No matter how good we get, we’re always looking out for ways to improve our game. Like in all sports, there’s no such thing as perfection and there’s always something you can do to take that next step forward. Rafael Nadal is 32-years-old, has won 17 Grand Slams and was still able to make important changes to his game in order to make this year’s Australian Open final. The Spaniard realized he needed to be more aggressive on his first and second shot in order to keep points shorter. These changes resulted in Nadal annihilating the competition all the way up to the final.
If someone as good as Rafael Nadal can make such big improvements to his game, then us mere mortals certainly have space to grow our games. We often convince ourselves that huge technical changes are needed to make big improvements but as Nadal showed, sometimes, all it takes is a change in thinking.
I think lots of tennis players (including myself) have an obsession with their serve. This is normal, after all, it’s one of the most effective shots and holding onto serve is one of the most important parts of the game. The problem is, you’re only ever going to spend half of your time serving. The other half, you’re returning, and given that the serve is generally the most effective shot, that would mean the return is one of the most difficult shots.
Unfortunately, not a lot of time gets spent practicing the return. You may think it’s just another groundstroke, but in reality, it’s a completely different shot. The ball comes from a different angle, at a different speed, with different spins to different parts of the court, so really, it’s completely different and needs to be practiced in isolation.
After taking quite a long break from playing tennis, I came back to find that my return had gone all wrong. I was always quite a good returner, but suddenly I couldn’t figure out the footwork, timing or angles to hit my return how I wanted. I decided it was time for a refresher and I turned to a great source for any kind of online learning, Top Tennis Training.
The three tips they gave for hitting the perfect return weren’t anything I didn’t know already, but I realized when I got back onto court that they were all things I hadn’t been focusing on enough. We’re constantly learning new things on court, so it’s no surprise that certain things slip out your memory as you go. Luckily, there’s always the option of a refresher and the guys from Top Tennis Training are always a useful source if you encounter a few problems.
Your return starts long before your opponent hits the ball. First of all, you must be mentally prepared. If you’re not in the right frame of mind, then there’s no point starting the point. If you’re dwelling on the last point or the last game, then this will almost certainly affect your return. This is an unbelievably hard skill to master, but it is something you have complete control over! The first step to improving your return is ensuring you’re mentally ready to make the return.
Once you’re happy you’re in the right frame of mind to start the point, it’s important you adopt an athletic waiting position. As we said, the return is one of the most difficult shots you’re going to hit, so we’ve got to look like we’re about to embark on an athletic challenge.
Everyone’s going to have a slightly different position that suits them, but it will have a wide, solid base with slightly bent knees. You want to feel strong in this position, able to pick up the line of the serve and most importantly, ready to pounce. From this position, you’re going to move into the split step, a key element of any shot, but one that is vitally important on the return.
There are two options for the split step; a split step on the spot, or a step into the court then a split step. You will see pros using both of these techniques, and really it is a preference thing. The keys to the split step though are twofold, first of all, you need to do it! The ball is coming at you so fast when returning serve you need to be able to move explosively. The split step allows you to explode in either direction with power and speed. Mastering this technique will give you much better court coverage and improve your return no end.
The second key to the split step is timing. When the ball is coming at you at 130mph you don’t have much room for error. Simply put, if you hit the ball too early, you will miss, hit the ball too late, and you will miss. You need to make sure you are split stepping consistently at the right time to allow you to time the ball well.
As the video suggests, the best time to split step is right when your opponent is hitting the ball. This gives you an easy reference point for when to split and gives you enough time to hit the shot. Split stepping when your opponent hits the ball might seem like fairly common knowledge. It’s something I’ve always known, but after refreshing my memory, I was amazed to see how inconsistent my split step was.
Here’s another small detail that’s an easy change but can make a big difference to your return.
If you struggle with your backhand return, it might be tempting to start off with a backhand grip. Your opponent is most likely going to serve to your backhand side after all. The problem is, the damage this does to your forehand return will likely far outweigh the benefits to your backhand return.
The reason for this is it is much easier to change from the forehand to the backhand grip than it is from the backhand to the forehand. You may think this is a tiny difference, but when you’re returning serve, small margins make a massive difference. When you’re changing from the forehand grip to the backhand grip, you have the benefit of the second hand on the racket to help guide it into the right place. With the other way round, particularly when you’re reaching for the ball, you don’t have this luxury.
When you watch pros on tour, you will virtually never see a player starting off with a backhand grip for the return. This is such a small thing, but it makes that bigger difference.
You might do all of these things pretty well or you may not do them at all. The great thing is, you are completely in control of these techniques and they can all make a big difference. It’s not like your coach telling you that you need to pronate on your serve, where you might be thinking: a) what is pronation and b) how on Earth do I do that and still hit the ball in the court. They’re small things that can add up to a big amount.
The ball is coming to you much faster when you return than it is on most other shots, so it is important to keep your swing short. What’s more, you are looking to move forward to meet it, which gives you even less time. Everyone likes to take big cuts at the ball, but this is just not possible on the return. Instead, you should aim to keep the swings as compact as possible and out in front of you at all points.
As they suggest in the Top Tennis Training video, the best way to approach this is to imagine you have a wall behind you that your racket cannot pass. As soon as the racket disappears behind your body, the chances of you timing the ball well go down sharply.
Swing from the Shoulders
One of the main causes of the swing being too big on the return is relying on the arm to swing the racket. Instead, it’s best to use your shoulders to turn the body and guide the racket. By limiting the use of your arm in the swing, you can keep the racket out in front of you at all times, and crucially, keep the contact nicely out in front of you.
If you’re having trouble with this technique just practice a few against the back fence. If you’re turning too much or using too much arm, then you will hit your racket against the fence. It’s often hard to feel if you’re doing things correctly when you’re playing at full speed, so it’s nice to be able to do this and get some immediate feedback.
You’re obviously going to naturally swing through with the arm, but the main power is going to come from the shoulders. It’s also important to remember that this technique works equally well for 1st serves as it does 2nd serves.
Step into the Second Serve
You might think that you have more time on the second serve so you can revert to taking full cuts at the ball. The answer is of course, this might be a possibility if your opponent doesn’t have a big second serve, but there can be more effective ways of attacking the second serve.
By keeping your swing compact, you can really step into the court on the second serve and take time away from your opponent. Taking time away from your opponent can be the best form of attack, and you know that by keeping your contact out in front and timing the ball well you’re going to generate plenty of power. Taking on a second serve by going for a huge stroke can be risky, but if you get this technique down, you can attack the second serve without losing much margin for error.
This step is a little bit more complex than the first one, but with a little bit of time and practice, anyone can master it. Advanced players are obviously going to be aware of this idea, but it can be easy to lose focus on it. Keep evaluating your swing and make sure you’re maximizing your return with a compact swing.
Have the Right Intentions
The return of serve is such a difficult shot that in most cases you won’t have much choice about what you do with the ball. If someone places their serve well, with a little bit of pace on it then all you can really hope to do is get the ball back. It is important to understand what your goals are on the return in order to get the best results.
Get the First Serve Back
In the majority of cases, your aim is simply going to be to get the first serve back into play. Of course, you’re going to be facing some servers who are stronger than others, so you adjust your goals accordingly, but the overwhelming goal of returning the first serve is to get it back into play.
I’m extremely guilty of this sometimes. I’ve picked where the serve is going, I’m nicely in position and I want to make a statement with a huge return. It almost never goes to plan and all I’ve done is give my opponent a free point. This is just a huge waste. I’m in the best position to make the return, so why not do just that? Put my opponent under pressure by making him play.
You must remember what your goal is when returning the first serve and that is to make your opponent play. Your opponent may end up hitting a winner off the next ball, but at least you made him hit that winner. Block it back if you have to, chip it back if you have to, but your number one aim is to get that serve back.
See the Second Serve as an Opportunity
For all the ferocity of the first serve, you come across a lot of players whose second serves aren’t that strong. This is a great opportunity to take control of the point by taking time away from your opponent. By keeping your swings compact, you can step into the court and take the ball early whilst maintaining your timing. This can ensure you not only have a foothold in the rally but are on the front foot. Your second serve return might be the best chance you have to take the upper hand in the rally, so use these techniques to really take advantage.
Of course, it’s great to attack the second serve, but also be mindful that you’re not giving away many free points. You know what a bonus it is when you get a free point off your own second serve, so don’t give your opponent that satisfaction; take this opportunity to attack but make sure you’re not taking too many risks.
The return is a shot that can often get overlooked in tennis. Holding your serve is important, but you’ve still got to break at some point. We put so much effort into thinking about our serves, and we should really dedicate the same energy to making sure our returns are in perfect working order.
These three steps are easy to implement, and they can have a massive effect on your return. You might well know all of them already, but it’s worth refocusing on these areas to make sure you are doing them as well as you can.
I figured I did all these things pretty well, but when it came to it, it turned out I wasn’t. When I came up against different servers, I found my split step was out of sync, and far too often I was trying to do too much with the first serve.
By refocusing on these small details, I made a big difference to my performance in a short space of time and I’m certain everyone can do the same. They don’t take much technical change, just a change in focus, and everyone is capable of that.
Check out the Top Tennis Training video on YouTube for a closer look at the return and much more!
Article by: Will