We say that the serve is the most important tennis shot, which it is if you are serving. But if you are facing the serve, then the most important tennis shot is the return of serve. In this piece below we look at the various ways in which you can try and improve your return of serve in tennis.
If someone has a brilliant service and keeps acing you like John Isner does at times, well, there is not much that you can do about it.
But there are many tips that we can give you to improve your return of serve when you are playing someone of a similar standard, or slightly better, than yourself.
It does depend who you are playing and what kind of serve you are facing, and there is a difference between the first and second serve return, obviously, but you can use these guidelines as a whole.
Here’re our best tips for a solid, consistent return of serve.
Get Ready As Opponent’s Getting Ready to Serve
The server takes time. Before serving he positions his feet and his body, bounces the ball a few times to steady himself, breathes and then serves.
While the server is doing this, you also need to get ready. You need to stand in position, with your feet in their rightful places, knees slightly bent, with your racket at the ready.
As you wait for the serve, focus, don’t take your eye off the server and the ball, and sway a little on your feet. Some players sway, others actually jump slightly.
This is so that when the ball does come at you, fast, you are ready to move.
Develop Your Own Ritual for Receiving
Once the server has started his ritual, so you have started yours. You may well have started it before the server, as you may be ready before.
Keep your eyes on the ball while you wait for the service to begin.
No matter what you are doing with your feet, or which way you are stepping as the server begins his shot, keep watching that ball.
Some players take step forward when the server throws the ball into the air, others bend their knees and take a step back. You know who you are playing, so you choose your own way to receive.
Adapt Your Stance, Depending on the Server
It is necessary to tweak around with your stance as a serve returner depending on the situation.
- If you are facing a first serve, you might be standing close to the baseline.
- If it’s a second serve, you’re probably not as far back.
- If you are playing a left hander, you might be adjusting your position in the court, and
- If you are facing spin or slice, you could be receiving differently too.
We will go over a few tips on how to face, and return specific serves. This video from Essential Tennis talks about the above four points. Preparation, focus and get into a ritual.
How to Return a Fast Serve
When a serve comes at you quickly, you don’t have that much time to swing into action and master your return stroke. You need to practice your return stroke as much as you can so that it is committed to muscle memory, but also:
Stand back, against the baseline.
Be on the tips of your toes, swaying from side to side, or even jumping or moving a little, so you are almost already in motion for when you need to reach for the service.
Have your racket ready ahead of you, but as the server hits that ball, you are going to move into a forehand or backhand stroke. As soon as the serve has been hit, and especially if you are keeping your eye on the ball, you will know what kind of stroke you are going to do.
Drive your return back, if possible, but if the ball is coming too fast, then slice it back. You need to think carefully, but quickly, about your placing, and about the kind of shot you are going to do.
Generally, you have just a few split seconds to think how and where you are going to return the ball. Your muscle memory and brain take over!
How to Return a Spin Serve
You will figure out fairly early on in a game what kind of serve your opponent favours.
If it is a spin serve, you need to figure out the kind of spin – top spin, back spin or side spin. Once you know this, or you think you know it, you need to think on your feet.
As per returning a fast serve, be ready. As the ball is coming towards you, move into your stroke, forehand or backhand. Anticipate where the ball is coming and how it is going to bounce, and try and get your racket to the ball as the ball kicks up.
Even better is if you can meet the ball before it spins off, so try and come into the ball to drive it back.
Take each serves as it come. You don’t ever really know what is coming your way, so prepare, keep your eye on the ball and try be ahead of the ball, anticipating the way it is going to bounce.
How to Return a Slow, Kick Serve
Take control if you can. Move in on the ball, anticipate the speed, and do your best to get your racket on top of the ball before it kicks away from you.
You choose how to return it, depending on the speed and the angle, but you can return it with drive, depth, spin or slice.
This applies to any tennis shot of course, but you will find the more you play the more you can anticipate how the ball is going to bounce, and be ready to return it in a way that is fitting.
How to Return Slice Serve
The thing with slice is that you want to neutralise it. If you can, return a slice serve with speed and depth. You can also try and wallop the ball straight down the tram lines.
If you, as the receiver, get to the slice in time, you can really use your power to return the ball.
Drills to Practice the Return of Serve
You can either do tennis serve and return drills with your coach, if you have one, or with a fellow player. You need to find someone who wants to practice their serve, or who doesn’t mind serving endlessly towards you.
This video from USTA Coach will help you play like a pro!
Meeting the Ball in Front of Your Racket
For this drill you will need to face a player who can serve at a medium paced towards you. You just want to practice your return, so the serves should be good but not brilliant.
The server should serve at your forehand and your backhand so that you can practice both. For this drill you want to merely practice returning the ball, ensuring that your racket head and the ball meet when the ball is still in front of you.
In other words, no fancy footwork, no wild stretches, no leaping all over the place. This is a simple serve and return drill.
Some coaches like to do this drill where you don’t even try and return the ball over the net. The point is just to make contact and practice your swing. You can take this tennis drill and turn it into five drills:-
- Drill One: Make contact with the racket and the ball.
- Drill Two: Make contact and add a bit of power so the ball does go over the net.
- Drill Three: Make contact and add a lot of power.
- Drill Four: Make contact, add power and place the ball diagonally across the court.
- Drill Five: Make contact, add power and place the ball straight down the tramlines.
When you do these drills, practice your forehands and your backhands. Focus on your footwork and your tennis shots, getting the technique right each time.
The more your practice your return, the more natural it will become. Go slowly in the beginning, making your way through the five stages above, as you improve.
You have a lot to think about each time you return a serve. You need to think about your feet, your body position, your knees, your hands, your arms, your elbows, your swing and your follow through. You need to do all this while keeping your eye on the ball at all times.
Longer Returning Drills
As your tennis improves, lengthen your drills. Return a serve and practice running to the middle of the court, to wait for the next shot. Or return a serve and practice running up to the net for a volley.
Turn the serve and return drill into a serve, return, return and volley drill. Try a serve, return, return and smash drill. Your coach will help you, or you can watch a couple of online tutorials.
How to Practice a Return of Serve on your Own
The only way to do this is with an imaginary ball and this is not as silly as it sounds. Practice your forehand and backhand tennis shots, as if you were being served at.
Give yourself a bit of space so you can really work on your technique, your foot work, your tennis swings and shots. Imagine you are receiving a ball and you are returning it, well placed.
Practicing like this is really helpful and the beauty of this is you do not need a partner. You only need a bit of space and a bit of time. You will see many tennis players doing imaginary shots, on the court, in the kitchen, in the classroom and in the park.
You can also take a few tips from our piece on practicing tennis alone indoors here.
Tennis is about Speedy Reactions
When you play tennis, the only time you can slow down, focus and prepare, is at the very beginning of a point. The server is going to take his time preparing to serve, and the receiver is going to take their time preparing to receive and return the ball.
Once the ball has been served, everything is extremely quick. Tennis players think, in split seconds, making decisions how to return the ball, which shot to go for next, when to run up to the net, when to lob, or slice, or spin.
The game of tennis can be hard and fast, but it can change tempo all the time too. That is what makes tennis so exciting; the range of shots. You need to practice a little bit of everything until everything you are doing becomes second nature.
Tennis Reflexes and Tennis Reactions
The following video from On Court Off Court, is all about tennis reflexes and reactions.
This is an interesting video because On Court Off Court suggest you do drills that include throwing and catching a tennis ball, just to work on your hand-eye co-ordination, and to work on your reflexes. It actually makes perfect sense!
So much of the tennis we play is reflexive. Once you have learned how to play a tennis shot, you won’t forget it.
It’s all about mastering the shot and this is why you need to practice. Do drills with a coach, or drills at the tennis club with friends.
Drills can be fun – shake them up a bit so they don’t become monotonous – and also, try not to get frustrated. You may find your return of serve is a bit weak initially, and many people struggle with their backhand, but keep at it. Once you’ve got it, you’ve got it!
Always Keep a Tennis Ball With You
This is another great idea by the way. If you love tennis, keep a ball handy. You can practice keeping your eye in by throwing it in the air and catching it, bouncing it on the ground and catching it, and as above, throwing it against a wall.
You don’t always have to have a racket with you, even for the imaginary shots.