HOW TO HIT THE RETURN OF SERVE IN TENNIS is our goal today and the return of serve may be the most commonly missed shot in tennis, for no good reason. However, it isn't the easiest shot in the world either because not only does the opponent get to put the ball into play at their discretion, but if you are like most people then the return of serve is probably one of the least practiced shots for you as well.
The good news is that with practice you can make your return of serve a dominant part of your game, and the ability to break your opponent's serve is one of the most valuable things you can have. The greatest returners in history, people like Agassi, Borg, Connors, and today Novak Djokovic, have been able to create doubt and frustration by minimizing the advantage that the server has inherently, you can do this too with a little bit of practice and patience!
To become a good returner you will need to have good vision, intuition, and technique. At the fundamental level the point of the return is to get the ball back in the court in a neutral fashion, so that you can begin the point on even ground.
However, for great returners they find a way to turn the advantage of the server into an advantage for them, by returning the serve with an offensive shot that puts them in the drivers seat from the beginning of the point. Think of it like a basketball player that blocks an incoming dunk, that can be very frustrating, right?
It will most likely be the same grip that you are using to hit your groundstrokes (Forehand and Backhand), but you may also want to change grips from time to time to defend against certain types of serves from your opponent.
In some occasions you may want to employ a more conservative grip like a continental or eastern in order to block, chip, or drive the return more, especially when an opponent is serving big!
At other times you may be better off by using a more extreme grip like a western or semi-western grip, this will enable you to be more aggressive on your returns and it's especially useful for slower serves that sit up high.
STANCE AND FOOTWORK:
Since there is a quicker reaction time involved in returning serve versus normal groundstrokes you MUST be properly positioned to give yourself the best possible chance for success.
The Ready Position is where you want to begin your stance, making sure that you are evenly balanced on both feet and slightly leaning forward with the racket pointing straight out in front at your opponent on the other side of the net.
PREPARATION AND ROTATION:
As the server is about to make contact on the other side of the net, you need to focus on making the properly timed The Split-Step in a forward fashion. As you land from this split-step you should be further into the court and/or closer to the net than when you started the split-step.
As you land you now have both legs engaged and ready to spring forward in either direction to attack the incoming serve. It is very important to remember that when returning, you need to avoid being flat-footed, that means that you must move forward to meet the serve and if dealing with an angled serve you will want to move diagonally in order to cut off the serve.
The body rotation is quick and minimal due to the time restrictions of returning serve, but still a vital part of being successful.
If you hold the racket in the ready position, you should literally pretend that the butt of the racket is attached to your belly button, then if you point the racket off to the right side of the court(opposite for lefties) or your forehand side your shoulder and hips will naturally move with the racket, the same goes for the backhand side.
This is all the movement necessary to prepare, as you will notice it is a much shorter back swing than your normal forehand or backhand.
Now that your legs are loaded, your racket is prepared and you are properly rotated, you are ready to attack the serve. Concentrating on moving forward into the serve bring the racket forward to meet the incoming serve in FRONT of your body.
As the racket come forward to meet the ball you will be unloading or rotating your hips and shoulders forward which will aid in bring the racket towards the incoming serve and provide you with power and torque.
Keep a low center of gravity as you execute your swing and use your legs to propel your body into the serve. As the racket meets the ball out in front of your body on either side with your compact swing, make sure to really drive your hands and racket through the ball on contact.
FOLLOW THROUGH AND RECOVERY:
Now that you have moved forward with a compact backswing and made contact with the incoming serve, you will allow your the racket to continue on its swing path. On the forehand side your forward movement and uncoiling of your hips and shoulders will bring the racket around your left side as you recover and regain your ready position. On the backhand side, you will also allow the natural swing path to finish around your right side as your body continues forward. Be sure to recover to good court positioning as soon as possible, by using small quick steps to solidify your ready position.
P.S. Some important things you should focus on for the return of serve:
- Consistency: you must get the ball back into the court to begin the point. By not missing returns you will create pressure on the server to make his serve and often times they will be pressured into going for more on their serves causing errors.
- Variety: once you have gotten the hand of returning down, you will need to mix up. Hitting returns harder, softer, lower, higher, deeper, or shorter can keep your opponent guessing, which will leave them off-balanced and allow you to start the point in a better position to take control of the point.
- Accuracy: which is a close relative to variety, as you return to different areas of the court, being accurate in your returns will increase your advantage and continue to put the server in a neutral to defensive position to begin points.
- Power: can also offset your opponent and put them on the defensive when hitting the return of serve, however this carries additional risk with it, as hitting for power can end up forcing you to sacrifice consistency and give free points to the server.