When it comes to practice, the return of serve is one of the most forgotten shots in the game.
It has always confused me when I see players spend so much time working on their serve and little to no time practicing the equally important return of serve. After all, no matter how good your serve is, if you cannot break serve, you are going to be in for a very long day.
I have always stressed to my coaches and players that one of the best ways to improve your serve is to improve your return of serve. Being able to break serve at will allows you to relax on your serve, and play your service games with less pressure and less sense of urgency, which inevitably leads to better serving.
The Fundamentals of the Return
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c.2005 Barbara Banks
When returning serve, especially against big servers, the first move is critical. Once you see the ball off the opponents strings and determine whether it is going to be a forehand or backhand return, your first move is to pivot your feet and turn your hips and shoulders in that direction.
While making this movement you should be preparing the racket to hit at the same time. Especially when returning a solid first serve, there should be very little, to zero backswing.
From this prepared position, you want to drive forward to the ball making contact out in front of your body. Follow through with the swing much the same as you would on a normal forehand or backhand groundstroke.
This "keep it simple" approach will help you minimize your errors on the return and force the server to work in order to hold serve.
When returning serve, especially against a big server, it's important to force them to play with as little advantage as possible. We like to use the term "neutralize" on the first serve return.
That means not being defensive with the shot but also not going for too much. You can think of it as trying to start even. Pick a big target, either deep crosscourt, or if the server is really bringing the heat, deep and right down the middle.
This will limit your errors and force the server to play. Remember, a big server relies on "free points" (aces, service winners and missed returns) in order to make their games easy.
If you try to be too offensive with returns you play right into their hands. A solid return deep down the middle will start you off in a neutral position, not on offense but not on defense either, which is the goal.
Another way to neutralize a big serve is to make them pay every time they miss a first serve. So when you get a look at a second serve, be more offensive and send a message.
If you can do this effectively, one of two things will happen:
- The server will have to take some pace off the first serve in order to keep from being beaten on the second serve, which helps you.
- They will have to hit their second serve bigger to keep you from attacking, which leads to more double faults and will give you more opportunities to break.
Spend more time working on your returns. It will pay handsome dividends in the end.
Andre Agassi and Lleyton Hewitt were both victorious at Wimbledon, a server's paradise, and took down some big bombers along the way.
I was in Andre's box for his victory in the final against one of the biggest servers in the game, Goran Ivanisevic. He won that match and became one of the greatest returners of all time by implementing some of the same simple points I have brought up here.
So work on that return and send a message to the big servers that you will not be pushed around!
Nick Bollettieri founded the IMG Bollettieri Tennis Academy in 1978, the first full-time tennis boarding school to combine intense training on the court with a custom-designed academic curriculum. He has coached 10 players who have reached No. 1 in the world, including Andre Agassi, Boris Becker and Martina Hingis. To learn more, visit IMGAcademies.com.