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Player to Player: Return of Serve

February 17, 2012 11:18 AM
Have a question? Receive advice from your fellow tennis players!
Real Tennis Players - Like You! - Asking For and Offering Advice on the Sport They Love
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.

Player to Player:
This week's question from Lulu:
In a recent match, I was serving a deuce point in a division finals doubles match, and a ball rolled from the adjacent court past our court and outside the fence. As we were on our second deuce and the ball was no longer on our court, we continued play. The people from the court that lost the ball kept telling us to go and retrieve their ball. We explained that we were playing a match and were back at deuce but would get it when the game ended. These men continued to heckle us and distract us through that game as well as the match. What should we have done?
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!

Last week's question from Jennifer
(Please note: There is no need to send additional responses to this question.)
Can anyone offer some advice on how to improve my return of serve?
Player Responses:
Coach Leonard, Concord, Calif.

Improving return of serve is a pretty general request. It's similar to telling someone to fix your car. Knowing what area of the serve return to focus on is the first step in the right direction. Since this was the week of the Westminster Dog Show, I'd like to use a canine theme. Here are my tips for various issues:
Pointer - This applies to your stance. It is common for beginners to stand square to the baseline to receive serves. They often wonder why they feel jammed when returning serves down the center. I recommend standing with the feet pointing towards the server. This will allow you to be in a more neutral position between forehand and backhand.
Setter - It is key to have good preparation. In simpler terms, get set. Watching the the ball as it's being served is a start. A better start is to watch the server's toss. Often you can read the server by toss position. If the toss is on the left side of the head on the deuce, look for the serve up the center. Rightside of the head, it's outside corner towards the alley. For the ad court, left side means outside corner, and right side will be center. Whether the server is left-handed or right, I find this method works well. Tracking the serve as to where it crosses over the net will also get you a heads up on what shot to hit.
Shepherd - This is where footwork is important. Like a dog coralling livestock, go after them before they get out of control. Expect to move for every return. Go diagonally to get there quicker. The backswing should be abreviated since the reaction time is limited. I like to use what I call the "self service" drill. Stand far enough from a backboard so that you can serve a ball over the net line, but allow the ball to bounce a step or two in front of you. Now serve firmly to the wall, and hit the next shot over the net line as best you can. You are now returning your own serve. This will help you develop your comfort zone in stance and swing.
I tell my players that return of serve is a valuable tool to have. You have two chances per serve. Only one per return. So with the proper stance, early preparation and correct swing and footwork, you'll be a Golden Retriever in no time. And that's no bull, dog.

Eric R., California

You did not define your level or which stroke gives you more trouble. I will make the arbitrary choice that it is likely the backhand return. However, if you believe you have a weak return, then that will be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Therefore, you must first develop this attitude adjustment. To wit, "I would rather hit backhand returns of serve than eat a four-star meal." Anticipate it with eagerness.

I know that many club-level players suffer on backhand returns. Why does the return from that wing cause so many players so much grief? Waiting too long to initiate the stroke is the No. 1 problem that I have seen. You have to want to get to it early on the rise, with the feet initiating towards the hit well before the bounce.
You must keep your head down during contact. Watch videos of Federer on both topspin and slice returns especially. The topspin return is a top-level achievement against high-speed serves. From a common club level, it would be clear that you had best leave that return to Nadal and other young phenoms.

You have to develop the attitude that you really want that serve coming in, to attack it with fervor. So until you have it mastered, just fake it till you make it.
Visualize the quick shoulder turn, the short back swing and the decisive footwork, creating forward lean. Use Fed for a one-hander and Agassi if you are a two-handed righty. Visualize Connors or U.S. Davis Cupper lefty Bryan if you are a double-fisted southpaw.

Inside-out is a key doubles return, especially from the deuce court. The good servers target weaker backhands on that side. You must attack the ball with a strong follow through across the ball from left to right. The good news is that it can be taken closer to the body on an inside-out stroke. You need a strong hand and forearm to really pound it back on a later hit, so get to the gym if you want that strong return.

Whatever your level, enjoy the journey.

Coach Poppie, PTR Professional 4A, Florida and Delaware
The return of serve is different than a groundstroke for several reasons. First, you can put more self pressure on it, and second, the timing is two beats instead of three for a regular groundstroke.

Start by learning to read your opponent's racquet. It generally will tell you what to expect. I'm a huge believer in self-audio queuing, so to make your return instantly better, say these simple words: "Hit... bounce... hitsssssss." As soon as you see your opponent's racquet hit the ball, say "Hit." The flight of the ball will be longer in time. Say "Bounce" as it hits the court, and then "Hitssssssss" as you strike the return. You will be amazed at your success.

You see, by audio-queuing yourself, your mind stays focused on your goal. Outside interferences disappear, and the long exhale of the Hitssssss will relax you swing. Learn Practice Play.

Kenny S., Highland Park, Ill.

The serve and the return has become such a big part of tennis. Get ready and watch the server as he/she tosses the ball, and try to predict where they are hitting it and at what speed and spin. You can tell this by the toss and the motion of the racquet. If it is a really hard serve, you want to take a little swing and block it back. You might want to move forward on a second serve and back a little on the first serve. A good drill is having a player or coach hit serves from the service line. You also might want to keep the shot more simple by not going for a winner.

Clint C., Los Gatos, Calif.

Much of the difficulty in returning the serve is related to a simple lack of intense focus on the incoming ball. This sounds corny, but to combat this lackadaisical tendency, I force myself to focus on each served ball by pretending I am a superhero with the power to slow down the approaching ball with my stare. Naturally, this takes intense concentration -- which merely forces me to intently concentrate on the ball -- but that is exactly what I need to do in order to make solid racquet contact with the projectile. I genuinely "feel" like I have more time to get my racquet on the ball. So, especially on important points, give this gimmick a try, and you could find out that pretending to be a superhero will improve your return game.

Rick M., Lugoff, S.C.

It's difficult answering without seeing exactly what problems you're having, but the biggest problem I've seen is the returner thinking they can win the point outright. Since you can't win without getting the ball back, shorten your backswing, and use the safe path of a cross-court return most of the time. Leave a margin for error by clearing the net with suitable height. If you're ready to move to the next level, be on the balls of your feet as the server strikes the ball, then split step and move forward and in the direction of the ball. This technique is difficult at first but comes with practice.

Chris C., Yakima, Wash.

I don’t know if this works for everybody, but as soon as you see the contact on the opponent’s racquet, do a split-step so you can react to the direction of the serve. Make your best "educated guess," based on your knowledge thus far in the match, of where the serve is going, like Carly Simon’s famous hit, "Anticipation."

Then, take a short backswing, fast shuffle steps toward the ball, and just meet it. Usually there is plenty of pace to rebound off your racquet to carry the ball back. Swing thought: "A little slice is nice" -- preferably at the opponent’s feet if they are coming in, or into the open court if they’re not. Then be prepared to "clean up the short ball."

Terry S., Fort Worth, Texas

- Be active and dynamic. Don’t just be ready to move, but be moving! You are in motion for other shots; be in motion for your return of serve, as well.

- Start from deeper in the court than from where you will actually hit your return. Take a step or two forward as the server tosses the ball, and split step as the serve is struck so you can move to either side for your return. Be constant and ritualistic about this, just like with whatever pattern you use to address your own service.

- Pay attention to the server’s location on the service line, foot position, setup and tendencies to try to anticipate their serve direction. Adjust your own lateral positioning dependent on where the opponent is along the baseline.

- Especially if facing a difficult server, do not take a full swing at the ball. Use a firm wrist to just block the ball back, similar to a volley stroke, with follow-through but not a big backswing.  Reducing your swing will allow you a quicker response, and the server's pace will be plenty for your return if you make solid contact with the firm racquet while moving forward. If the serve is soft, you will have to create your own pace, so just focus on a solid return, and don’t overhit by going for too big a shot.

- Practice serves and returns, just like any other stroke. Have your hitting partner hit a couple dozen services to you so you can return one after another, without the distraction of playing out a point. Then 'return' the favor while practicing your service.

Russ and Dora R.

Tim Gallwey ("The Inner Game") gives great advice on return of serve -- see pages 91 and 100.

My mantra for every service return is "watch the ball" and "high in the strings." "Watch the ball" reminds me to focus on the ball as it leaves the server’s hand and maintain it until it strikes my strings. "High in the strings" works for me because I like a lot of topspin, and this reminds me to strike the ball like a ping pong player -- that is, with an upstroke and slightly off center toward the leading edge.
Using this technique has allowed me to stand well inside the baseline to smartly return the best serve at the 4.0 RTP level, plus it annoys my opponents and gives them less time to react to my shot -- a double benefit.
*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.
Click here for USTA.com's Player to Player Archive.


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