Here we are in May. For those of us north of the equator, the beginning of the outdoor season has started in earnest again!
Those of you who read my column regularly know that I advocate systematic preparation for tennis competition that spans mental, physical, strategic and stroke aspects of this wonderful game. Well this month, I want to focus upon the latter category: stroke production. Specifically, I want to share my thoughts with you on what is, in my mind, the second most important stroke in tennis... the return of serve.
I have to place serving as the most important stroke. Why? First, it is the only stroke with which you have two chances to "get it right." A truly formidable serve can win you "free points" in that your opponent may never have a chance to reply (as in the case of an Ace) or may be unable to reply effectively. The serve can be used to craft a series of pre-determined strokes that are tactical in nature. Unfortunately, many of us never really give as much attention to practicing our serves as they deserve.
The return of serve is the second most important stroke to me in that without a return the point is over! A weak return immediately places the player in a position where she/he is on the defensive. A great return can result in an outright winner or put the server in a defensive position.
On faster surfaces like grass, the return of serve is even more important. I believe that Pete Sampras and Roger Federer have performed so well at Wimbledon because each could return serve well. Although he was never the archetypal, grass court player, Andre Agassi was able to win Wimbledon. Very few players have had a return of serve as good as Andre's. The same can be said for Jimmy Connors.
Regrettably, I fear that the vast majority of us who love this fantastic game do not spend much, if any time, focusing upon improving our returns of serves.
So this month as we begin our outdoor season, I want to be certain that you give proper attention to this critical aspect of the game.
There are two kinds of returns. The first is what I call the reactive return of serve. Here, we do not have the ability to place our returns. Rather, we are simply reacting to the serve and making contact. If we make the contact appropriately, we may get our return to go in a general direction, but simply getting it back is the best for which one can hope. When playing opponents with big serves, getting the return back may be all that you can expect until you become a bit more acclimated to serves coming your way. I assure you that each of us becomes a bit more capable of controlling our returns as we see more of them come our way.
The second return is what I call the proactive return of serve. Usually, we become a bit more familiar with the pace and spin of our opponent's serve as a match unfolds. The balls are fluffing up a bit which slows down the pace of serves to some degree. We may have a sense of where the opponent usually likes to place his/her serve in a given situation. Of course, second serves are usually a bit easier to return than first serves. Proactive returns of serves means that you have predetermined where you want to place the return in your opponent's court. Generally, one needs to work oneself into a match before the proactive return of serve is a viable option.
The next aspect of returning serve that must be addressed is court positioning. To some degree most of us have a favorite "spot" near the baseline for both deuce and ad courts. Ideally, this favorite spot allows a player to cover the widest possible serves to either her/his backhand or forehand. If you return with a two handed backhand, you may move a little more in this side's direction as you position yourself. Why? Well, a two-handed backhand does not generally allow for the same amount of "reach" as the one-handed variety. One can easily compensate for this lack of reach when hitting groundstrokes by having a little faster speed on the court. But this is not possible when returning serve. You may get to move a bit more on a second serve, but most first serves are not likely to allow you much body movement from side to side. Indeed, you will find that returning serve can stretch you to your limits. Conversely, we can be "jammed" by a first serve that has pace and comes right at our body.
Varying your return position slightly or not so slightly may be necessary when you are not returning well. With really fast serves, it may make sense to take a step back. With spin serves (especially from a lefty), I find moving in a bit helps... the ball has less time to let the effect of the spin unfold.
If you are into the third or fourth game where you are returning serve and find yourself struggling against your opponent's "bombs" or "curve balls," your first "solution" should be to try repositioning yourself to compensate. A slight move in position may pay huge dividends in improving your return of serve.
How one sets up to return serve is critically important. The racket is probably held in a forehand grip with the dominant hand and a backhand grip with the non-dominant hand, if you use the two-handed backhand. If you are a one-handed backhand player, you probably find that it is best to keep the non-dominant hand near the throat of the racquet. Some one-handed players like to keep the dominant hand in the forehand grip, others prefer the backhand grip, and very few that I know use the "middle" or continental grip. No matter how you grip the racquet with your dominant hand, you will need to switch from one grip to another quickly and surely if you are using the one-handed backhand. Keeping the non-dominant hand near the racquet's throat greatly enhances the speed and surety of these grip changes.
You can't hit what you don't see!!! This axiom is critically true when it comes to returning serve. Generally, there are two basic approaches to watching the ball as your opponent begins her/his serve.
Some players follow the ball carefully from the "pre-serve" bounces through the entire service motion. Djokovic is notorious for bouncing the ball many times on the court before beginning his service motion. For players who follow the ball from the very first pre-serve bounce, Novak is probably a very annoying opponent. Still, this technique gets the eyes and mind to focus on the ball before it is struck. In addition, this technique will sometimes give a visual cue (a shoulder movement, a variance in the toss, etc.) that allows for some anticipation of where the serve is headed.
The second technique (one that I prefer) is to not watch the pre-bounce at all. Rather, I keep my eyes on that part of the area above the server's head where he/she is going to make contact with the ball when serving. I watch the ball enter this zone, and I really concentrate/focus my attention on that moment of contact in a serve. I find that this technique prevents me from being distracted or deceived by unusual service motions.
Having played baseball, I learned years ago that the pitcher's windup can be distracting and/or deceptive. So, I avoid any possibility of these affecting my return. In addition, I think I react more quickly to the ball's serve path when utilizing this technique.
I try to coordinate my body movement in such a manner that I am on my toes at the moment of contact. I find that being on my toes allows me to move in whatever way I must more easily and with greater assurance of success.
You will need to experiment with which of these methods works best for you. You may even modify one a bit and find it more effective. However, every player must really focus upon the moment when the ball bounces inside the service box!!! In photographing many of the pros on both tours, I have noticed that frequently the player's eyes will open a bit wider when watching the moment of this bounce. It indicates to me how important this "moment" is. You don't want to think or analyze this bounce. Instead, you simply want to see it clearly in a focused manner. If you do, the non-conscious mind will make the split second, myriad decisions necessary to execute a good return.
Each of us must learn to hit the "chipped" or "blocked" return of serve. Let's face it. Sometimes, an opponent has a cannon for a serve. Taking a swing at these serves can be an exercise in complete frustration. There are just some opponents who present us with such difficult serves that the best we can hope to do is to chip (a little poke with some slice) or block (very similar to the bunt in baseball) a decent return. In the days of many serve/volley players, these chipped returns were probably put away quite easily. However, I have found that in the modern game, the typical player is not as comfortable at the net as she/he could/should be. Even a short, blocked return will sometimes open up the possibility for a rally. There just aren't as many net rushers as there once were!
Allied with the chipped or blocked return of serve is the "reduced pace" return of serve. Here the player tries to return serve at about three quarter speed. The key is to shorten the backswing when returning serve and letting the pace of the serve really provide the momentum necessary for the return.
Just as changing court positioning can turn around a poor return of serve game, using the blocked, chipped and three quarter speed returns may reverse a losing trend.
Regardless of the type of return you hit, you always want to finish the stroke completely. Even the chipped return should finish with the racquet moving forward after making contact. In my mind, the most important variable to try and control in every stroke is its finish. Finish properly, completely and consistently, and your game will soar!
Remember if the player is really serving well, you want to simply begin a rally with your return of serve... not hit a winner.
It simply astounds me how many players I see on the high school and collegiate level who seek to win points off of their return of serve. The odds and statistics certainly indicate that the likelihood of this type of winner is low.
If however you are returning well, you may seek to hit a return for a winner now and then. Usually, the down the line return is the most successful return for this purpose.
Conversely, the safest return of serve is crosscourt. If I can hit 80% of my return of serves crosscourt where they land deep and/or with pace, then I know that I am likely to win the match. I have the match charts to prove my statement!
So, how does one practice the return of serve?
Well, this is not as easy to do as it is with other strokes. You will most certainly need a hitting partner or coach.
One effective method of practicing the return of serve is to place numbered target cones at various locations on your hitting partner's court. Have your hitting partner serve to you. Before each serve, the hitting partner calls out a number. As you return serve, you attempt to direct the return in a manner that it hits the designated cone. Do this drill with both first and second serves coming at you. In addition, you will want to practice this drill from both the deuce and ad court positions.
A drill that many coaches use with the pros is as follows. The coach or hitting partner has a hopper of balls. The coach or hitting partner stands at his/her service line (not the baseline). The coach or partner then serves to you from this position. Obviously, you have less reaction time for your return of serve. The coach or hitting partner will need to get a sense of how hard to hit the serves to keep them bouncing within your service boxes. By standing wide to either side, the coach or hitting partner can force you to practice returning "stretched" returns.
As a warning, you always want to try and hit your returns AWAY from your coach or hitting partner. If you don't, it is highly likely that you will end up pegging the feeder with one of your returns.
Finally during match warm-ups, you should always take a few returns of serves when your opponent is doing his/her practice serves. Usually even three of four practice returns in the warm-ups can help you get your "eyes on" for the match.
So this season, I encourage each of you to make a concerted effort to improve your return of serve. It is absolutely critical to be able to return well, if you expect to break serve.
Although it is one of the least practiced of all strokes, a great return of serve can help you rapidly become a tennis overdog.