If you ever look at the stats of a professional tennis match, it is often the case that a player is lucky to win 50% of their second serve points.   This is because the returner realizes this is the shortest ball they will most likely see in a rally so they take advantage of this by placing the ball with depth and power to their opponents’ weaker side.  This allows for a high probability that the returner will be in position to win the point.  Let’s look at this a bit more closely.

Finding the Right Balance

At the recreational level we tend to be on the extreme ends of the spectrum for returning.  We either swing to end the point, causing a lot of missed returns or we are pushing the ball back giving the advantage back to the opponent.  Both give the serve confidence by not putting any pressure on them.  When they know you will most likely give them a soft reply on the return or better yet, a free point, they will most likely be serving well against you.  So how can this be fixed?

A simple Comparison

One thing I enjoy about tennis is the efficiency of practicing the sport.  I miss a ball I can immediately feed another ball from my pocket and continue with the practice.  The amount of repetitions that can be done in an hour is incredible.  The problem comes to practicing the shots that take longer between hits.  An example of this is the return of serve.  How many return of serves do you practice in a given session?  My guess is that the number is probably 10 times less (if you’re really doing a lot of returns) than your groundstrokes or volleys.  No wonder the return is something we struggle with!  Simply start making this shot a priority in you practices.  Sometimes it is hard to get someone to want to do this.  Try to make it competitive by giving points to the server for a missed return while the returner gets a point for a return past the service line.  This will put a bit more stress on the server and returner, which will increase the chances that you will have a deliberate practice.

Practical Tips on the Return

From my experience, there seems to be some common mistakes done on the return of serve.  The first one is the preparation before the ball is served at you.  I should be able to look at your body language and tell when the server has thrown the ball up (You should be taking a step forward) and when he or she makes contact with the ball (You should be split stepping).  This “sense of urgency” in your return will make for a faster reaction to the serve.  If you are having trouble with kick serves, try to keep your feet moving after the serve is hit, allowing you to move towards the ball a bit more.  Another thing to focus on is to use Andre Agassi’s advsice on the return by taking a small backswing.  To visualize this, you should be able to see your racquet in the corner of your eye on the take back.  Agassi describes this by saying when you turn with your racquet, your belly button should be pointing to the butt of the racquet.  Another piece of advice I would a player on the return of serve is their grip.  Try to have soft hands to allow speed of the ball to be absorbed by the racquet.  The harder the grip, the more the ball will fly off your racquet, making it harder to control.  I would also suggest is to make sure you are looking for patterns in your opponents’ serve.  Are they continually serving in the same spot?  I had a match where my opponent was constantly hitting strong serves but all down the center strap (which is a good idea if you do not have a lot of height on your serve).  Down 2-5, I made it obvious to my opponent that I knew this by moving towards the middle on the return, daring him to serve somewhere else to beat me.  He took the bait and I ended up hitting strong returns to break him and go on to win the set and the match.  Check out the video below.  If you watch carefully of Agassi returning, he splits towards the center of the court, which is where most servers go.  It will allow you to get to more balls and you can see from the video it also allows you to cover the out wide serve.

Back to Your Opponent Double Faulting

Now that you have practiced the important aspects of the return of serve, you are now able to apply pressure on your opponents’ second serve.  If you can do this, your opponent will likely do a few things to counter it.  First, they may try to take something off of their first serve to avoid hitting second serves.  Be observant of this.  We tend to think we have to be defensive on the first serve and aggressive on the second.  If the first serve is weak, apply the same pressure you would on a second serve.  Another option your opponent will do is to press on their return of serve, meaning they will go for more than they usually do.   When this happens they more than likely will double fault at a higher rate than they normally do.  As long as you keep the pressure on them, you should see some success with keeping your opponent from serving very well.