You becoming a smarter returner = You winning more matches. It’s simple maths, really.
The serve return is the single most error prone shot in tennis. It’s also a very under-practiced stroke – particularly at the beginner & intermediate level. If you can learn to improve your return of serve, you will break serve more often and win more matches. 4 Steps to Greatness. Let’s Go.
Assume a basic athletic position with a stance wider than shoulder width. Try to stand in a spot where you think you can take the ball between hip and shoulder height (dependent on the server). The grip you hold will be completely dependent on you and what shots you hit, but the simplest is to have your bottom hand on eastern (#3) and your top hand either on the throat of the racquet or on the handle with eastern grip (#3).
The split step is a fundamental part of tennis. This is amplified on the return of serve because of the increased speed at which a serve is hit compared to other shots. And yet it is a common mistake, particularly when players are fatigued, to neglect the split step when returning serves. Try to have a simple routine on serve. Stepping forward as the backswing of the serve is initiated, followed by splitting (jumping up off the ground) just prior to the ball contacting the strings of the serve is a great start. This will allow you to be in the air when the server contacts the ball with their strings. As the ball leaves the strings of the serve, you will be landing on the ground and will be able to make a quick decision as to where in the service box the serve is headed. This is when you…
If you stepped on the court with me and we started hitting groundstrokes, but just prior I told you “Hey, I’m going to hit every ball into the service box on the deuce side”. Would you back yourself to get that shot back? Absolutely you would! And that is exactly what the returner knows each time they step up to return a serve. Once you’ve made a decision on where the ball is landing, initiate the turn for a forehand or backhand return. Try your best to turn side on to the oncoming ball and begin your racquet take-back. Your hitting hand should not raise above the head. Your backswing MUST be completed by the time the ball bounces on your side of the court.
Minimise your backswing – maximise your consistency! Good players tend to abbreviate their backswings to get the ball back into play. Most players do not serve volley these days, which means you can safely bunt returns back and work to gain control of the point. Give yourself more margin for error by hitting most of your returns crosscourt or deep down the middle (A favoured tactic of the best returner of all time – Novak Djokovic). You should be able to reach any serve with 1-2 steps after splitting and contacting the ball whilst you’re in the air or in the process of stepping to the ball is a great way to reach tougher serves. Try to contact the ball in front and to the side of your body with a semi-open or open stance.
The step after contact can be a landing step if you have lunged in the air at the ball, or it can be a movement forward to step into the court for a weaker serve. The follow through should be a natural extension of the swing and is stroke dependant. Try to take only 1 landing step, and then get ready to hustle and recover to the middle of the court as quickly as possible to negate the impact of the serve.
Split. Turn. Hit. Step.
Check out Novak Djokovic doing the exact same principles below.
Source: TA Technical Fundamentals