The key to returning a serve is reading it early. And for this you need to be staring at the ball while it is still in your opponent’s hand, and learning to recognise what a particular ball toss means. For instance, if someone is throwing it behind them, they are not going to be hitting it flat, and if they are throwing the ball out to the right, it is not going to come at you with topspin. Once you have read it, you need to react. There is no time to wait until the ball is on its way.
No opponent is going to be a master of all serves, so you need to be logging their choices in your memory the whole time, finding out their favourites for certain situations. Soon you will start to get a feel for where they like to serve in relation to the score.
Think about your position
Generally speaking, if you stand about one metre inside the tramline, you should be in position to cut off either a wide or central serve. You should normally be about one metre behind the baseline, especially on a first serve, but this does depend on what you expect to be coming at you.
If you are facing a very fast serve you can stand further back, but do be aware that this gives your opponent ample opportunity to throw a serve out wide instead. On their second serve you can step in a little, but do not give the game away too early. Stay where you are until they throw the ball up, then move in.
Once you are in position, get down low with your knees bent. Your eyes will be much nearer the flight of the ball this way, so you’ll have more chance of reading its behaviour as it comes off the surface. Now bounce on your toes, making sure that you are mentally and physically alert. If you have a great ready position like this, your mind will be more focused on the ingredients of the serve that your opponent is hitting.
As you wait, keep both hands on the racket, because you might want to change grip, and you’ll only have a split second to do it. It is easier to change from forehand to backhand than from backhand to forehand, so you are better off staying in your usual forehand grip. If you are planning to attack your opponent’s serve early, start in a continental grip – that way you can play either a forehand or backhand slice speedily without changing it at all.
Attack the ball
As soon as you have read the flight of the ball, cut into the court to intercept it at a 45-degree angle. This means you’re going sideways towards the ball, but also moving forwards to meet it early. You are trying to play your shot as it rises off the court surface, or right at the top of the bounce, so by the time your opponent has landed after their serve the ball is right back on them.
To attack effectively, you need to get used to playing your shots with shorter backswings – perhaps half their normal length. On a very fast serve you need only deflect back the pace that is coming in, and as you get better you can start directing these deflections into certain areas of the court.
Don’t worry about the shot
Remember, this is a return of serve. First and foremost you just need to return the ball at all costs. If you can get every serve back – even if you just hit it down the middle – it has a massive psychological effect on your opponent.
This should be your number one priority, especially when returning the first serve. If you always make them play another shot, then you have taken away what most advanced players consider to be their major weapon, and that’s when you start getting inside their heads a little bit.
It is the same on a second serve, but this time you know that your opponent is under pressure. This means they will probably be hitting it with some spin, and trying to make the ball rise over the baseline. Knowing this in advance gives you the chance to be more counterattacking.
Now try this …
A great exercise to help you learn how to return a fast serve is to have your practice partner come up to the service line and send one at you from there. This will give you a lot less time to return, and it will show you the benefit of shorter backswings.
For the second serve, have your partner stay on the service line but stand far out to the side, so they can see the full wide angle of the service box. Now get them to slice balls in to you, which you must try and make contact with as early and as far inside the court as possible, cutting in at 45 degrees.
Try dropping a marker down to show where you were able to return the serve, and then try to beat those marks, so that inch by inch you are getting further inside the court. You may be starting too far back, of course, so put some other marks behind your heels where you were standing to measure how far up the court you managed to get. Could you start further in?
What am I doing wrong?
Too many people stay in the same position for every return, no matter where the opponent has been serving. They don’t think about where to stand, or what their opponent is intending to do. Vary your position a little, and you’ll be much better equipped to counterattack. And if someone is serving consistently well out wide, don’t get frustrated, just stand out wide and cover that serve. At the very least you will make your opponent change their plan. Then you can go back to a more neutral position again, but you will have irritated them and thrown them off course.
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