Tips for Improving Your Return Shot
By Nicholas Chen
, last updated December 16, 2011
Returning a tennis serve is artistry only players with adequate experience are equipped with. Mastering the technique to return a serve gives the tennis player a competitive edge over the opponent. The player can alter the course of the game by returning the serve and gaining dominance.
In order to return the serve, staying on the right side of the court during the serve of the opponent is crucial. The “right position” is determined by gauging the standing of the opponent. If the opponent is a beginner, it’s advisable to stand inside the court but if he is an expert standing two or three strides from the baseline sideline corner, is the ideal spot. The player must prepare himself for the shot and stand in the ready position; with knees bent and racket in the hand, facing the net. The shot can also be returned by the backhand. Beginners should split step while anticipating the shot so that they are ready to respond once the ball arrives on their side of the court. For advanced players breaking the serve is achieved by returning shots in ways that force the opponent to respond in a less aggressive manner. The opponent can be unsettled by irregular, unexpected shots which reduce the level of his offensive play.
There are two main techniques that are usually employed by players while hitting return shots; stepping forward or moving further behind the base line. The latter technique requires a full swing stroke to achieve a good outcome. The former is the usually preferred method.
Your return shot can bag a point if it takes advantage of the other player’s weak strokes. The second serve is relatively weaker than the first but not always. This is the point where you can gain control of the game. Another technique is the “chip and charge,” which is now becoming outdated in the face of modern stroke styles. The ball is hit while it’s rising after the bounce. This is a powerful shot and gives less time to the opponent to respond. Other return techniques are slice shot and topspin.
If the weaker side of the opponent is targeted there is a greater likelihood that he will lose a point, since attempting to play a forehand ball with the backhand is generally a more difficult shot. Another benefit of this strategy is that it will help exhaust your opponent by requiring him to run around the court more. Keeping this strategy of attrition in mind, one should remember that playing sharp angles will force him to cover a wider distance on the baseline and ultimately drain his energy.
A winning return shot is difficult to achieve during the first serve, which is often more powerful than the following ones will be, but if proper return tactics are employed, it is possible. The most useful thing to remember is that the first serve needs to be neutralized. The force and effectiveness of the first serve can be reduced by paying attention to the rhythm and style of the original shot and coming up with a good offensive shot to counter it. As mentioned earlier altering techniques throws the server off, since predicting the next move of the returner becomes difficult for him. Servers often prefer following a particular “rhythm” and set stroke. In order to break this rhythm the returner should alter the interval in which the ball goes back to the opponent. Delay can be induced by stepping backward while taking the shot and interval can be shortened by stepping forward while striking. Changing the pace is not required for long. Slight alterations can bring about the much needed change in the direction of the play.
According to Steve Martens, six time Belgium federation cup captain, the middle return hit is better due to its flat trajectory but it requires great skill. A first serve return, right in the center of the court makes it difficult for the server to maintain his position. He might feel restricted while striking back. Such a shot also forces the opponent to consider where to hit next and this split second dilemma works against him. A middle return also confuses players during doubles if there are no demarcations of the individual’s domain. Other popular return shots include blocked return and inside-in return. Oftentimes, returning serves is not adequately practiced by players while training. It is an important shot and coaches should pay special attention in devising ways to train players.