What is fundamental to a compact, one-handed backhand return?
Is the key to the one-handed drive return to stand in with a short swing? Or to move back and swing more like a groundstroke?
Move forward before the split? Or back? Or split in place?
Should the first and second serve returns be similar? Or different? Should the contact point be at waist, or chest, or shoulder level? Should the player hit open stance? Or take a lunging cross step?
The answer to all these questions is yes. If we study the returns of Roger Federer, one of greatest one-handed returners of all time, we see he combines all these options in different ways at different times.
However, there are some constants across all his drive returns. This is a basic constellation of elements that one-handed players should understand and develop first in building great returns for themselves.
In the first two articles in this series, we looked first at pro forehand returns, first the classical drives (Click Here) and returns with more extreme grips. (Click Here.)
Now we’ll shift to the backhands. In this first article we’ll look at Federer and his classical one-handed drive returns. Then we’ll move on to the two-handed variations. After that we’ll also explore the slice return—both for players who hit with one and two hands.
A milder return grip compared to the backhand groundstroke.
So what are the basic elements to develop in the one-handed return?
The first is grip. In the ready position, Federer waits to return with an in between grip. He then shifts one way or the other depending on whether the return is a forehand or a backhand.
With this in between grip, his index knuckle appears to be on bevel 2, one down from the top. (For more on the bevels and grip terminology, Click Here.)
His heel pad is probably on the edge between bevels 2 and 3. For the forehand return, as we saw (Click Here), he shifts the hand down to a classic eastern, what we have called a 3 / 3, with both the index knuckle and the heel pad on the third bevel down from the top and aligned behind the racket head.
This is slightly less extreme than his regular forehand grip in which the hand and particularly the index knuckle are shifted slightly further down.
Something similar seems to happen on his backhand drive return. His return grip is a slightly less extreme version of his groundstroke grip.
On his backhand return, he shifts the hand toward the top of the frame, but not quite as far as he shifts on his topspin backhand groundstroke. His regular backhand groundstroke grip is with the index knuckle on top the frame on bevel 1 and most of his heel pad on top as well.
It’s tough to tell exactly in the high speed footage, but on the return, the shift doesn’t appear to be that far. His index knuckle probably makes it to the edge between bevels 1 and 2, and his heel pad is not quite as much on top either.
The stronger groundstroke grip means contact further in front.
The exact hand positions are hard to tell but you can see there is a difference by comparing the contact points. On the groundstroke compared to the return, his contact point is probably about a foot and a half in front of his front foot.
With the slightly weaker grip, this distance is less, maybe a foot. The return contact point is still well in front of the foot, but just not as far in front as the groundstroke.
This return grip allows Roger to hit moderate topspin, but is also ideal to block the ball, sometimes almost completely flat. This is confirmed if we compare spin rates between his backhand and his backhand return.
We know from our previous studies that Roger can average almost as much spin on his backhand ground stroke as on his forehand, around 2200rpm or more on the backhand side compared to 2700rpm on the forehand. Although we have fewer measureable backhand returns, the data we do have shows that his spin rates are significantly lower on the return.
On his first serve returns, the average was about 900rpm, with some returns hit with very short follow-throughs and minimal to virtually no spin. On the other hand, his second serve returns, usually with longer swings, averaged slightly over 2000rpm.
And, interestingly, this is the same pattern—and in fact virtually the same spin rates--we saw on his forehand returns. (Click Here.)
The fundamental return first move, a pivot step and a partial body turn, completed at around the bounce.
After grip the second commonality is the body turn. Federer reacts almost instantaneously to the ball strike on the serve. He splits, and then initiates the return by turning his feet and his torso sideways.
This is true on first serves and second serves, and regardless of his starting court position. Because of the reduced time available for hitting a return, and also the slow ball recognition of so many club players, this critical element is often incomplete or even absent at lower levels.
But it is fundamental to virtually every pro return. And Federer’s simple, immediate, compact turn on the return is also an ideal model for one-handers at any level.
Federer takes a pivot step with the outside or left foot closer to the ball. By pivot step I mean his foot basically stays in place and rotates or pivots sideways--there isn’t usually a significant step in the direction of the hit.
Watch how, as the foot turns on the pivot step, the hips and shoulder turn as well. Typically at the time of the bounce of the ball on the court, they are turned 45 degrees or more to the net.
On the groundstroke, the right leg comes forward and around on the turn.
On the groundstroke you can see this type of pivot step, but there are more variations. Players will also take an out step toward the ball, picking up the foot up off the court and taking a step to the side.
At other times, usually when there is a more distance to cover, they can also begin with a drop step. They do this by pulling the foot back and underneath the body, then pushing off and exploding in the direction of the shot.And on the return you do see these alternatives at times, but the pivot step predominates.
But that isn’t the only important difference. On the return, the other difference in the step pattern is in the positioning of the other foot, the right foot or the foot furthest from the ball. On the backhand drives the right foot comes forward and around, and is well in front of the left foot when the turn is complete. On the return, the right foot stays much more in place.
The right foot turns somewhat, but doesn’t come forward and around on the return. Instead it stays roughly parallel to the left foot. The pivot step isn’t really about starting to move the ball or reaching the ball. It’s about getting the body turn started in the fastest, simplest possible way.
From the positioning of the body after the return turn, it appears that Federer is going to hit the return from an extreme, fully open stance. But that isn’t what actually happens.
Federer completes the turn and reaches the ball with a lunging, diagonal step and a rear leg kick back.
Instead Federer takes a diagonal cross step, similar to what we saw on the forehand.
This is the third important commonality.
We saw on the forehand returns how the players reached the ball with large, diagonal lunge steps after the turn. The same thing happens on most backhand returns. From the extreme open stance position after the pivot step, Federer takes a dramatic, diagonal step to reach the ball.
The step achieves two things. As Federer takes this cross step, his shoulders continue to turn continue, so that they typically reach an angle of 90 degrees or more before the hit. Secondly, it positions him to create the contact point.
It’s important to note that this step is different than the footwork on the closed stance backhands that one handers hit on their groundstrokes . For one thing it is usually a larger step and also, usually more sideways. Sometimes it is directly toward the sideline or even on a slight backwards diagonal.
Second, Federer makes contact in the air, well before his foot ever hits the court. The front foot comes down after the ball is long gone and the swing is well into the followthrough. On the groundstroke players plant the cross step on the court before the hit, and also step more forward, usually at around a 45 degree angle.
One other key component to the return footwork is what happens to the back foot in relation to the cross step. As Federer starts the diagonal step, the back foot kicks back so that the calf or lower leg moves upward until it is parallel to the court or even higher.
A compact backswing, a straight hitting arm, a contact point around waist level.
This kick back is very similar to what happens on the serve. The kick back helps Federer land on balance and also keep his torso beautifully upright during and after the landing.
You also see a variation of the cross step/kick back footwork on balls hit closer to Federer’s body. Rather than stepping across, Federer takes the lunge step more directly forward, exchanging the position of the feet, but still kicking the back leg backwards.
Other Common Elements
There are other critical common elements on Roger’s backhand return. These include his hitting arm position, the position of his contact point, the length of his backswing, and the opposition of the left arm.
As with his one-handed groundstroke, Roger straightens his arm before contact. He also maintains this position well into the followthrough. This is a core position on his groundstroke as well.
The other similarity with the groundstroke is how he opposes the left arm, moving it backwards and sometimes slightly behind him in the opposite direction of the swing. This is a key to keeping the body sideways.
As we saw, the contact point on the return is roughly a foot in front of his front foot. It’s also usually relatively low, at about waist level or only slightly higher. Again this is consistent with his return grip structure.
A compact backswing, a straight hitting arm, a contact point around waist level.
The slightly stronger grip on his backhand drive groundstroke allows him to play the ball higher in backcourt rallies. But on the return he is taking the ball even sooner and almost always on the rise.
Finally, Roger’s backswing is also more compact on the return. The tip of the racket is still angled up. But typically the backswing doesn’t go as far upwards, or backwards. Typically you see his hand go back only to the rear edge of his torso, or sometimes slightly farther.
On his regular groundstroke, the hand can be a half a foot to a foot further back. The tip of the racket also points significantly further behind him, which is related to the closed hitting stance and the greater shoulder turn on the groundstroke.
The compact motion, the early contact and the diagonal forward step combine to create piercing, relatively flat returns that force the server on time. It’s completely consistent with Federer’s groundstroke strategy, which is also to stand in, take the ball early, rush the opponent and attack the open court.
As we saw on the forehand, the diagonal cross step dictates the recovery footwork to a great extent. As with the forehand return, this is different from the groundstrokes on the backhand return.
The ad court recovery with a cross step, versus a shuffle step in the deuce.
On most pro groundstrokes, cross over recovery steps are the norm. But the large diagonal cross steps make the recovery more complex on the returns because the patterns are different in the deuce and the ad courts.
In the ad court, the cross step pulls Roger into the alley or at times even wider, far from the middle of the court. Almost by necessity the recovery step must be a cross over in order to have any chance of regaining a neutral position. And often this is a cross over step behind the front front.
It’s different in the deuce court. In this case the diagonal cross step is toward the middle, carrying Roger back toward a neutral position, something he can establish by taking a simple shuffle step, or sometimes just defaulting into a split step.
In addition to these return fundamentals, we see some important variations. These are in the starting position, the length of the swing, particularly the forward swing, and also the hitting stance.
In general Roger starts with a ready postion fairly or very close to the baseline. On most first serves, he will start no more than 3 or 4 feet back, or sometimes he is tighter.
3 variations of the ready position and the split step footwork.
Usually he will split step in place from that position. But sometimes he will also split step forward, landing the split another foot closer in.
A third even more aggressive variation is to take one step up or forward before launching into the split. This tends to be mainly on second serves. But on second serves you will also see him do the exact opposite—move several feet further back just before the split.
These positional changes are also usually related to swing length. From closer positions, Roger can block the ball with the swing extending only inches beyond contact.
Although he mainly uses the diagonal forward step, when serves are hit closer to his body, Roger will use a more open stance, with the right foot staying on his right side and not crossing his shoulder line. He’ll achieve the same thing with a reverse pivot step when he is really jammed.
But when he moves back he can also take a much longer swing that equals or nearly equals the swing on his one handed groundstroke. Interestingly, in this case he can actually use the backhand closed stance set up with the right foot crossing stepping and planted on the court before contact.
When he moves back, Roger’s return can be almost identical to his groundstroke.
These variations show how flexible and complete Federer’s return game can be, something all players should aspire to. However, in general, the fundamentals we have outlined are more consistent with his game style—trying to neutralize the opponent’s serve and, if possible take away time and take control of the point from the first ball.
So let’s summarize those elements!
A relatively moderate return grip. A relatively tight ready position. An immediate body turn based on the pivot step. A diagonal lunge step to the ball with the rear leg kicking back.
A controlled contact point that is in front of the foot leg and based on taking the ball early and at about waist level. The ability to vary spin and the forward swing from a relatively flat block to a longer followthrough depending on the ball is he actually dealing with.
So that’s it for the one-hander drive returns. Stay tuned for two-handed returns and then we will analyze the slice!
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