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Player to Player: The Service Return

January 9, 2012 01:22 PM
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 Theo:
During a USTA match, one of my teammates hit a beautiful shot to end an exciting point. I was a spectator and instinctively yelled, "Yeah! Great shot, Jermaine!" His opponent walked to the line, examined a mark and called the shot out. It was his call to make, and that was that -- nothing more was said. However, some of his teammates later chastised me for cheering the shot. They accused me of trying to intimidate the player into calling the shot in and declared it poor sportsmanship to cheer a shot before a call is made. Is it appropriate to cheer a great-looking shot immediately after the point is over, or should spectators await confirmation from the participant before applauding?
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 Jessica
(Please note: There is no need to send additional responses to this question.)
Absolutely the worst part of my game is my service return. Can anyone offer some advice on how to improve my return of serve?
Player Responses:
Dan, Chesapeake, Va.:

Jessica, I had the same problem. Now, I have a strong return of serve at my level of play. The first thing you need to ask yourself is: Why do I struggle? Am I not split stepping at the point of contact? Do I watch the server's racquet face to get a clue as to where the serve will most likely be going? Am I too far back or too close? Am I swinging late or taking too big of a swing?

What I found is that regardless of how fast someone serves, starting inside the baseline and then taking a small step forward and split stepping has allowed me to attack the serve while moving forward. It also cuts down on the angles that a server can hit against me. I also learned to shorten up my swing while still ensuring a strong follow through for control.

I would experiment with your positioning and anticipation. Also, if you struggle against faster serves, then have a friend stand at the service line and serve to you. This will effectively cut the amount of time you have to react.

Chris J., Portland, Ore.:

Jessica, two things just about everyone does wrong is split step too late, then try to make up for it by over-swinging at the ball (too much backswing). My approach is what I call quiet feet, meaning I get my split step timed just before impact of the racquet on the ball, and then I literally want to impact the ball out in front of me as my weight is moving towards the net. If anything, split stepping too soon is far better than not soon enough. So split step, settle your feet, and lean into the ball! Good luck.
Joe G.:

On the return-of-serve forehand (right-hand side):

1. When server is getting ready to serve, I concentrate on hopping or skipping gently on the toes of my feet or swaying from side to side to stay relaxed and balanced.

2. The moment the server "strikes" the ball, I take a slight step forward hop. As I land, I turn my shoulders and transfer weight to the direction of the oncoming path of the ball.

3. Ball coming to my forehand (right-hand side for me). Fast serve: I don't have time to take a step, so I turn my shoulders as I shift weight to my right foot on my toes. Keeping head and shoulders relaxed and steady, I strike the ball on my comfort spot. I keep my head steady to the spot where I just hit the ball without moving my head or tracking the ball until my swing is completed.

4. Key: Stay relaxed, and balance on your toes; don't lean forward or tighten muscles when you hit the ball.

5. Practice target spots on returns. Forehand, go crosscourt. Backhand, go down the line.

Good Luck.

B. Cilli, Cumberland, R.I.

Just like a hoop player will practice hundreds upon hundreds of free throws, a tennis player should practice returns. A good portion of practice should be dedicated to solely that. Have someone serve a variety of serves while you work on your returns. To add some pressure to the mix, play tiebreakers or mini games where you are just returning. Returning serves is a confidence thing where repetition is key. Good luck.

Terry, Fort Worth, Texas:

- Start further back, i.e. deeper in the court, than from where you wish to be to hit your return. Take a step forward as the server tosses the ball and a split step as the serve is struck so you can move to either side for your return.

- Pay attention to their location on the service line, foot position, set up and tendencies to see if you can anticipate their serve direction. Adjust your lateral positioning, especially dependent on where they are along the baseline. 

- Especially if you are facing a difficult server, do not take a full swing at the ball. With a firm wrist, just block the ball back, similar to a volley stroke... some 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.

- 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.

Kenny Sommer, Chicago:

You can improve your serve by getting in ready position and keeping your eye on the ball as the other player starts the serve. Watch the serve, and try to follow where it is going. A good drill is having a coach serve from the service line and serve to different places and at different speeds. You might want to back up a bit on the first serve and come in a little on the second serve.

Rich L., Boynton Beach, Fla.:

I saw Todd Martin do a piece on The Tennis Channel where he suggests you take a step in as the server is releasing the toss, and then split step. This brings you into a dynamic stance where you are better able to react to the serve. I tried it, and even though my split step is kind of lame, I am definitely in an active position, rather than standing flat footed, and better able to adjust my return to meet any type of serve. I hope this helps.


Hi Jessica. The service return can be a headache! Several ideas you may want to consider... LASER ATTENTION ON THE BALL! Recite to yourself, "Watch the ball," at the toss. Racquet head should point to your opponent, feet shoulder-width apart, toes to point to your opponent, keep your feet moving, slight sway of your body. Things that are in motion tend to remain in motion. Don't have footwork like a  fire hydrant! Relax your grip until contact. Directional intent is maintained by the racquet face at contact. Treat the ball impact as you would a volley, minimize the backswing, especially against a Pete Sampras!!!! LOL! Good luck!!!!
*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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