At the recreational level, the serve return is one of the most overlooked tennis strokes.
It is one of the least practiced strokes and most of the time, unfortunately, it is treated as a regular groundstroke… but it’s far from that – when returning a serve, the ball comes from a higher level, it is faster and the spin is most of the time different than the one of a regular groundstroke.
The following pieces of advice will focus on maximizing your chances for a better serve return and eventually be in control of the point from the first shot:
1. First thing that a player must do is analyze the type of serve the opponent likes to hit: flat, slice, or kick?
Once you have that established, you will have to consider your position on the court of where you should stand to wait for the serve.
If you favor one side more than the other, position yourself so that you leave more room on your stronger side. By doing this, you will invite the server to go toward the bigger opening and in the same time give them a narrow path to your weak side.
2. Be sneaky!
As your opponent tosses the ball, feel free to change your position – again, favoring your strong side.
Let’s say that your opponent likes to pick on your backhand (assuming this is your weak side). As the server tosses the ball, move a little toward the backhand side and prepare to attack the incoming ball with your forehand.
Avoid moving too early though. That would allow your opponent to change their tactic. Make your move while they toss the ball and look up to hit it – then it will be too late for them to change the intention.
3. Racquet control is key for a successful return of serve.
When expecting flat serves, get low and shorten your backswing. Plan to meet the ball out in front without taking the racquet too far back and hitting it hard.
I have always imagined returning fast serves with a wall/fence behind me (see picture below). This analogy helps me make contact with fast serves way out in front (otherwise, on the backswing, I would be hitting the imaginary wall behind me).
If you are returning kick serves, stand more upright and prepare to attack the spin of the ball.
Oftentimes, inexperienced players tend to block heavy spin serves, when in reality the returner should swing through the ball since it’s hard to counteract the heavy spin.
4. Most of the time, you should look to just return high over the net and deep.
An exception is when your opponent serve-and-volleys – in this situation consider aiming for the service line (at the opponent’s feet).
5. Be bold.
Sometimes, I like to surprise my serve opponents by standing well inside the baseline.
For that, I use a continental grip and prepare to slice the return deep, or chip it and move closer to the net.
But you should be careful when you do it – try it only when you have a clear advantage: 40-0 or 40-15 in the game.
6. If you return against a serve-and-volley opponent, consider the play as a 2-3 shot sequence: a return followed by at least one more shot.
Often club players want to win the point too quickly and they panic when they see the ball coming back after the first passing shot attempt. But when playing against a serve-and-volley player you must consider hitting at least two shots before you have the opportunity for a clean winner.
Also after you return against an approaching opponent quickly cover the open court because most likely that’s where the first opposing volley will go to.
7. Your serve return practice will count.
I will leave you with one more piece of advice on how to improve your return of serve:
– Have a practice partner serve to you from about halfway between the service line and baseline (opposite side of the net, of course). This will force you to react quicker, shorten the backswing, and practice making contact more in front of the body.
This kind of practice will pay off big time later on in a match when you will feel like you have so much more time to hit the ball out in front.