The Importance of Serves and Returns

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Players today need to spend more time on their serve and return.

Why? It's simple: If you can't serve and you can't return, you can't play. I don't care how well you hit ground strokes or volley; you need to be able to start the point effectively in order to be successful.

Nick Bollettieri

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c.2005 Barbara Banks

I have been fortunate enough to work with some of the best servers in the history of the game including Mark Philippoussis and Boris Becker. And my long-time student Andre Agassi is arguably the best returner of all time.

The reason they were so good at these facets of the game is that they spent a great deal of time working on them.

One of the biggest problems students will have with both the serve and return is that they tend to go backward rather than forward. An effective first serve will have a toss that is out in front and leads the player into the court.

Often times I will see a player that has a toss that goes behind their head, leading them backward. Also, many players will try to recover too quickly after the serve which forces them to go backward during the actual serve and not commit to the shot.

The returner should be moving forward to attack the ball with little to no backswing. Occasionally, when facing a big server you may want to back up a bit to give yourself some more time to see the ball, but you should still be moving forward into the return.

Here's a tennis drill I used to do with Andre where we could alternately work on moving forward on both the serve and return:

  • Player A is the server on one side, while player B is the returner on the opposite side.
  • Player A must serve and volley to player B using only the crosscourt section of the court.
  • Player B must start with his or her feet positioned on the baseline and return the ball crosscourt while moving forward to the net to Player A.
  • Then the point is played out crosscourt with both players at the net.

Player A will serve until either player reaches 11 points and then the players will switch. The server will become the returner and the returner will become the server. The game will then continue on until one player wins by reaching 21 points.

You may be thinking, "Hey, Nick, I am not a serve and volleyer." It doesn't matter if you never come to the net during a match. Learning to serve and volley or return and volley will help your serves and returns because it will teach you to move forward through both shots. Also, it will help you pick up the ball earlier on the return making it easier to play against big servers.

So spend some time on the serve and return, because in today's game, you need to do both effectively to be a winner.

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In 1978, Nick Bollettieri founded the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy, 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

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