This article featured in the December issue of Australian Tennis Magazine. Subscribe
The most important consideration when returning serve is to get the ball back into play! No matter how good the serve is, a good returner will get their racquet on the ball and find a way to play one more shot.
A talented player will be able to block or chip the ball, and make something happen. You’ve got to be able to control the ball and keep it low and away from your opponent at the net. In modern doubles it’s harder to do because the serving is bigger, it comes back at a high speed and you don’t have much time to respond.
A key to good returning is the position you take in the court: that can vary depending on the person who is serving to you, but the body weight must be coming forward. Andy Murray is a good example of a good returner who gets a lot of balls back. He starts very deep in the court, split steps, moves his way in and often takes the ball a metre or so inside of where he started. That way, he cuts the angle off and – with his body weight moving forward – he can absorb the serve. On every surface, he’s always got himself in the point.
On the first few points of a game, Mark Woodforde and I would try to hit a winner down the line on a second serve. This sends a message to your opponent at the net – “don’t go cheating because I’ve got that line covered”.
It’s easier to go for your shots earlier in the set, there’s not as much pressure. If you’ve done that you don’t get to 4-4 or 5-5 knowing you’ve got to try to make the line. It’s hard to change then because you get tight. So there are two key benefits: one, it helps you know that you’ve hit that shot and you are ready to do it at any moment and, two, you have the opponent at the net thinking about what move they should be making and they start to hesitate. It sets you in a positive frame of mind about what you should be doing on return.
Another return that Mark and I tried to use early in a match was the lob. We were probably the best of our era using this shot and not many modern players use it. It can be used at all levels of tennis. In today’s modern game, the guys jump really close to the net, so it’s an effective shot if you can control it. Again, you’ve got to practise. In our warm-up session, Mark and I would hit at least 10 lobs off returns to get the feel, the length, the flight of the ball and the wind on that particular day.
Your majority of returns will go crosscourt. If you are playing serve-volleyers your job as a returner is to get that ball down low to give your partner an opportunity to intercept when it comes back. If you are a first court player, which I was, your job is to win that first point. You can’t win the first point unless you make the first return. That was a key to winning a lot of matches with Wayne Arthurs in Davis Cup. I was consistent, so I gave Wayne a lot of chances. His return wasn’t a strength, but we knew that he was going to make a big one at some point and that builds pressure. Quite often as a returner, you might put the more dynamic returner on the backhand court.
You shouldn’t be of the mindset that you have to hit clean winners off returns. It’s unrealistic and it’s low percentage. But there are other moments when you need to build pressure, for example I wanted to hit forehands if I could off a second serve. You will stand right over and say to the server, “Okay, go for an ace if you want to because I’m going to drill my forehand down hard at you”. You start to dictate what the serve is going to be and build pressure to get faults, to get second serves, to get double faults.
Keep communicating. I would often tell my partner, “If I get the right serve here I am going up the line.” My partner would stand closer to the T looking for anything that might come back through the middle. A key for your partner is to be able to take advantage of your return. A lot of people stand on the service line in doubles hoping their partner will hit a good return. You should stand at least a metre inside the service line with the intention of your body weight starting to come forward as the return is made. That helps you naturally flow and intercept the volley.
Too many club players stand too deep inside the service box when their partner is returning. Even if it is a good return they can’t take advantage and if it’s a bad one, they just get hammered anyway. You may as well be proactive in looking for that net shot off a good return.
The second court player faces more of the break points than the first court player. If you get break points, move around a bit on serve, show the server an area of the court they don’t want to serve to. Particularly on second serves, give your self a bit more space to get around and hit your best shot. In singles and in doubles, the people that break serve more often are the ones that are proactively constructing their point on a break point. The ones that don’t break are the ones that go deeper into the court and they get tentative. Good returners have a shot in mind as the ball is coming to them as to what they are going to play. When you take that approach you are far more effective.
A winner of every Grand Slam doubles title at least once, Todd Woodbridge claimed 61 titles with Mark Woodforde and 83 in total. He is now Professional Tennis Manager at Tennis Australia.
- Try passing down the line early in a game.
- Practise the lob – it’s a game changer.
- The stock return is to play low and crosscourt.
- First court returners should aim for consistency.
- Second court returners can take more chances.