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September 2001 Article

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TURBOSTROKES: The Return of Serve

Ron Waite Photo
Ron Waite, USPTR

Recently, my e-mail from readers has been full of petitions for an article that addresses the return of serve. It is really no wonder why people would be so concerned about this part of the game. In fact, the return of serve is the second most important stroke in the game…the serve being the first. You can’t begin to break an opponent’s serve if you can’t return her/his serve. If you don’t break serve, you can’t win the match. (I know you purists will say that you can if you win in tiebreakers…but you must get the "Mini-Break" to win the tiebreak.)

Undoubtedly, the best return of serve in today’s game belongs to Andre Agassi.

It is his ability to return so well that has enabled him to win on surfaces like grass, which really don’t favor his game. Pete Sampras once stated in a televised interview that it was learning how to return at Wimbledon that allowed him to win the tournament.

Despite all of this, many of us don’t really spend much time trying to improve our returns. Well, hopefully, this month’s column will change this for some of my readers.

The first thing about returning serve that needs to be stated is that it usually improves as the match unfolds. Why? Well, after a few games, several things happen. First, we "see" the ball better…particularly when our opponent has a big serve. Second, we begin to "read" our opponent’s service motion better. Finally, the balls are literally slowing down due to their increased "fluffiness" which results from repeated hitting and bouncing. I say this because one needs to have faith in her/his return and realize that it will probably get better as the match goes on…so, a little bit of faith and patience are in order when returning serve.

Positioning can make a big difference in how successful and how dangerous your return of serve can be. I recommend standing as close to the baseline as is feasibly comfortable. Surface will to some degree dictate how close you will stand…as will the speed of your opponent’s serve. Generally, players move back a bit on the faster surfaces and when their opponent has a big serve. However, if you watch the matches played at Roland Garros, you will see that many of the European clay courters will stand way back on return. In part, this is due to the ball's increased bounce height. In addition, these clay courters recognize that their opponents are not likely to be serving and volleying.

I force myself to stand about one to two feet back of the baseline for first serves. On second serves, I try to make certain that my toes are actually touching the baseline. Wherever you decide to stand, make certain to move in for second serves.

Almost every player has a better groundstroke wing. Mine is my forehand. Thus, I stand in such a way to favor my two-handed backhand return. In the deuce and ad courts, I move a little to the left. This way, I am encouraging the server to hit to my forehand. It also allows me to run around my backhand and hit a forehand return on slower serves.

Good servers have rituals that help them get into proper "motion" for the serve. I think the best return of serve players have good and firm rituals as well. I always make certain that I take three steps forward when getting in position to receive serve. This, of course, means that I must walk back toward the fence before getting into return position. I usually adjust my strings as I walk around a bit in the backcourt. I focus my mind on where I want the next return to go as I do this "strolling." Once I am clear about where I want the return to go, I take the steps forward to get myself into the position to return serve. Now, I am not encouraging a deliberate delay in game…which would be against the rules. Rather, I try to do this little pre-setup ritual as smoothly and quickly as possible. I have never had an opponent complain that I was taking too much time getting ready to return serve.

How you hold your racquet when returning serve is key, and varies from player to player. I use a two-handed backhand. So, my preferred grip combination is to have my dominant hand (my right) in a semi-western forehand grip (the grip I use to hit forehands). My left hand is holding the racquet very loosely in a somewhat continental grip. With this combination I am ready to hit the forehand and with a slight turn of the racquet I can hit my two-handed backhand (for this backhand I use a continental grip for my dominant hand and an eastern backhand grip for my non-dominant hand). The only time I vary this is when I am playing a leftie. For left-hand players I use my regular two-handed backhand grip combination… my dominant hand is in an eastern backhand grip and my left hand is in almost an eastern forehand grip. I do this because I realize that the lefty spin serve to my backhand is something that I am very likely to see. I want to be completely ready to immediately adjust to the spin.

Most one-handed backhand players use a very loose continental grip for their dominant hand with the non-dominant hand holding the racquet at its throat. This "central" grip for the dominant hand enables the player to spin the racquet quickly and to change to either a forehand or backhand grip. This racquet "turning" is usually performed by the non-dominant hand, which is at the throat of the racquet.

Whatever grip or grip combination you decide is best for you (and I encourage you to experiment) make certain that you do not hold the racquet too tight. Having a "death grip" on the racquet handle will slow down any necessary grip changes and usually prevents you from achieving maximum reach with your racquet.

If you have been reading this column over the last few months, these grips should be familiar to you. If you are confused or need to review some of these images, please refer to my previously published column entitled "Picture Perfect" which is available from the TurboTennis Archives. In this column you will also find images that deal with stance, stroke finishes and ball contact points.

I usually keep my feet about shoulder width apart when receiving serve. As soon as I see the opponent toss the ball up, (I am low, with my knees bent while waiting for the opponent to toss), I force myself to elevate as the toss goes up. I want to be on my toes with my body weight going upwards during the toss because this will enable me to move in any direction more quickly…which is needed when returning serve. Being on your toes when receiving serve is in my mind critical to success. Being "up" improves your reaction time to fast serves…particularly when they move you out wide. A flat-footed player invariable is aced more than he/she should be for lack of mobility.

Where you are looking as the opponent begins his/her service motion is in my mind absolutely critical. Do not look at the ball while it is in the server’s hand. Rather, you want to focus on the spot where the server will make contact with the ball…which is usually about 3 to 4 feet above her/his head. From the time the server begins the service motion to the moment of contact, my eyes are focused on this area above the server’s head. By doing this, I have found that I actually "read" the ball better and move to it more quickly.

I picked up this habit of looking above the server’s head as a result of playing lots of American baseball. I was always a very good hitter in baseball. Why? Well, in part, I believe that it was because I would never look at the pitcher’s windup. Instead, I would look at that area where the pitcher was going to release the ball. By not getting caught up in the windup, I was better able to "read" pitches.

Now, I know some of you may be saying: "But if I don’t look at the server’s motion, I won’t be able to pick up the body language clues that will tell me if he/she is hitting big or hitting a kick serve, etc. Well, here is where peripheral vision comes into play. Your eyes are focused on the area above the server’s head, but they are still able to see little nuances in the server’s body language and motion that betray what kind of serve is coming. In fact, I find that my peripheral vision is usually more accurate in "reading" these cues that would be the case if I deliberately watched the server’s body during the service motion.

In all returns of serves there is one thing that is essential…shorten the backswing! You cannot shorten the backswing too much!!! When you think it is short enough, shorten it some more. Shorter backswings will not diminish the power of your return. With today’s modern racquets, quite the opposite is true.

The key to power in returning serve is timing…hitting the ball before it reaches the top of its bounce. This is why Agassi’s return is so devastating. He literally takes the ball on the rise better than any other player in the game. Now, I don’t expect that most of us will be able to do quite as well as Andre in this regard, but we can do better than we are at the moment. Every little bit helps when taking the ball on the rise. If you look at half volleys, which by their very nature take the ball on the rise, we have literally little or no racquet movement. Rather, the half volley is more of a block than a stroke. Still, half volleys have pace because they utilize the power of the ball as it rises after its bounce.

When teaching people how to improve their return of serve, I do a little test drill. I literally serve at him or her and force him or her to simply block the ball back…using no backswing or swing, at all. Immediately, they are amazed to see that they can easily direct their returns and keep them deep, simply by making minor adjustments in the racquet face. Usually, they begin to believe very quickly in the power of shorter backswings.

However, there is another lesson to be learned from this drill. Every player should be able to do a "block return" off of each wing. These are essential when you are being "jammed" by a serve that comes straight at you or when you are pulled very wide by a serve that has pace. You need to practice these block returns! Believe me, they have kept me in some points at some critical times in matches.

Finally, one needs to be able to return the big serve. Frequently, our practice partners are not as gifted with serving pace as is our opponents in matches. So, here is what the pros do.

Have your partner serve to you…but she/he should stand a few feet behind her/his service line…not at the baseline. It may take a few serves for them to get used to this position, but soon they will be serving what seem to be very big serves at you. This reduction in distance increases pace and reduces your reaction time…the two things that really make for big serves. One time I saw Michael Chang preparing for a match against Goran Ivanisevic. His brother, Carl, was at the service line banging serves at Michael in every direction, with every spin, with incredible pace. After about the first 15 serves, Michael was able to return with authority. He actually was placing his returns.

So, it is very important to practice your return of serves. If you position yourself correctly, find the right grip or grip combination, keep your eyes focused at the contact point, use a short backswing and take the ball on the rise, I promise in no time you will 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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