At 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 like a regular ground-stroke… Far from it – when returning 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 ground-stroke.
(Serve Return Tennis Drills – videos)
The following pieces of advice will make you understand how to maximize your chances for a better serve return and eventually be in control of the point from the first stroke:
1. First thing that a player must do is to analyze the type of serves 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 giving her a narrow path to your weak side.
2. Be sneaky!
As your opponent tosses the ball feel free to change the 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 clearly allow your opponent to change her tactic. Make your move while she tosses the ball and looks up to hit it – then it will be too late for her to change her 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.
In fact, I have always imagined returning fast serves with a wall/fence behind me (see picture below). This analogy helped me make contact with fast serves way out in front (otherwise, on the backswing, I would be hitting the imaginary wall behind me).
(Imagine you have a wall/fence behind you when returning serve – shorten the backswing)
If your are returning kick serves then stand more upright and prepare to attack the spin of the ball.
Often inexperienced players tend to block heavy spin serves when in reality the returner should swing through the ball and hard to counteract the heavy spin.
4. Most of the time you should look for just returning high over the net and deep.
Exception is when your opponent serves-and-volleys – in this situation consider aiming for the service line (at opponent’s feet).
5. Be Bold
Often I like to surprise my opponents by returning from 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 a passing shot and maybe another passing shot attempt.
Often club players want to win the point too quickly and they panic when they see the ball coming back after the first passing attempt. But when playing against a serve-and-volley player you must consider to hit at least 2 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 volleyer’s first shot will go to.
7. Your serve return practice will count.
I will leave you with one more advice of how to improve your return of serve:
Have a practice partner serve to you from about half way between 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.