The Return of Serve


At high levels of the game the return is without a doubt the hardest individual shot to get back in the court. You have no control on the location of the ball, its trajectory, the spin applied or the speed of the delivery. Some servers are going to make your life difficult no matter what, but there are some things that you control to keep them adjusting to you. In this article i’m going to go over some things you can do to influence the servers location of serve, some strategies for the return and how to adjust your positioning to take away specific locations and types of serves from great servers, and to generally have a plan to adjust or adapt in your return games to give your opponents the most trouble and make it difficult for them to hold. For this article my primary focus will be the 1st serve return.

The plan

This might sound obvious but getting the Serve back in play should be your #1 focus. In the heat of a match players can often overlook the number 1 rule in an attempt to attack their opponent with the first ball or direct the return to the weaker wing. Nothing is more important than making the first ball.  

Data shows that 30% of all points end with a serve that is unreturned. It’s a huge stat in tennis and one you can’t overlook. You must focus on limiting your opponents free points on their serve. Even if you are routinely being forced to defend the next ball you will be chipping away at the servers confidence. Servers LOVE free points. They will be well aware they are being forced to play at least a second ball and often will result in the server squeezing their targets closer and closer to the lines in an attempt to get their share of free points. 

Often the quality of your opponents serve will force you to take a different approach to getting the return back in play. Facing a huge serve? Maybe back off the baseline to blunt some of the speed and give yourself a longer look at the ball. Facing a player that paints lines? Move up to cut off the angles. You will also often and regularly have to change the spin or style you use to return.

Maybe you love the pace and are able to block the return back well one day but the next you aren’t seeing the ball as well and need to chip or slice the return. Maybe you need to adjust your positioning to account for a cutting wide slice from a lefty opponent. My point here is that you have to be flexible. 

There are many ways to achieve this and sometimes you will have to mix it up and change your positioning or style if one way or another is not working for you. Stay flexible when returning. Here are some things you can change up to get more returns back in play and limit the free points you are gifting your opponent 

Start Back

Nadal is perhaps the most famous example of a player giving up court position to make more returns in play. The closer you are to the baseline the faster the incoming ball speed. This forces players to make their returns more compact to control the shot and use the opponents pace. When you start further back the speed of the incoming ball is reduced and you are able to keep similar technique to your forehand or backhand groundstroke.

Note that while starting back can be a great tool to make more returns, if you don’t find some depth soon in the rally you will find yourself unable to transition to offense. Although starting back can be beneficial, your intention should be to work your way inside the baseline to create some offense. Starting back can also expose you to servers who are have great wide serves, so make sure you are aware of what your opponent does well.

Take the return early

Taking the return early is a way you can use the pace of your opponents serve against them by sending the ball back across the net faster. If you can take time away from the server this way they will often not have the chance to get their feet set to hurt you on the their next ball. You will need to make your technique much more compact the earlier you take the ball. This closer position also gives you the ability to cut the angles from a wide serve by contacting the ball before it has a chance to move away from you. High level players with great kick serves often give returners trouble by getting the kicker up high and wide to the back hand of the returner. Taking the return early can be a solution to this type of serve if you can time the return well and get it on the rise before it hurts you.

Cover their best serve

Barty covering the dangerous slice serve wide from the left handed Kvitova

Figure out early where your opponents favorite serve is on both the deuce side and the advantage side. This could be the first break point they are facing or a big 30-30 point early in the first set. If you can determine where they like to go, you can visually cover it before they serve and influence their direction. Do they call your bluff and serve there anyway? Do they go for the open service box? Whatever they choose, they are playing your game. This is how you can influence the server.

Sometimes a good mix up is to cover a serve (like Ash Barty above) and when your opponent tosses the ball, split step towards the middle so you are back to neutral. Against great serving, this is sometimes all you can do but don’t underestimate the power of the returners position and its effect on the servers mindset.

Understanding where your opponent is likely to target their serve based on the score is also a huge part of returning. If your opponent does have a favorite serve, you can bet they will use it when they need it most.

For a short Video demonstrating changing your return positioning to influence the server click the link below

  Your Return Target

On first serve returns your absolute best target is in the middle of the court. You have the highest chance of getting the ball in play to the biggest target, and you are limiting your opponents angle to attack you on their second ball. This is your best target to make the return in play and limit the damage the server can do with the serve + 1. After you get the ball back in the court your primary objective should be to push your opponent back behind the baseline where they are less able to be offensive. Depth before direction. This will cut down on your errors early in the point as you take missing wide out of the equation.

At higher levels of the game if your opponent has a weaker wing or a bigger swing you should look to target this side in the middle of the court. Middle backhand (C) to target the backhand or middle forehand (B) to return to this side. Finding your opponents backhand in the middle of the court will make it very hard for them to beat you to the deuce side (picture below).

Below is a video of a great return from Marat Safin to neutralize Roger Federer and take away his ability to attack on the second ball.

Your Grip

Changing the spin you use means changing your grip too. If you are going from topspin returning to chipping your returns you will need to make a grip chance without showing your opponent. Hiding your grip changes makes it more difficult for your opponent to plan their second shot.

Some matches you will be seeing the ball well and you can be more offensive with topspin grips, other times you may need to change to a continental grip to slice the return back. It depends on the situation. Being able to change the grip without the opponent detecting it is a minor detail that can become very important. Especially at higher levels of the game.

Something else to consider is which grip you wait in for your topspin returns. Do you wait in the backhand or the forehand? Spend considerable time on the practice court working on what is best for you. Return grips are vary widely from player to player. It’s important that you are confident that you can return well from both wings.

 Make sure that you practice your returns as often as you can. Not only one type of return but many of the options that you may need to problem solve during a match and find a way to keep your opponent uncomfortable and create chances to break their serve.

See you on the courts

Joel Myers

USPTA Elite Professional. San Diego

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s