A good return of serve makes for a great day on the tennis court.
1. A good return of serve starts with court position. For club players, the best spot is behind the baseline, to give yourself time to hit the return, and toward the alley in both the deuce and ad courts. Why cover the alley? On the deuce court, that’s the easiest place for a right-handed player to serve—especially at the intermediate level, since players often slice the ball and don’t pronate well enough to hit a flat serve down the T. This position prevents you from being stretched out wide after your return. If you cover wide and your opponent goes down the middle, you’ll at least be moving toward the center of the court and have an easier time blocking your return back over the center of the net.
2. Shorten up your swing. A long swing makes for an inaccurate and inconsistent service return. If your opponent puts even a little pace on the serve, all you need to hit a solid return is a shoulder turn, a short backswing, and a smooth, uninterrupted swing. Long swings are more difficult to time, and they also prevent players from putting their weight into the shot. If your weight is moving forward, you won’t need much of a swing at all to hit a crisp return.
3. The split step is crucial for a great return. The split step itself is easy; timing it is the difficult part. Many players split too soon, so they lose all their energy and get stuck on the court once the ball arrives. If you split too late, you won’t have time to get to the ball. Follow your opponent’s toss to time your split. When the ball reaches the hitting zone—at its peak, or more likely, just after it begins to fall—it’s time to get ready.
4. Scout your opponents well. What kind of serve do they have? Does he or she have a good kick serve? For a kicker, stand farther back unless your opponent also serves and volleys— in that case, you’ll want to take more serves on the rise to give your opponent less time to reach the net. Does your opponent have a favorite serve or a favorite spot? Does he or she take something off of the serve at crucial moments? At the pro level, players know what to expect and they position themselves accordingly. Pay close attention to your opponents’ habits and you’ll be able to do the same.
5. Take smart risks. The crosscourt return is the safest return: The ball travels over the lowest part of the net and you have a larger target. If you’re up against a strong server, return every ball crosscourt until you develop a rhythm. Then, mix things up. It’s OK to guess about your opponent’s placement so you can hit your favorite stroke. Just don’t go for broke out of frustration, or you’re in for a long day.
Nick Bollettieri has trained many collegiate and professional players, including 10 who reached the world No. 1 ranking.
Originally published in the May 2011 issue of TENNIS.