A few years back, I was training at Saddlebrook in Florida. While taking a water break, my hitting partner asked me this question: "What is the single most important shot in tennis?" I immediately replied: "the serve!" He responds: "Nope, you're wrong...it's the return of serve." I asked him why he thought that this was more important than the serve...his answer gave me pause: "Because with the serve, you get two tries to get it in, but with the return, you have only one" Well, I'm not certain that I totally agree, but his point was well taken. The return of serve is extremely important... and you only get one attempt at returning each serve.
Fortunately for me, the return of serve has always been a natural strength. Perhaps, because I played so much baseball in my younger years. Returning serve is in many ways similar to batting in baseball. First, you are motionless as you await the arrival of the ball. Second, the serve, like pitches, can dip, spin or simply blow you away with its speed. Like hitting in baseball, returning serve is a confidence activity. Finally, the motion of the server can be as elaborate and deceiving as the windup a pitcher takes. I learned early on the skills (mental and physical) to hit a baseball...good preparation, I think, for returning the serve
What follows is my advice on how to return serve more effectively and how to practice the return of serve. Think about this...imagine you never miss a return...how many more points would you win?
To begin, let's talk about the readiness factor. Never let a server rush you into receiving a serve until you are ready! Now, I know the rules of tennis state that the receiver must follow the flow and pace of the server...but only within reason. "Quick serving" in tennis is not permitted. You, as receiver, have a right
to be poised and ready to return serve. So, I always approach the baseline for return of serve with my hand up (suggesting I'm not ready) until my body, grips, eyes and mind are set to receive the serve. This state of readiness becomes extremely critical when you are losing (you need to slow down the pace of things) and when the opponent is an extremely capable server. Think about how many serves you may have not returned because you were not truly ready!
Next, we must consider where to stand when returning serve. One rule should come to mind: stand as close to the baseline (or inside it) as the server's ability, the surface and your own ability will permit. It amazes me when I see players way behind the baseline on very slow clay surfaces, or when the server poses no real threat with her/his serve. Frequently, players who stand too far back are rushing forward and stretching to reach short serves. Often, their return is weak or an outright error as a result. In addition, they leave themselves vulnerable to the serve that bounces short or spins out wide.
Why do we stay back so far? I think it has to do with fear and lack of confidence. Sometimes, I believe it occurs because we never experiment with different receiving positions and just get into a "rut." Whatever the reason, don't be lulled into standing any further back than you really need to be. I may start somewhat back, but as a match progresses, you will see me trying to get in closer and closer. Sometimes, I actually walk or jog in as the server tosses the ball.
Why do we want to be in so close? First, it sends a message to our opponent...we are not afraid of his/her
serve and we are going to be aggressive with our returns. Believe me, servers will take note of this and it places pressure on their serves! Second, the closer we get the sooner we strike the ball. These milliseconds of time can be critical. The server has to react to your return more quickly when you are "in." This rushes
her/his first stroke and often times leads to a weak reply or an outright error. Third, the closer we are to the net when we hit the return, the more severe angles we can hit. This geometric fact means that the server must in effect cover more court! Finally, by being "in," we can take the ball on the rise. Thus, we can use the server's pace against him/her and not be a susceptible to "kick" or "slice" spins. One need only watch Andre Agassi (arguably the best returner in modern times) to see the benefits of being "in."
The second aspect of return position involves width. You should always stand nearer the sideline when
returning serve. Well, at least that's where you should start. Why? Because when you stand a foot or two away from the singles sideline (on either deuce or ad court), you are in a position to equally get to any possible serve. Now, as the match progresses, you may move a little right or left from this point. You should adjust for the typical serve pattern of your opponent. If she/he frequently serves wide on ad court,
move a little more toward the singles sideline. If he/she likes to rifle the flat serve down the "T," then, move
a little more toward the center hash mark. Frequently, after two service games, you can tell which is the most likely place for a serve to go for both first and second serves, and for deuce and ad courts. Make your adjustments in small increments...so as not to telegraph the change.
Sometimes, I see players who move all over the place at the baseline while waiting to return serve. I do not advocate this. First, it is a form of cheating in that it is a deliberate distraction to the server (I suspect that this is precisely why some players do it!). Second, it wastes energy. Finally, it makes you eyes unable to clearly focus on the ball as it is being served.
Let's now move to grips. Here is my advice. If you have a one hand backhand, I suggest that you use a
backhand grip (whatever you normally use...refer to my column: "True Grip...No, Not the Movie") and put the non-dominant hand at the throat of the racquet (where the racquet head and grip shaft meet). Whether you believe it or not, the backhand return for the one-hander is 80% to 90% of the time the weaker return...even when it is his/her better groundstroke! Not to worry. The non-dominant hand at the throat will make it very quick and easy to move to the forehand grip should the serve go to the forehand side.
Twohanders should hold the racquet in a twohanded position (hands touching each other on the racquet's grip area). The dominant hand should be in a forehand grip (even if it is a Western Forehand) and the non-dominant hand should be in its normal position for a twohanded groundstroke. If the serve goes to your forehand, you simply take the non-dominant hand off the racquet and you are ready to strike the ball. If the serve goes to your backhand side, you will quickly and naturally change your dominant hand to its normal position for the twohand backhand (presuming there is a change necessary).
In the modern game, the twohander has an advantage over the onehander. The onehanded backhand offers more reach, but has difficulty with the high bouncing or extremely fast paced serve. Twohanders (I am one of these) love the kick serve because the high bouncing ball poses no problem...also, the hard hit serve can be handled relatively easily and returned with pace. However, on the wide serve and the serve hit directly at the returner, the onehanded backhand is still at an advantage. It should be noted that my data and much data from professional match summaries suggest that the really wide serve and the "jam" (straight at the opponent) serves are statistically the least likely to be used.
Regarding stance, I have no firm suggestions. I have seen great returners use open stances, closed stances,
wide stances, narrow stances, etc. It really depends on what is comfortable to you. The key is to stand relaxed. If standing on your toes tenses you up too much...don't do it (despite what that teaching pro or Fred Stolle say). If being flat footed on the return is making you less agile, get up on those toes. Everyone walks, runs and moves uniquely. That is why there are no firm rules on return stance that work for everyone. You need to experiment until you find the stance that is best for you!!! I never think about my stance anymore. For me it comes as second nature. However, I did experiment a while before settling on my present stance. Besides, if you are thinking about your feet, you won't be seeing the ball!
Eyes are the most critical body part in returning serve. You must see the ball clearly on the return of serve!!! I do not suggest watching the ball throughout the server's toss (I know...Fred Stolle and Cliff
Drysdale don't agree). Rather, I follow the advice of the person I believe to be the most savvy player ever...Poncho Segura. In reading an out of print book written by Segura (yes, my tennis library is extensive, to say the least), he suggests keeping your eyes fixed on the spot where the racquet will make contact with the ball. Even as the server does his/her "windup," keep your eyes on this spot. Wait for the ball to enter your field of vision. See the point of contact. This single piece of advice has helped me and so many of my students that it is to me a tennis universal. If you ever played baseball, you know that when you are batting, you should focus your eyes on the pitcher's release point...not the windup. The windup will only confuse and distract you. Similarly, the various rotations, knee bends, back arches, etc. that are part of the server's
"windup" can only serve to deceive, distract and confuse you. Trust me. When returning serve, keep your eyes solidly riveted on this "spot" (Usually, three to five feet above the server's head... where the racquet face will make contact with the ball.) I assure you that this single act will greatly improve your reaction time and ability to "read" the serve.
The next most important aspect of vision involves the serve's bounce. After the serve has been struck,
try to really see the ball bounce. This single action will greatly improve your racquet movement to the ball.
If you really see the spot where the ball bounces, you will perceptually be "slowing" down the serve itself.
Seeing the court contact spot will actually make the serve seem slower and easier to hit. It really works!!!
Whenever I am returning against a big server, I make an extra effort to see the ball bounce. In one or two service games, I no longer feel pressed by the serves and begin to return more aggressively. Besides, if you really don't see the bounce spot, how can you know if the serve is in or out?
Many people write about shortening your backswing when returning serve...I don't! Shortening your backswing may be necessary in returning serve, but it isn't a natural adjustment. Why don't we shorten our backswings? I think it has to do with fear and overreacting. How many times do you find yourself trying return the hard hit serve by hitting it hard? What is the usual result?...a missed return! I prefer to have my students think about relaxing the return of a hard hit serve. For me, this concept brings immediate results without any complicated or seemingly unnatural stroke adjustment. If I recommend any stroke adjustment, I have them try and finish the stroke fully when returning. By concentrating on a good finish, students usually
shorten the strokes associated with their returns automatically. (Parenthetically, this is the main theme of
the Nick Bollettieri School in Bradenton, Florida. Instructors coach students to fully finish each stroke...to
ensure power and to promote consistency. ) Next time your opponent blasts a serve at you, try to relax and
soften your return with a full and complete finish. The results will amaze you. This holds true for almost all
serves...even the "dink " serve. How many times have you ruined the opportunity to win an easy point because you blasted the return of a weak serve into the net or into the next zip code. Relax and finish the stroke...these are keys to consistent returns!
To me, one essence of returning serve is the same as an essence of serving...your mind, body and spirit must be loose and relaxed. I understand that this is easier said than done. But, I try to be totally mindless when I return serve. I don't think about anything!!! I don't strive for a predetermined placement. I don't try to anticipate where the serve is likely to go (even when I sense a pattern...patterns help in selecting your return positioning). I don't try to consciously read my opponent's serve motion. Returning serve is reaction...not action!!! (Serving is action...not reaction...and this is how the two are very different.). When returning serve (particularly at the beginning of match), I strive to focus (if you can call it that) on only these things:
- calming my breathing (if the previous point has me winded)
- clearing my mind (I truly try to go blank)
- setting my body (position, grips, etc.)
- focus my vision and being on the "spot" (where the server's racquet will
strike the ball)
Now, as a match progresses, I may try to predetermine my return (e.g., I want to return down line...or...I
want to return low to the net because he/she is serving and volleying, etc.). I only allow myself to engage in this kind of "thinking" when I am comfortable with returning my opponent's serve and when I am significantly ahead in score. I am more likely to try this "planning" on second serves than first. Frequently, however, I have found that this type of "strategizing" will hinder my returns, and then I invariably will go back to the mindless return. This is not to say that I don't analyze and think about my returns between games...but rarely will I do this between points or between serves.
People often ask me, "is it better to return crosscourt or down the line." After telling them that "thinking" may be hazardous to their return, I respond with:
Return crosscourt more often against the baseliner and return more down the line against
the net rusher. However, the safest return is the deep, center-of-the-court return
If you read my previous article on percentage tennis, the wisdom of this advice will become clear to you.
Suffice it to say that the angles and net height associated with tennis make the above statement true.
As I end this month's column, I would like to address practicing the return of serve. Unlike any other stroke in tennis, the return of serve cannot be practiced using a wall/backboard or even a ball machine (I've seen the machines that claim to feed serves, but they leave much to be desired, in my opinion, and are super expensive). You can practice the return with shadow tennis (see last month's article on Solo Tennis) if you imagine the serve coming at you. But, the best way to practice the return is the way the pros do it.
You stand at either the deuce or ad courts' baseline ready to receive serve. Your hitting partner is diagonally across from you at her/his service line with a bucket of balls. Have your partner serve to you from this "up
close" position. She/he must serve in such a way that the balls bounce in your service box as they normally should. Your partner will not have to hit hard to generate pace. The fact that she/he is so close to you will mean that your reaction time will be less than it would be for a serve delivered from the baseline. Try to
return 100 serves in this manner on the deuce court...then, 100 from the ad court. Have your partner mix up the direction, pace and spin of her/his serves.
Believe me. Follow my advice on the return of serve and practice your returns faithfully (as the pros do), and in no time, you'll become a tennis overdog!
Good luck in your game!