The return of serve is arguably the second most important shot in tennis, after the serve, yet it is probably the most under practiced, underappreciated, and undervalued shot in the game.
In my annual program at my academy, players can train 25 hours per week with me, and I’ve structured the day so that we can work on serve and return for a significant amount of time.
Lately, as I have worked with different players individually on the return, I am seeing common themes and issues that all players, parents and coaches can learn from:
Eyes and Mind
I have noticed that many players are not alert with their eyes. They are not targeting the server’s toss and technique with their eyes, reading and anticipation the incoming shot.
There are many cues to look for in terms of toss location, technique, body language, head and eyes position of the rival server that can give information to help the returner know where the ball is going before it is struck.
The best returners are also good at reading the psychological tendencies and the tactical intention of the server and then making educated guesses as to the direction and selection of the incoming serve.
I’ve read that Novak Djokovic practices eye exercises to improve his reactions and alertness. Training the eyes in this fashion using technology is a new trend in the game and there are experts in the field of vision training starting to focus in this area. Check that these cool new technologies!
The swing must be modulated or adjusted to the speed of the incoming ball. This is an important principle that I teach all my students. If the ball is coming faster, the shape of the backswing should be flatter and more compact. Players with significant loops need to learn to keep their hand or hands lower and to reduce the length of their backswing to be effective returning fast serves.
Players also need to understand the relationship between return positioning and size of backswing. The deeper the player positions himself, the more time that gives him or her to make a larger swing. If the player wants to take the serve earlier, this necessitates a smaller more compact backswing. Many young or inexperienced players don’t understand this relationship well and just take the same loop as on their normal groundstrokes regardless of their court position or the speed of the incoming serve.
I’ve noticed that many players have poor split-step technique, incorrect timing of the split-step, and an inefficient recovery for the first shot after the return. Coaches, players and parents should dial in on these areas to improve the technique and rhythm.
Players often split-step too narrowly and with poor balance and posture. They land flat-footed or on their heels. These types of postural or technical problems need to be corrected. Players commonly split-step at the wrong time, either too early or too late. Mistiming the split undermines quick reaction and movement to the incoming ball.
If players never practice the footwork after hitting the return, they often move sluggishly or establish a poor position in the court for the start of the rally. I like to work on the recovery footwork technique after the return is made so that it’s quick and efficient and puts the player in the optimal position to be consistent on the return plus one shot.
In addition to the relationship between backswing and court position, players need to understand that the best returners are always moving around the court to find the best possible position to receive the service. The optimal position varies and is not fixed. Many students I see want to stubbornly maintain one return position and never deviate from it.
In contrast, I want my players to adjust to the situation. Against some servers, they can hang back and play heavy topspin.
Against other rivals they can step up inside the baseline and take time away— or any combination in between depending on the details of the moment. Players need to be comfortable with both styles of returning and have the courage and smarts to adjust.
In addition, many inexperienced returners wait for contact to move. However, the best returners move before the ball is struck, either to get into position to use their weapon, like hitting a runaround forehand, or because they anticipate where the serve is going. It is critical that players learn how to move before the ball is struck—not after.
I spend a lot of time on pre-return outlines or rituals. I’ve noticed that a lot of kids practice their serve rituals but not much time is spent on return rituals. It’s important to create calmness in the mind and to automate all the movements before the return is struck. Rituals help to prepare the mind and body to receive the onslaught of a big serve.
Targeting and Tactics
My less experienced students have poor tactics on the return and poor targeting. Many players are just trying to get the ball in the court, rather than returning to a specified place. There is no tactic without a target. Honing in on targets helps develop the tactical anticipation so that a player can start to visualize how and where the server will play his first shot.
For example, if I return down the line deep to the backhand from the deuce court, I have a pretty good chance of receiving a cross-court reply to my backhand on the first shot by the server. Players need to practice their targeting on the return and start to predict the next reply from the server based on percentages and the geometry of the court. Legendary coach Nick Saviano likes to call this type of knowledge “generic tactics.”
How many players will go out and serve buckets of balls to improve their serve consistency? Not enough—but many more than those who go out and practice return. How many lessons include return practice in addition to serve practice? Few. There are many challenges to practicing the return of serve including the biggest one: whom can you get to serve to you?
Structure and plan your return practices well. My recommendation is to try and incorporate specific return of serve time into your training every week. Find or hire someone to serve to you. Practice second serve returns and first serve returns. Practice adjusting your backswings. Work on your positioning. Clean your technique. Automate your rituals. Improve your targeting and tactical awareness. Train your eyes, mind, and feet!
Some of these skills can be practiced shadow style without the ball if you don’t have a partner. Do that! If you have a partner to serve to you, thank them and value that time dearly. Another option is to buy or get access to some of the serving ball machines that are now available on the market, but they are unfortunately super-expensive.
The ultimate goal is to be able to get a high percentage of first serve and second serve returns back into play. The best players in the world consistently make returns and keep pressure on the server. That’s how they get break opportunities. Fine tuning your return skills is the only way to achieve a high level of return consistency. To master the return, you need to get out there and do thousands of reps until you can return any type of serve to all the court locations.
Chris Lewit, a former number one for Cornell and pro circuit player, coaches in the New York City area and also runs a high-performance boarding summer camp in Southern Vermont. He specializes in training aspiring junior tournament players using progressive Spanish and European training methods. His best-selling book, Secrets of Spanish Tennis, has helped coaches and players worldwide learn how to train the Spanish way. He may be reached by phone at (914) 462-2912, e-mail ChrisLewit@gmail.com or visit ChrisLewit.com.