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Return To Sender

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Ron Waite, USPTR

We, who play this wonderful game of tennis, are constantly reminded how important service games are. After all if a player never was to lose a game on his/her service, she/he would never lose a set. (Those of you who are "purists" will realize that a mini-break in a tiebreaker is very similar to losing a service game but not scored as a lost game.)

Frankly, I do not believe that most competitive players spend enough time practicing first and second serves. But, I may be wrong in this assumption. In my past columns, I have encouraged both the serious player and the weekend warrior to practice both serves faithfully. I believe the serve to be that important.

Truthfully in my mind, there is another area of the game that almost all players do not attend to sufficiently… the return of serve. However, a good return of serve is a critically important variable, if a person is going to break an opponent’s serve.

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Without a good return of service, the player is actually allowing the opponent to have two advantages when he/she serves.

First, the player who serves gets two attempts to have the ball land in the service box. There is no other stroke in the game that allows you two chances. But if a player’s return of serve is weak, the opponent has the added advantage of being able to be more offensive in his/her first groundstroke or volley.

A weak return of serve invites the server to step up and hit winners. A strong return of serve may keep the server on her/his heels.

I will grant the reader that there are those players who have such big serves that getting the ball back over the net is a pretty good feat. However, any experienced player will tell you that, over the course of some games or a set, these "huge serves" tend to perceptually slow down a bit.

In this month’s column, I want to address how to improve your return of serve. At the outset, I must state that each player has to discover in each match what combination of elements seems to work. But, I assure you that there is such a combination. It is simply a matter of trial and error, at times, to discover what you need to do.

The first element that a player should strive to achieve when returning serve is to truly see the ball well.

Some players will watch the ball carefully, even as the server bounces it as part of his/her pre-serve ritual. I do not think that this is a bad practice by any means. It gets the eye and mind to focus on the ball before the serve has been executed.

However when I am returning serve, I like to focus my attention on the area above the server’s head… where contact will be made… and only on this area. When the ball is tossed into this area, I am keenly focusing all of my attention on it. I find that this works better for me for two reasons.

First, I am not distracted from focusing on the ball as can happen when I try to "read" the server’s body movement. Good players mix things up, and sometimes, they will have similar body motions for both first and second serves.

Anticipation is certainly a big plus when returning serve. As a match unfolds, I may find myself being able to "guess" where the serve will be directed. But, if am able to "predict" where serves are going it will probably result by my paying attention to the service patterns of my opponent.

Second, I find that having my eyes focused on the area where the racquet will make contact with the ball during the serve actually improves my reaction time. I really make an effort to see the ball coming off the strings of my opponent’s racquet. In my experience, this actually gets me to take that first step in the right direction a bit earlier.

Each of you should try both of these methods and determine which may work best for you. An added benefit of trying out both of these "sighting" techniques is that, if one doesn’t seem to be working for you in a match, you can always switch to the other.

Where you position yourself on the court for the return is another critically important variable. Generally, we each have a preferred "starting point" for both deuce and ad returns. Of course, it makes perfect sense to begin a match from these preferred court locations. After all, they are preferred for good reasons.

What I have observed coaching is that many players do not vary their return position when their returns are weak.

For example, if a player has a very big serve, it may make better sense to take a step or two back from where you normally would return serve. If this doesn’t work, I would suggest that you try moving in a bit closer than you normally would to return these big serves. Crazy as it may seem, it may be that, if you move in, you will automatically shorten your backswing and use the server’s power against her/him as you hit the ball on the rise.

Moving back or moving in may be just what you need to get the proper "timing" for the return of serve. I have coached players who were having a very difficult time returning their opponents’ serves. Usually, a step back or a step in will help.

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Sometimes, you know the pattern of the server. For example, you may realize that the server is going to place every second serve to your backhand. In reality, I have found that most servers will put the second serve to my backhand. Knowing this gives me an edge. I can shade a bit to my left (I am right handed), and maybe strike my return with a forehand. If the second serve doesn’t have too much spin or pace, I can often times run around my backhand and hit a forehand return.

When left handed players serve, they frequently will be able to hit a great slice serve that goes wide to the backhand of the right handed player… particularly when serving to the ad court. Here again, I try to change my court position a bit. I will move a little to my left, but I also will take a half step forward. This half step allows me to hit the ball before the spin has realized its full effect.

The surface of the court must also be taken into account when returning serve. On skippy surfaces like grass or carpet, I almost always have to move in closer than I normally would. I literally may "bunt" my return of serve on these surfaces… at least until I can get my bearings.

My point is simple. If you are not returning well, try a different court position. There is absolutely no point staying in a position where you cannot return effectively.

A third critical factor in the return of serve is the amount of backswing you take. We are constantly reminded by TV tennis commentators that good returns require a shorter backswing… and I strongly agree.

My two handed backhand stroke has very little backswing to it. So, I am usually not "late" in hitting my returns off this wing. However, my forehand stroke does have a much greater backswing to it. When I am returning serve, I may have to make a concerted effort to shorten my forehand backswing.

A simple, but effective, way to shorten your backswing is to keep the racquet more in front of your body than would be normally the case, as you await the serve. If I need to shorten my backswing on the return of service, I will setup and ready myself by keeping the racquet a full 12 or 13 inches farther in front of me. By "preparing" with the racquet more in front, I am automatically going to reduce the amount of backswing that I can and will take.

The downside to this technique is that my arms are usually not as relaxed with the racquet positioned farther from the front of my body. Still, I find that I usually will be better able to control the direction of my return, if I have a shorter take back.

Like placement with the serve, control is the next important factor to consider when returning serve. In the game of tennis, control is far more important than power… regardless of the stroke.

I like to begin all my matches by hitting every return of serve cross court. I do this for several reasons.

First, by hitting cross court, my shot will be traveling over the lowest part of the net. Second, the diagonal path of my return means that I have a longer possible "landing area" than if I return down the line. Together, these give me a greater margin for error in my returns.

Third, by returning cross court, I will need to hit the ball a bit little bit earlier. I can always "slow down" my return and hit down the line. But, speeding it up to hit crosscourt may be more difficult. I like to immediately get the right timing for the crosscourt return.

Lastly, the possible replies that my opponent has, when I return crosscourt, are more manageable. If the reply is directed crosscourt, I am already in position. If the opponent goes down the line, he/she is taking a risk. Granted, the reply may be an outright winner, but more often than not, the down the line reply is long or hits the net. If I see that my opponent can hit the down the line reply effectively most of the time, I will certainly change my return placement.

Truthfully, I find that I run less during points when I return crosscourt. The geometry of the game dictates this. (See my article "Euclidean Tennis: A Geometry of the Game.")

As a match progresses, I will vary my return placement. But, I always begin my matches by simply returning crosscourt.

Another factor that you may want to vary when returning serve is the arch of your return.

In my experience, most players try to return serve with power and with the ball passing close to the net. Still, some opponents have a difficult time with higher bouncing balls. So, it may make sense to return with less pace and more ball height.

This can be done in one of two ways.

First, you can literally hit a moon ball return. If you have played doubles, I am sure that you have lobbed a return of serve over the net person’s head. Well, if it can be done in doubles, it can be done in singles. For me, the great thing about this topspin lobbed return is that I need to have a very relaxed arm when hitting it. The more relaxed my body is… the better my tennis. I believe that this is true for all tennis players.

Second, you can actually slice a high defensive lob. These backspin lobs usually require a bunt-like stroke… more of a chop than a swing. The danger with this sliced lob is that it may float deep until you get your bearings.

Pushers tend to be masters of the backspin lobbed return. Their returns land deep in the court and will frequently have so much backspin that their opponent cannot really tee off on her/his reply.

If you watch Tommy Robredo, the great player from Spain, he will sometimes use this defensive lob return when he is given a serve to his forehand. This usually occurs when he has his racquet in a backhand grip, but the serve is directed to the forehand side. Watching him return, I have noticed that he will sometimes prepare to return with the racquet in a backhand grip, if it is a second serve. His opponents may read this grip, and may try to feed the second serve to his forehand. Rather than taking a full swing at these, Tommy Robredo will simply bunt the ball back as deeply as he can.

Unlike the pros, most of us do not change balls every nine games. By the second set, the balls are usually a bit fluffy and have "slowed" down a bit. If I notice that the balls are getting roughed up, I may take greater chances with my return of serve. I may hit with more pace. I may hit more down the line returns. I may try to hit an outright winner off the second serve, if the score is in my favor.

But, I strongly suggest that players wait until the balls are indeed slower before attempting these aggressive returns.

However, in the modern game of tennis, it is important to try and get your returns deep into the opponent’s court. Again, this can be achieved by hitting harder or by hitting higher. The latter is by far the safer method.

By keeping the return deep, you will keep your opponent back, and this puts the server in a position where she/he is less likely to hit a winning reply to your return.

Keeping your head "quiet" during the return of serve is of critical importance. Every stroke in tennis benefits when we "freeze" the head and keep it motionless at the moment of contact with the ball. It is my belief that this is even more important when returning serve.

Too frequently, I see players lifting their heads to "see where the return is going." The net consequence of this "need to see" is that our returns usually go errant. If you are having trouble returning serve and have varied your court placement, backswing and return height… you can be almost be 100% certain that the problem is related to "quieting" the head at the moment of impact.

So given all of this, how does one practice the return of serve? I would recommend three techniques.

Have your hitting partner serve to you. Place targets (cones or empty ball canisters) at various parts of your partner’s court. Before each serve, choose one of these targets for your return. If your hitting partner varies her/his serve location and pace, this will become an excellent way of learning how to control the placement of your return. Remember, placement is far more important than pace in tennis.

A second way to practice your return of serve is to have your hitting partner serve to you while he/she is standing at the service line… not the baseline. The pros frequently will use this technique in their pre-match warm ups.

The benefit of this second technique is that it significantly reduces the reaction time you have for the return. Every serve launched from the service line is coming at you like a powerful first serve. To return effectively, you will need to clearly see the ball, shorten your backswing, and use the pace of the serve to generate power. All of these are ingredients associated with a good return of serve.

The last of the three practice techniques focuses upon hitting the return deep. Play a set with your hitting partner. Have the hitting partner be the server in all the games. As the returner, you must have your return land between the service line and the baseline. Should the return land short (into the service box areas), the point goes to your opponent. If you return "successfully," play the point out as would normally be the case.

It is much more difficult to get your returns to land in the area identified above than you might imagine. However, if you are really proficient in your returns, you may want to take a piece of white tape and mark the halfway point between the service line and the baseline with this tape. Now, your serves must land between the taped "line" and the baseline, or the point goes to your opponent. Simply put about a foot’s worth of white tape on the outside of each sideline with a perpendicular placement. Your hitting partner will need to make a judgment call with respect to where your return lands. But, this is not as difficult as you might imagine. If your return lands close to the imaginary "line," consider it in.

So, take time to work on your return of serve. I promise that if you do that you will soon become a tennis overdog!

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This column is copyrighted by Ron Waite, all rights reserved. Questions and comments about these columns can be directed to Ron by using this form.

Ron Waite is a certified USPTR tennis instructor who took up the game of tennis at the age of 39. Frustrated with conventional tennis methods of instruction and the confusing data available on how to learn the game, Ron has sought to sift fact from fiction. In his seven years of tennis, Ron has received USTA sectional ranking four years, has successfully coached several NCAA Division III men's and women's tennis teams to post season competition, and has competed in USTA National singles tournaments. Ron has trained at a number of tennis academies and with many of the game's leading instructors.

In addition to his full-time work as a professor at Albertus Magnus College, Ron photographs ATP tour events for a variety of organizations and publications. The name of his column, TurboTennis, stems from his methods to decrease the amount of time it takes to learn and master the game of tennis.


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