Tennis: How to return a serve

This is an often-neglected area of tennis: beginners who struggle with their serve spend all their time trying to improve it, forgetting that for half the match they will in fact be on the other end of one. Fail to return a serve and you hand your opponent a point, but get it back over the net and you are back in the competition.

Be prepared

For your opponent’s first serve, stand about one step behind the baseline in the ready position – here you are in a good position to return a hard serve. For their second serve, which will usually be slower and shorter, you may want to stand on or just inside the baseline.

Some players choose to move about while waiting to return service. Some bounce back and forth on their feet, while others move their whole body from side to side. This can help you to stay alert but isn’t essential. Whatever you decide, remember to keep your knees bent, heels off the floor, feet pointing forwards, upper body straight and racket out in front of you.

The split step

This is a technique used to get to the ball quicker. It is especially useful for getting to balls that have been served wide or short, but can also be used when you want to come into the net, or if you need to move backwards for a deep ball.

Begin by getting into the ready position. It is incredibly important that you are standing on your toes, heels off the ground, ready to jump up: bend your knees more if standing like this makes you feel unbalanced.

As your opponent hits the ball, this is your cue to jump up. Land on both feet, then move towards the ball. By jumping up, the floor acts as a starting block and should help you accelerate towards the ball faster.

You should land on the opposite foot to the direction you want to go in: if someone has hit to your forehand, and you need to get to the right hand side of the court (if you’re right handed), jump up and land on your left foot first. This allows you to push up on your left foot to move towards the right hand side of the court.

The same goes when you want to move forwards or backwards. If someone has served a short ball, jump up and land with one leg slightly behind you; you can then push off this back leg and move forwards.

Returning different types of serve

When returning a fast (usually a first) serve, don’t waste time with a long backswing: instead, shorten the distance you take your racket back. This will help you use the pace of the served ball for your return and ensure you make contact with the ball in the right place – just in front of your front foot, at waist height and a comfortable distance from your body.

If you feel under pressure, try to return the ball deep and straight down the middle of the court; hitting it deep gives you more time to recover and get back to the ready position, while placing the ball in the centre of the court avoids giving your opponent an angle. If you can get it to their feet, even better.

Slow (typically second) serves give you more time to react. Make the most of this with a long take-back and full swing at the ball – this will give your return more power and make it harder for your opponent to get the ball back. If you’re feeling confident, a slow serve is the ideal time to attack and establish yourself as the dominant player. Try to hit the ball down the line: this will force your opponent to move to the edge of the court, opening up space for your next shot which, if played cunningly, they will then struggle to reach.

No man’s land

If you return a ball into this area, you will give yourself a great opportunity to win the point. No man’s land is basically the corners of the court: from your opponent’s baseline to halfway to their service line, and stretching about half a metre from the tram line to one-third of the way along the court. Even if your opponent manages to get the ball back from this position, they will have been forced to move outside of the court, allowing you to stroke the ball back into an empty court (unless they’re lightning fast, of course).


You must consider what your opponent is going to do after they have served. If they charge into the net as soon as they have served, they are going to try to serve-volley. To minimise the damage they can do, aim to place the ball as low as possible. However, if they stay at the baseline after service, respond with a higher and deeper ball, ideally to your opponent’s weaker side.

Now try this …

To practise returning fast serves, have one player standing on the baseline, ready to return, while the other serves 10 balls from the service line. Because the server is on the service line rather than the baseline, their serves will be much faster than usual, giving the returner little time to respond. Score a point for every serve returned and then swap places.

Now hone your return placement, ensuring that you can place the ball in four different places on the court: deep down the line, short down the line, deep cross-court and short cross-court. Have someone serve at your forehand and aim to place the ball deep down the line (inside the inner tram line opposite you, and close to the baseline). Don’t move on to the next target until you have successfully placed it. Next, aim for short down the line (inside the inner tram line opposite you, and between the net and the service line), deep cross-court (inside the inner tram line on the opposite side of the court, and close to the baseline) and then short cross-court (between the net and the service line on the opposite side of the court). Count how many shots it takes you to achieve all four placements, then aim to improve your score each time. After you have completed the four placements on your forehand, do the same on your backhand.

What am I doing wrong?

Does your opponent always get to your returns with ease? Perhaps your shot selections are too predictable. Consider mixing it up a bit – don’t always try to hit to their weakest side: go for their feet, into their body, wide, or even for their strongest side. If they’re not expecting it, their reactions won’t be super-fast and you won’t be giving them an advantage. Also, don’t stand in exactly the same place to receive every serve: if your opponent gets use to your positioning, they will start to exploit the areas you aren’t covering as well.

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