David W. Smith, Senior Editor TennisOne
The return of serve is often thought of as being only as good or as bad as determined by the quality of the opponent’s serve. And certainly, while a big serve can indeed dictate the effectiveness of the serve return, it does not always have to be that way.
Jimmy Connors was the greatest returner of his era but there were far fewer big servers back in the day.
Consider how the professional game has continued to evolve. Ten to fifteen years ago, the men’s game was dominated by big serves and few service breaks. Yet, even as the potency of the serve has continued to increase along with the number of big servers, the quality of the service return has also evolved.
There are still plenty of aces in today’s game. Yet, because of the increased ability of players to respond better and more effectively with both technique and reactive training, we see far less dominance from the serve than we had in the recent past.
But, what about those who are not tennis professionals? The issue of big serves is not usually a major factor at the club, recreational, league, or tournament level. Within most NTRP levels, few players possess the kind of service-power we see on television. Yet, one of the biggest weaknesses I see in these non-professional matches is the limited ability to return serves effectively and with consistency.
Many people believe the return of serve is no different than hitting a typical forehand or backhand groundstroke. While the basic mechanics of hitting a return include the same elements that a groundstroke will have, the return has several components that require a slightly different approach to hitting it well.
Angle of Incidence
A serve, since it is hit at or near the highest reach of the server, comes into the court from a far different trajectory than a typical groundstroke hit from the baseline. Because of this “angle of incidence,” the serve usually bounces differently than a groundstroke - higher and with the increased potential of different bounces due to different spins. However, because the serve lands in the service box, the bounce often occurs much shorter in the court than baseline-to-baseline topspin or slice groundstrokes.
Point of Contact
Players must contend with bounces that are as high as the shoulders and even the head when making contact with a service return. This is perhaps the hardest part of making a good return. Players seldom practice hitting balls that are at this height and many simply don’t possess techniques to handle these high-bouncing balls well.
Agassi was the master at turning defence into offence with a penetrating service return.
In doubles, the return is probably more specific and critical than in singles. With a net man stationed on one side of the court, and his propensity to look to poach and cut balls off, the return in doubles must be directed much more intentionally than in singles. (That is not to say that in singles, a return can be hit anywhere!) In addition, in more advanced doubles play, the server will often follow the serve to the net, in which case the return will have to be that much more precise. The so-called "window" for a return in doubles is much smaller when you consider these factors.
In singles, while you have the whole court to return the ball into, the effectiveness of the return will help dictate the advantage or lack-thereof of the server. A weak return sets up an easier approach shot or attacking ball. Likewise, a strong return can offset the server’s advantage and even provide the returning player an opportunity to go on offense. Andre Agassi was the master at this tactic.
Having to contend with these differences in hitting a service return, a player can work on several elements that can equate to better returns.
Early Mental Intention
This obscure concept I discovered a few years ago when I was studying how pros who were returning 120 – 130 mile-per-hour serves were able to react quickly enough to hit the ball, but also with the ability to return those bombs effectively.
Today, Federer is perhaps the games best returner but unlike Agassi or Connors before him, Roger prefers to just get the ball in play, which he does with uncanny regularity.
The idea is that the returner doesn't wait to decide where the serve is going after the serve has been hit. Instead, the returner begins to anticipate where the serve will be hit before the serve has been hit.
Obviously, there is at best a 50/50 chance of simply guessing it will be hit to your forehand or backhand side. (Of course, we could include a portion of serves hit right at us; however, even such serves are going to be slightly to one side of our body’s center point.) Yet, we can often make an “educated anticipation” as to where the serve will go based on server tendencies, gaining a read on the server’s toss, and factors such as where previous serves have been attempted.
It is the intention of movement or guessing where the serve will land that gets us moving. I have found that even when pros start by leaning the wrong way, they quickly make a correction--even when returning fast serves. However, I have also seen recreational players wait to make a move until they see exactly where the serve is going. The human mind, while it works remarkably fast, is too slow to recognize fast serves and then make conscious decisions after determining where the serve is going. By making more predetermined movements before we actually recognize where the ball is going, we can get our physical action initiated and allow our subconscious to react correctly. This takes practice but I believe you will see a significant improvement in this area alone.
Early Unit Turn
For decades “get the racquet back” was the teaching mantra of nearly every teaching pro. Today, I believe this phrase has evolved into “Prepare early,” alluding not so much to the racquet’s preparation as much as preparing what we now call the “Unit Turn.”
Many pros advocate “stalking” the ball, meaning, turn with the body, but keep the racquet in a position to "fire" with the full stroke later. Some pros even advocate waiting to prepare the racquet until the ball has bounced on your side of the court. While this may be the sequence among more advanced players (due to all the experience and controlled swing elements such players have mastered), when beginners to high intermediate players wait this long, they often tend to swing late. I believe that the condition of waiting is one that self-evolves and does not need to be specifically taught.
When a player makes a conscious effort to make a Unit Turn as soon as they see what side of the body the serve is coming in on, the player is in a much better position to move effectively to the ball. Too many players make their first move with their feet which delays the upper body’s ability to turn for the shot. In many cases, players who step out to the ball first, swing with the arm only, because they never get the shoulder plane to coil.
For a shot that most pros consider the second most important stroke in the game, it amazes me how little time club players spend working on the return. Compared to other shots, the service return is practiced very little, usually only hitting non-competitive returns during the warm up of a match!
Set aside time with a hitting partner to work on various returns: doubles returns, singles returns; slice returns, inside out and inside in returns, lobs, and others. Practice standing closer, inside the baseline to improve your ability to react quickly to the ball. Have a partner serve from the service line to also exercise your anticipation time. After a few weeks, I guarantee you'll notice a difference.
(Click link to purchase Dave Smith's Book Tennis Mastery, at tenniswarehouse.com.)
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