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Coaching Tips - Return of Serve

What to do in Diagon Alley!

How can I improve my return of a wide serve?

The important thing here is to avoid just moving sideways to chase the serve. Instead, move forwards and sideways into the court at a 45-degree angle to cut off the ball.

Avoid taking the racket back too far. Aim your return deep back along the same line, but if you find you're rushed into playing the shot, go down the line straight in front of you.

If you want a simple phrase to help you remember to move diagonally instead of laterally, think of Harry Potter! In J.K Rowling's novel, Harry got kitted out for Hogwarts in Diagon Alley. The next time your opponent's serve takes you into the alley, just remember Diagon Alley (diagonally)!

Another bit of wizardry you could exercise involves making a move out wide in anticipation of the wide serve just as your opponent releases the ball ready to serve. If you time it right, he won't see you do it!

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Getting blown away? Lean into the wind!

How do you return a really big serve?

You've got two choices really. You can either move well back behind the baseline to buy yourself more time, or you can stand in and opt for a simple block return.

The problem with standing further back is it allows the server the option of slicing the serve out wide, taking you out of the court.

The block return is a good choice if you can cope with little or no grip change between forehand and backhand. You obviously don't have time to take a big swing at the ball and your first objective is to use the server's pace and send the ball back along the same line. The technique is broadly similar to that of the volley. Hold the racket well out in front of you. As the server tosses the ball, take a small two-footed hop forwards. A short, compact backswing is all that's required - just turning your shoulders will do it! Keep a solid wrist and meet the ball with an abbreviated swing in front of your body, transferring your weight forwards - just as if you're leaning into a strong wind!

If your reactions are reasonably good and you can manage without big grip-changes, try the block return to turn your opponent's pace against him.

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Improve your return by turning your friend's serve into a rocket!

How can I improve my reaction time on returns of serve?

Volley-to-volley drills are good for improving reaction times generally, but here's a good practice for you:

Practise returning a friend's serve, but simulate a much faster serve by getting him to serve from the service line instead of the baseline. He'll need to place the ball in front of him and use a lot of wrist snap to avoid hitting the ball long, but he should get the knack after a few attempts. As for you - you may need to adopt a neutral grip (halfway between your forehand and backhand grips), you may have to adjust your waiting position and you may have to use an abbreviated swing. Don't play the point out. Return half a dozen from the deuce court, then half a dozen from the ad court, then the two of you can change roles. After a while, you can make it competitive by counting how many of the 12 returns land in court and your friend can try and beat your score.

The abbreviated swing is achieved by placing your elbows close in to the side of your hips instead of out in front of you. That way you'll shorten the radius of your backswing, making it faster.

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Different strokes for different folks!

What grip should I use for my returns?

Most people accept that the serve is the most important shot in tennis. The logic behind that assertion demands that the second most important shot must be the return of serve.

It's almost certainly the least practised aspect of the game! Some players find the only opportunity they have to practise their returns is during a match! In any event, whether you practise them or not, you always have to do some tweaking during the first few games of a match while you learn the pace, spin and placements of your opponent's serves.

One aspect of this tweaking is your court position. Another aspect is the type and length of your stroke. And another is the grip. I know that sounds like you make it up as you go along. Well, yes, in some respects that's exactly what you do. As far as the grip is concerned, you need to settle on a "default" grip for the match. This default grip is the one you use before you see where the serve is actually going. It's your best guess as determined by your observations of what's been coming at you so far.

Some players never vary their default grip. Well, that's okay. It's one less complication, I guess. So what are the options? Well, some players favour their stronger groundstroke wing (e.g. a player with a big forehand will wait with a forehand grip) and others have more success favouring their weaker wing. These players are forced to make a fairly big grip-change when the serve is directed to the "wrong" wing and they're in trouble if they haven't got time to change! Consequently, many players favour an "imbetween" or "central" grip (often referred to as the continental grip). These players support the racket lightly with the non-dominant hand and, if they have time, they use this non-dominant hand to effect a relatively small grip-change once they pick up the direction of the serve. If they don't have time for a change, they firm up the wrist and block the ball back with a short swing. Because it's possible to use this grip to block serves back without any grip-change (very similar to volleying technique), that's exactly what some players settle for. It's obviously very efficient, but you have to weigh that benefit against the limitations and predictability that arise from what is essentially a compromise on every return.

Personally, I prefer to go for either a full forehand grip or a full backhand grip as my default, so I don't have to change my grip every time. I'm also prepared to change my default, depending on circumstances. I just don't see the point of sticking with my preferred forehand grip if most of the serves are going to my backhand.

As a coach, it would be nice to be prescriptive about all this, but it simply isn't possible. I guess it's just different strokes for different folks. Whatever you decide to use as your default grip, you may have to change it if the direction of the serve is not what you expected, so avoid holding the racket too tightly. A loose grip is essential for that crucial grip-change (if it's required).

Although it's not possible to tell you which grip you should use, that doesn't mean it's not important! In fact, it's crucial. A minor adjustment in the angle of your racket face can make a major difference. You should sacrifice your backswing rather than attempt to return serve with an inappropriate grip. I'd say shortening your backswing on your service returns is a good idea anyway, especially if you're trading it for a grip adjustment.

Prepare for matches by making yourself aware of the issues, experiment and practise!

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Go ahead, make my day!

How do you return a wide lefty slice serve in the ad court?

When you're returning any kind of wide serve, it's important to cut off the ball by moving into the court forwards and sideways at a 45-degree angle. If the serve has a lot of spin on it, reduce your backswing to give yourself more chance of controlling the racket head on contact.

If your lefty opponent is persistently going out wide in the ad court, take the shot away from him and force him to serve down the middle. You can achieve this by shifting your ready position a couple of steps out wider to your left, so he can see you're ready and waiting for it. If he does serve down the middle, at least the ball will swing towards you as you move to it.

You don't have to stand and watch ace after ace swerve away from you. Plant yourself right in the path and dare him to serve there. Catch his eye with a look that says "Go ahead, make my day!"

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Twistin' time is here!

How do you deal with an American twist serve?

There is a type of kick serve - commonly known as an American twist serve - which can confound the receiver by having two contradictory flights. The combination of sidespin with topspin causes the ball to curve one way through the air and then twist the other way after the bounce. It can catch you totally unawares if you've not encountered it before and you may find yourself dancing the twist in an attempt to follow the ball!

Here's the good news: the server can't sneak this one on you. It's so obvious what's coming. He might as well start doing a Chubby Checker impression and sing "Come on baby, let's do the twist"! He places the ball well over his head, arches his back, bends his knees ready for an exaggerated brush of the racket face up and across the back of the ball. It's a really exceptional player who can disguise the American twist!

Forewarned is forearmed.

As with most returns of serve, emulate Andre Agassi by combining the shoulder turn and backswing into one compact movement. It's usually advisable to take kick serves on the rise. Step in to meet the ball between waist and shoulder height with a smooth, short stroke, using a little bit of slice for control.

The Twist is supposed to be a really easy dance to learn. Returning the American twist can be just as easy once you know it's coming. The server's preparation gives the game away. When you see the ball toss over the head and the arched back and the deep knee-bend, you know the ball is going to break to your left after it bounces (assuming the server is right-handed). Twistin' time is here!

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Roger, wilco, copy that, over and out!

How can you become a good returner?

You're locked in deadly combat with an enemy who's firing missiles at you, so what do you need? You need a state-of-the-art Service Defence System (SDS)! The key components are as follows:

Surveillance and reconnaissance

Many servers use patterns, e.g. at the body on the first point, out wide to the backhand on break points, etc. If you can work out the patterns, you'll be able to anticipate your opponent and ambush him.


Use your long-range radar to determine the likely spin and line of attack. Servers often toss the ball more to the side for a wide slice, more overhead for a topspin. These early clues enable you to lock on to the enemy before he's even launched his attack.


Just before the server strikes the ball, hop forwards so that both feet land together shoulder-width apart, heels slightly off the ground. This split-step enables you to move quickly in any direction.

Deployment of missile shield:

Repel a big serve by using virtually no backswing and blocking the ball back into play with a short, compact swing. Don't try to change the direction of the ball too much.


If your opponent's second serve is attackable (and most are), move in and be more aggressive - maybe hit the ball harder or deeper or apply more spin, or chip and charge and get to the net. Play to your strengths, e.g. maybe you could run around and hit your big forehand.

Armed with SDS components, you'll have countermeasures at your disposal to deter the threat posed by any server.

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© 2001-6 Dave Winship

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