteside et al., 2013a).
impact acts to rotate the racquet face to contact the
ball (Elliott, 2006; Tanabe & Ito, 2007), their lack of
pronation indicates that this motion may be
restrained in junior players. Instead, junior players
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Trunk mechanics
appear to commence forwardswing in a more pro-
Simultaneous frontal and transverse plane trunk nated posture, thereby reducing the need to manage
rotations were evident from the angleangle traces this degree of freedom thereafter. Restraining prona-
in all groups, though their respective magnitudes tion effectively reduces the elbow joint to a single
differed. Independent of group, twist and degree of freedom and offers an explanation for the
shoulder-over-shoulder rotations initially occurred lower coefcient of correspondence at the elbow in
together, before the latter motion was restrained in junior players. This mechanism may be an attempt
the two younger groups as they approached to reduce the complexity of the movement and, in
impact. With leg drive generating momentum turn, the margin for error at impact. A potential
that may be transferred to the trunk (Bahamonde, drawback of this approach is that the face of the
2000), the smaller range of frontal plane trunk racquet is more open during the forwardswing,
rotation in the pre-pubescent group is not unex- likely providing greater aerodynamic resistance com-
pected in light of the lower limb results. These pared with adult players who cut through the air with
ndings support previous work where the magni- the edge of their closed racquets. Further, restrict-
tude of shoulder-over-shoulder rotation has been ing this degree of freedom logically limits the com-
shown to be signicantly (59%) smaller in junior pensatory potential of the system and, in turn, its
players compared with their adult counterparts adaptability. It follows that this would leave their
(Whiteside et al., 2013a). movement systems more susceptible to perturba-
Despite being signicantly more variable in the tions. However, it is also possible that young players
pre-pubescent group, the trunk orientation at rac- rely on other degrees of freedom (e.g. at the shoulder
quet low point was the most repeatable mechan- and/or wrist) for compensatory purposes. Combined
ical feature of each groups service action. That with relatively lower muscle strength, this fact may
this trunk posture was relatively variable at the be relevant to upper extremity pathologies and pro-
commencement of leg drive (ball zenith), but vides an avenue for future work.
then extremely repeatable at the end of leg drive The diverging angleangle curves at impact clearly
(racquet low point), points to a functional impor- show that variable and abrupt, low-magnitude pro-
tance of trunk postures at the time these players nation or supination movements were common
left the ground. Similar phenomena have been immediately prior to impacting the ball.
described for elite golfers, where the attainment Interestingly, previous work has noted similar varia-
of consistent postures at certain critical time tions in pronation-supination mechanics immedi-
points of the golf swing are considered features ately prior to impact (Elliott et al., 1995; Sprigings,
of skilled performance (Bradshaw et al., 2009). Marshall, Elliott, & Jennings, 1994; Tanabe & Ito,
Therefore, the signicant reduction in variability 2007; Van Gheluwe, De Ruysscher, & Craenhals,
towards a highly repeatable trunk posture at rac- 1987). Tanabe and Ito (2007) proposed that, in
quet low point may be indicative of an equivalent faster servers, the emergence of pronation-supina-
posture in the tennis serve. Subsequent to racquet tion was dependent on shoulder mechanics and
low point, relative trunk motion became signi- helps to orient the racquet for impact. In other
cantly more variable in all players and likely words, joint motions were not independent of one
represents postural adjustments required to man- another and emerged synergistically, according to
oeuvre the body correctly for impact. the unique needs of each serve. The variable
684 D. Whiteside et al.

magnitudes and directions of the elbow joint rota- 0.5% 0.4%). Therefore, not only are lower limb
tions around impact in this study are consistent with and trunk postures repeatable at racquet low point,
compensatory function that may help to ensure a but the event itself occurs at a highly repeatable time
suitable racquet-ball impact. These compensatory point of the service action. This temporal stability is
motions seem to intensify after the onset of puberty, consistent with other striking actions, where the tem-
coinciding with an increased involvement of prona- poral initiation of propulsive movements has been
tion in the serve. The location of the ball at impact shown to be highly repeatable in baseball
may help to further explain the mechanical compen- (Katsumata, 2007) and cricket batting (Renshaw
sation in question. et al., 2007) as well as volleyball serving (Davids
et al., 2001). Indeed, it has already been suggested
that tennis players use the location of the ball to reg-
Spatial variability of the ball toss
ulate their preparatory movements in the serve such
After the ball leaves the hand, the server has no con- that their arrival in the trophy position coincides with
trol over its trajectory and must move appropriately to ball zenith (Reid et al., 2010; Whiteside et al., 2013a).
intercept it. For this reason, body and racquet move- The players in this study may have used the same
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ments are heavily dependent on the ball toss. It could method to ensure that racquet low point occurs at a
be argued that a repeatable ball toss would mitigate its relatively consistent juncture of the serve. Considering
inuence on biomechanics; however, the values in that racquet low point represents the beginning of for-
Table III suggest that perhaps the ball toss is less wardswing, regulating the occurrence of this event also
consistent than many coaches appreciate. From the stabilises the duration of forwardswing. This strategy
variability volume, it can be conservatively assumed effectively prevents the movement system from collap-
that the ball was placed anywhere within a 1500 sing in the presence of a variable ball toss since action
2500 cm3 area of space at ball zenith and, by impact, and perception are coupled. For example, if the ball
this volume had increased to 30004400 cm3. This toss is slightly higher than intended, the player com-
endorses the growing body of scientic work that has mensurately protracts the initial phase of their service
demonstrated how elite players do not use a highly action, thus delaying the initiation of forwardswing.
consistent ball toss (Reid et al., 2010, 2011; Having ensured that they will arrive at impact at an
Whiteside, Giblin, & Reid, 2014). More importantly, appropriate time, the players nal dilemma is achiev-
a changing impact location from serve to serve man- ing an appropriate racquet orientation at impact. The
dates movement variability in the service action. solution appears to lie in the subtle mechanical adjust-
Given that the ball location (a) varies between serves ments (i.e. mechanical compensation) in the distal
and (b) ultimately shapes the mechanics of the service joints that help to manoeuvre the racquet to intercept
action, it appears more important for players to learn the ball.
how to perceive and respond to the varying ball loca- Future work may wish to explore smaller targets to
tion rather than develop a perfectly consistent action determine whether the size of the target contributed
(which may be impossible anyhow; Whiteside to any of the variability recorded in this study.
et al., 2013b, 2014). While the absolute ball location Studying their disposition in unsuccessful serves
was more variable at impact akin to previous work in could also reveal how the mechanics examined in
tennis (Reid et al., 2010, 2011) its vertical location this study relate to accuracy. Similarly, exploring
was most consistent at this time. This seemingly con- other joint mechanics and/or couplings would help
rms that impact height is a critical launch parameter to develop a more comprehensive understanding of
that is highly consistent in successful serves (Elliott, coordination in the serve. Instructional methods
Marsh, & Blanksby, 1986; Reid, Elliott, & Alderson, aimed at developing coordinated joint rotations
2007; Whiteside et al., 2013b) and which coaches and/or perception-action coupling in the serve
should aim to rene. could also be appraised to improve coaching techni-
ques. Further, perception-action couplings in the
serve could be evaluated more directly by quantify-
Temporal variability of the ball zenith and racquet low-
ing gaze behaviour during the ball toss.
point events
The occurrence of ball zenith, though signicantly ear-
Conclusion
lier in the pre-pubescent group, was highly consistent
within the groups as evidenced by the respective stan- The elite female tennis players in this study appeared
dard deviations (pre-pubescent group: 2.4% 2.6% of to reduce movement variability in the lower limbs
serve; pubescent: 1.4% 0.8%; adult: 1.4% 0.6%). and trunk between the trophy position (i.e. ball
The standard deviations of racquet low-point timing zenith) and the time that they leave the ground (i.e.
were more consistent still (pre-pubescent: racquet low point). They also left the ground at a
1.3% 0.9%; pubescent: 0.9% 0.7%; adult: highly consistent time point of the service action,
Coordination and variability in the tennis serve 685

which acted to stabilise the duration of forward- Bradshaw, E., Keogh, J., Hume, P., Maulder, P., Nortje, J., &
swing. Given that this temporal consistency persisted Marnewick, M. (2009). The effect of biological movement
variability on the performance of the golf swing in high- and
in spite of a variable ball toss location, these players low-handicapped players. Research Quarterly for Exercise and
seemingly used information from the ball to deter- Sport, 80(2), 185196.
mine the appropriate times to initiate appropriate Button, C., MacLeod, M., Sanders, R., & Coleman, S. (2003).
body movements. After becoming airborne, subtle Examining movement variability in the basketball free-throw
mechanical adjustments in the trunk and serving action at different skill levels. Research Quarterly for Exercise
and Sport, 74(3), 257269.
arm acted to manoeuvre the racquet to intercept Campbell, A., Straker, L., OSullivan, P., Elliott, B., & Reid, M.
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serves was mandatory since the location of the ball link to low back pain. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise,
at impact changed from serve to serve. There was a 45(8), 15621568.
reduced potential for this mechanical compensation Chin, A., Elliott, B., Alderson, J., Lloyd, D., & Foster, D. (2009).
The off-break and doosra: Kinematic variations of elite and
in junior players as they restrained elbow pronation sub-elite bowlers in creating ball spin in cricket bowling. Sports
in the serving arm during forwardswing to reduce Biomechanics, 8(3), 187198.
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