The battle between the serve and return is a quintessential case of an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, and this clash of styles has given us some epic matchups over the years.
Every tennis player wants the biggest serve on the block. Who doesn’t want to pop one off, maybe two aces per service game and throw in a service winner or two? It’s tennis with no mess, and no fuss. Right?
Not so fast bombardier!
In singles, we serve half of the match and we only serve a quarter of the time in doubles.
Given this truth, I will argue that the return is the most important stroke in tennis, yet players only dedicate a small portion of their practices to its development.
Players such as Jimmy Connors, Andre Agassi, Chris Evert and Novak Djokovic, to name a few, have become legends by dedicating themselves to the craft of the return, striking fear into some of the biggest and baddest servers of all time.
Here are five steps to tipping the return game in your favor ...
Clear your mind
Returning a serve is an event. Everything else that has occurred previous to this moment should be put out of your mind in order to give yourself the best chance of winning this next point. You never know when or where the breaking point of your opponent will happen. It may take a ripping return or it could be a squeaker that barely makes it over the net. Take a couple of deep breaths and get yourself into an athletic “ready” position. You never know what you are going to get and you just have to be ready for it.
A common characteristic that the great returners possess is the ability to anticipate where the server is going next. As the match progresses, you should be able to get a better understanding of which is your opponent’s favorite serve. Do they like to hit it to the “T,” or do they prefer the wide serve? They will most likely go to their best serve in the biggest moments and you will be there waiting for it.
Shorten your back swing
The return of serve stroke is really a hybrid. A cross between a volley and a groundstroke. It takes a ball traveling at 100 miles per hour approximately a half-a-second to cover the 78 feet from baseline to baseline. That’s little more than the time it takes to blink your eyes and certainly not enough time to take much of a backswing. I teach my students to prepare like a volleyer (using a volley backswing), keeping the follow through after they’ve struck the ball. The short backswing ensures that they have ample time to connect with the ball and the follow through will help control the ball by keeping the ball on the strings.
Pick your target early
Knowing where you’d like to go will keep the process simple by eliminating as many variables as possible. A common misconception for returners is to play the return without any notion of where they want to hit the ball. I like to have a plan going into each return point. I may choose to return the ball down the middle of the court, or I may decide that I’m going to hit it up the line. In either case, I have an idea where I want to go when the ball arrives and I will do my best to execute the plan knowing that I can make an adjustment if I need to.
There is nothing more frustrating for a big server than to hit their best serve only to have it come back again and again. The goal for any returner should be to make the server play each point. As the returner, you are in a reactionary situation. You cannot directly control what the server is going to do, or how they will perform from point to point. But forcing the server to play each point will have a cumulative psychological impact over the course of the match.
So get out there and practice your return of serve each time you play. Keep at it and you never know when “your break” will come.