Tennis Return of Serve: Importance
The tennis return of serve is the second most important shot in tennis behind the serve. The first shot you hit in half the games you play will be the return of serve. Most players would be satisfied neutralizing their opponents serve with their return. Others have developed their return into a weapon putting pressure on their opponent and giving them an advantage. Andre Agassi had one of the greatest returns of all time and is a great person to emulate and learn from.
The biggest mistake people make on the return of serve, myself included, is not practicing the shot enough. The only way to develop the return of serve into an effective shot is to put in the hours of consistent practice and focus on doing the fundamentals correctly.
Where to Stand for the Tennis Return of Serve
Let’s begin with the basics on positioning yourself horizontally on the baseline. When you select where to stand for the return, imagine there is string tied to your opponent’s racquet and the string extends all the way over the net into the service box on your side of the court. One string is extended down the center of the service line and one out wide where the service line and singles line intersect. To be neutral you can stand in the center of those two points to play both options equally. However, if your opponent favors one service location over the other, you may decide to favor that side by opening up the court to his/her least desired serve, which could be your strength as well. Realize where you stand for the return should be influenced by several factors.
What Works Best?
On the tennis return of serve there are different options for where to stand which can be influenced by your style of play, your hand eye coordination, and your opponent’s serve. The standard for where to stand on the return without taking into account any other variables is around three feet behind the baseline. However, all the different variables are important and should be considered, so keep that in mind throughout this post.
Generally as an all court attacking player, standing as close as you can while having enough time to react to the serve and control the return is a great option. By standing closer to receive serve you can cut off angles and have a better opportunity to play spin serves that may be moving away from you. For example, second serves generally are hit with more spin with less pace than first serves and that is why the majority players move in to return the second serve. Additionally as an attacking player you want to take the ball earlier and be positioned closer to the baseline after the return so that you can have the best opportunity to dictate play.
Baseliners, such as clay court specialists, or players that extend rallies to wear down their opponents may choose to stand further back on the return. If your goal is to wear down your opponent and extend rallies you may find standing further back to be a good option. You have more time to react to the serve and more than likely will be able to get the serve back into the court to work your way into the point or even neutralize the serve. The disadvantage would be that by standing further back you open up the court to greater angles and provide your opponent with more time to set up for the next shot.
Your Tennis Return of Serve
It is up to you to determine where to stand for the tennis return of serve and it may vary depending on the player you face and what takes place during the match. Be open to mixing up your strategy if it isn’t working.
Hitting the Tennis Return of Serve: Preparation
When preparing for the return of serve you want to be in the ready position. The ready position is the athletic stance where your feet are around shoulder width apart, standing light on the balls of your feet, and ready to react to your opponent. For a more in depth explanation see the ready position listed under the Footwork section.
When thinking of the preparation phase of the return of serve, there are a few other key elements that come to mind. You want to stay loose and energetic for the return of serve, focus on the ball, and react to the ball.
Stay Loose and Energetic
Being light on your feet and loose is crucial on the return. Many professional athletes bounce up and down on the balls of their feet prior to their opponent beginning their service motion. By being light on your feet, your split step and movement toward the return will happen more quickly. Also, by keeping your upper body and hands loose for the return will allow you to accelerate the racquet head more effectively.
Focus on the Ball
Watching the ball from the beginning of your opponent’s service motion to around four feet in front of you is critical to prevent miss hits. By watching the ball during your opponents service motion you can pick up on the location of the toss and how the racquet is making contact with the ball. These factors can help you anticipate what type of serve is coming and where it is headed. For example, if the ball is over your opponents head, generally you can anticipate a topspin serve is headed your way.
Once the serve reaches about four feet in front of you it is very important to keep your head still and level through the return. Often, players will move their head prior to impact to see their opponent or where their ball is headed out of habit. When the head changes elevations your racquet head changes elevations as well which commonly results in miss hits. When the ball gets to be around four feet in front of you, it is extremely difficult to watch the ball further due to the ball traveling so quickly. Don’t worry if you cannot see the ball all the way to contact on the return because it is essential that your head stays still through contact.
Reacting to the Ball
When your opponent is winding up for the serve take a step forward and look to time your split step. The step forward prior to initiating the split step is utilized to generate some forward momentum and the step forward can be done with whatever foot you choose. When the server is making contact with the ball the returner is still slightly in the air and in the process of landing the split step. The reason why the returner is still in the air when the opponent is contacting the ball is because he doesn’t know where the ball is headed until well after the ball leaves the server’s strings. By the time you land the split step you will know which direction to react and your weight will be loaded in your legs so you can react explosively to the serve.
Timing the forward step into the ball, followed by the split step, is critical to your return of serve. The timing of the forward step is dependent on your opponent’s service motion. Each player has a slightly different motion which may be longer, like Pete Sampras’s motion, or shorter like, Andy Roddick’s motion. The key take away is to time the forward step so that you are in the air or in the process of coming down into your split step as your opponent makes contact with the ball.
Tennis Serve Return: Set Up
Once landing the split step react toward the ball and take the racquet back. The first movement is to turn your hips and take a step out to the ball with your outside foot. The turn of the hips will naturally rotate your shoulders and create your backswing. The backswing on the return is much shorter than a normal groundstroke and doesn’t include a loop due to having less time to react and set up for the ball.
The movement to the ball is forward and diagonal when the serve is hit away from your body. On the return of serve it is okay to step across the body to hit the ball due to the serve generally traveling at a higher rate of speed the movement is frequently needed out of necessity.
Tennis Return of Serve Swing
As you step toward the ball you will swing your racquet forward to make contact with the ball at the same time. Like a forehand and backhand the contact is out in front of the body and the follow through takes place finishing around the other side of the body to complete the stroke.
Focus on keeping your backswing as short as possible. I have found that practicing ground strokes so often and neglecting the return translates into having a larger backswing on the return. It is going to take a lot of hours of practice to correct but it will be worth it when you find yourself progressing on each return game.
Tennis Return of Serve Best Practice
When I split forward for the return of serve I think about allowing my elbows to come forward off my body so that my elbows are resting slightly out in front of my core. This helps me limit my back swing when I rotate my shoulders and hips. Try it out!
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Want to share some of your return of serve best practices? I would love to hear from you by leaving a comment below. See you on the court!