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Player to Player: Handling Slice Serves

March 12, 2012 12:48 PM
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Player to Player is USTA.com’s regular feature in which everyday tennis players are given a forum to ask advice on the sport they love – and their fellow players will dish out advice. We’ll post a number of the best responses we receive to our question of the week.
 
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Player to Player:
This week's question from Raul:
 
I am a super champ player in the 16s, and I breathe, eat and sleep tennis. However, I can only play a limited number of USTA tournaments. What is the best way to build a resume for top Division 1 schools?
 
Please share your thoughts by e-mailing Player@USTA.com, and include your name and hometown.
  
Got a question of your own? Send that along, too!
 
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READ OTHER PLAYERS' ADVICE
Last week's question from Doug
(Please note: There is no need to send additional responses to this question.)
 
How do I handle fast, slicing, sidespin, wide, low serves?
 
Player Responses:
 
Kenny S., Chicago

You should try to make your swing simple on a fast serve, sometimes just blocking it back. If you know a slice is coming, you are ahead of it and can get ready for it by standing ready, closer to the direction of where it is slicing. You can tell most of the time by the player's toss and learn as the game continues. If the serve is really low down, you need to get low and in towards it and block it back, not going for a big shot.

Coach Leonard, Concord, Calif.

Being in the golf and tennis business for 20 years, I want to use a side-by-side comparison. In order to be successful in golf, it is vital that the player must learn to properly "address" the ball. Address involves correct physical stance, along with having the club in the right position to strike the ball. This is equally important in various serve returns. I'll refer to this as the "return address."
 
Here are my tips for each type of serve:
 
Fast Flat - Stand square to the server. Not much spin here. Feet are shoulder-width apart. This will help your balance. Elbows need to be slightly forward, as if you had them resting on a table (use for all serves). This will prevent jamming. Racquet-head height should be level. I prefer using the eastern grip for solid contact. Be several steps behind the baseline. This will buy you some reaction time. Key point is to avoid backswings and just block. Use the force.
 
Slice and Low - Square stance with similar foot position. Slice serves tend to stay down. This requires the racquet head to now be tipped down. Take note that I said "tip" the head down. Don't lower your hands. Keep your grip hand waist high. This angle makes it easier to lift the low-skidding serves. Dropping your grip hand may cause returns to finish into the net. Grip is important, too. With low serves, a western grip is very difficult to work. Try eastern or continental. Key point is to imagine yourself as an infielder in baseball. Hold the glove low to pick up all the grounders.
 
Sidespin and Lefty - For this serve, the stance will dramatically change. What makes these the most dreaded serves is that the ball will seem to come across your body, rather than go directly to you. Right-handed serves will break one way, while the lefty will go the other. I found the solution from my many years of playing air hockey. The common tactic in air hockey is to shoot the puck into the side wall while your opponent is standing square to you. The puck will reflect from an angle that you're not ready for. I learned to always shift my position to face whichever wall the puck is hit into. Get the idea? So if you get a lefty whose serve will break to your left, rotate your stance slightly to your right. Now you are square to the serve, not the server. Do vice versa for a righty. Key point is not face the server but the ball.
 
Wide and High - Square but wide stance. The wider the stance, the bigger the step for more coverage. You want to get inside the baseline for this one. The farther back you are, the more distance to run. The racquet head should be high. If the serves are shoulder high, you want to attack them like volleys. Backswings to a minimum. Approach the ball diagonally. If you get pulled out wide, counter with a lob or down the line. Key point is imagine yourself as a soccer or hockey goalie. Be prepared to read and reach.
 
Offspeed and Underhand - A more closed stance. Much easier to step in and attack. Be close to the service-box line. Don't overhit. Drop shot and angle opportunity. Often the sound of the ball being served will tell you if it is off speed. Racquet head should be level if you're close enough. If you're caught by surprise, focus on getting under the ball to flick it back. I call this technique "running with the frying pan." A right-handed, underhand serve will break to your left. Lefty will break right. Rush to the bounce, but allow room for the ball to break. Key point is focus on the motion of the server's racquet early, and you know what to do.
 
So these are some of the ways that you can use the "return address." The good thing is that if it doesn't go in the box, you don't need to bother with the "return address." But that wouldn't be your "fault."
 
Eric R.

To some players, "Slicing and Dicing" is a way of life on court. They delight in the infliction of suffering upon those players who would feast upon straight, flat serves.

Serving slice is a side spin that is famously used by lefties, such as grand all-time champions Lew Hoad, "Rocket" Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, John McEnroe, Rafael Nadal, Martina Navratilova and current defending Wimbledon champ Petra Kvitova. As you can see by this list, it is a signature serve that bothers a lot of pros and amateurs alike. You are not alone.

Learn from the very best returners of serve, and learn to attack slice early on the rise before it reaches its maximum curvature. If it is a skidding, low serve on a fast surface, your legs and knee joints have to be both strong and flexible. As the title of a classic old book in the tennis library stated in its title, "Bend Your Knees, Fifty Dollars Please."

If your hitting stance at impact is spread out in a balanced wide and low position, you will get the most success on low slices. The use of your legs and a slice returning stroke (for the backhand in particular) will reward you with a far greater percentage of success than swinging from the heels from an upright stance.

The only time that it pays to just go for it versus a tough, fast, very wide slice serve is when you see your opponent leaning one way. If they have seen you return cross court mostly, then you should pound one down the line from the return position. It may throw them off balance if they have been leaning to favor that cross court. The down-the-line is a harder degree of difficulty, so attempt it only when reaching the ball in rhythm with good balance.

Are you playing a pusher who stays glued to the baseline? Then slice back a drop shot off their low slice serve and follow the good ones in to pressure their desperate reply. 

You did not specify your level of play or whether this was more a doubles or singles question. Paramount in importance is to find a partner who can really slice their serve and practice all of the above. Your repertoire of returns has to have variety so that your opponent doesn't just feast on your standard weak cross court. If they are rushing the net behind a slice, practice lobbing to their backhand.

In any case, enjoy the journey.

John G., Sarasota, Fla.

That’s a tough serve to handle. Here’s what I try:

1. I study my opponent’s motion very closely to see if I can spot any "tells" that will allow me to anticipate this serve. Different toss placement, different direction their eyes take before the serve, different situations where this serve is favored, different arm motion, different point of contact with the ball (e.g., lower than usual.)

2. I stand out in the alley (or at least obviously wider) during the opponent’s preparation for the serve. As soon as his/her eyes go up to the ball, I quickly adjust back to my normal ready position. But if (when) they catch on to this, sometimes I’ll stay out wide, just not to be so predictable.

3. I try to get my racquet under the ball on the return and hit low to high, imparting topspin. The biggest threat this serve poses (other than making you miss it) is that you will pop up your return. Topspin should help prevent this.

4. Along with topspin, I do my best to hit the return deep in the court (within 3-6 feet of the baseline.)

5. If these don’t work, I may try to hit the return around the net post, low, to my opponent’s backhand side in the deuce court and forehand side in the ad court (assuming a right-hander.)

Moro, Bodega Bay, Calif.

Doug, the best way to handle these low, wide, slice serves is to develop one-handed, continental-eastern-grip groundies.
 
1. You don't need to run as far to the ball because you can reach farther.
 
2. On completing a one-handed approach shot, you're a half-step closer to the net than if you'd used both hands.
 
3. The shake hands (continental) grip lets you get your racquet under a low ball so you can lift it up and over the net with ease and accuracy. 
 
4. And with one hand, it's also easier to reach and then poke back, chop down or even rip back if you're fast and strong, high-bounding hop-twist serves and other floaters when they take you out wide.  
 
These four important advantages might go a long way toward explaining why our two most Grand Slam-winning players, Sampras and Federer, developed one-handed groundies like Kramer and Budge used.
 
During the 1940s and 1950s, players who used the western grip or two-handers were considered unorthodox and had no chance against the really good players, all of whom used one-handed eastern or continental-grip groundies. What has happened is that the majority of players have hobbled themselves with two-handed groundies, putting them at equal disadvantage. Even the coaches don't know any better nowadays, and many actually insist their students use two-handers and/or the unorthodox western grip. 
 
Segura needed to use both hands because he suffered from rickets as a boy. He made two-handers look so graceful, though, and he played so well despite his handicap, Connors and other players took up using them. 
 
Good luck with your tennis.
 
 
 
*Please note that any advice given out in this forum should in no way be confused with actual medical advice. Before starting any new exercise regimen or altering your existing one, we strongly urge you to consult with your regular physician.
 
 
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