The battle between the server and the returner begins long before the serve is ever
hit. As the players take their positions, both players begin their rituals and plan their strategy.
The server establishes his starting stance, usually bounces the ball several times, then takes one
last look at the returner before sending the toss into the air.
Meanwhile, the returner readies himself with his own set of rituals--ready steps,
swaying back and forth, or possibly taking steps forward and then backwards like the great Andre
But I'm here to tell you, you need a lot more than rituals to develop a successful
return game. We've looked at the right mental attitude. (Click Here.) We've looked at the
fundamentals of technique. (Click Here.) Now let's look at the third part of developing a great
return game: your return plan.
The fact is that you need a solid plan for your return before the start of each
point. You need to know in advance what you intend to do on the return. This will eliminate
split second decision-making, take some of the pressure off, and help you execute more
You can never be certain whether the serve will be to your forehand or backhand
side. The best you can do is anticipate and sometimes influence the server's action. But you
do have the opportunity before every point to decide exactly what you are going to do.
Great returners have many factors to consider as part of their pre-point routine.
Will I block, chip or drive the return? Is it a first or a second serve? Do I anticipate the
serve and volley? What direction will I hit? Will I stay back or attack? Will I try to
influence or pressure the serve selection? It may seem unrealistic to have this type of
long mental checklist before every return, but with experience the right questions will
begin to flow through your mind instinctively.
Here's one example of how the check list can work in the mind of an experienced
player. "My opponent has been attacking the "T" with accurate placements and coming in nearly
every first serve, so I better expect that to happen. The serve will likely be hard and flat
so I'm prepared to chip the return down to his feet, straight back down the middle. This
will force him to volley up and then give me the opportunity to pass him on
the next ball."
That's one example. But let's take a closer look at all of the factors so you
can start to see how they call come into play in planning your return strategy.
Will I block, chip or drive the return? When the serve has overwhelming power,
block and chip returns are the most effective tools for your counter attack. Hitting flatter
drive returns on the rise requires great timing. Top spin drives take longer to execute but
can be very effective in the right circumstances. You should decide what type of return you
want to hit in advance of the serve. This is largely determined by factors
we'll look at now.
Is it a first or second serve? That sounds like an obvious question, but
too many players don't really consider it and miss the same returns in the same way.
In a first serve situation, typically, you'll see a lot of hard flat first
serves. Most players look to block and chip against first serves rather than trying to
drive the return. In these cases you must prepare mentally by thinking defense. You
must adjust your return swings to become more like volleys than ground strokes, as we
explained in the technique article (Click Here.). Yes Andre Agassi often steps in
and absolutely cleans these serves on the rise. That's an advanced strategy and
there is one way to know if it is effective for you. Can you execute
In second serve situations, the pressure shifts from the returner to the
server. Now the server has to make sure to get the ball in play. This allows you to
become more aggressive with court position and shot selection.
When we talk about the return of the second serve, we have to have an
objective in mind. As the returner, you can expect to see mostly spin serves that
target your weaker return side. Take care not to give the point away by trying to
do too much. You have to maintain your discipline to not over hit and make errors
against weaker second balls.
But if the ball is sitting there and it's a defensive serve, I want
you to challenge the ball. In this situation, trying to take the ball earlier
makes more sense.
Another option is to attack the net off the return. Change your
position; move forward; chip and charge. Or get around the ball the way so many
top players now do and hit that inside-out forehand. This part comes back to
attitude. When you get the chance I want you to send a message
to the server.
Do I anticipate the serve and volley tactic? Especially on fast court
surfaces, you'll find players like Max Mirnyi will often attack the net behind both
the first and second serve.
Some players will serve and volley in streaks, usually until they lose
a few points and the courage to attack. Other players will only serve and volley on
key points when they want to apply pressure on the returner. There are also many
players who will never serve and volley regardless of the circumstances. Which category
applies to your opponent? If you know the server is likely to attack, then you won't
be rattled when you see it.
When you can sense the serve and volley is coming, you should plan a two
shot strategy. This means you use the return to set up the passing shot. Don't think
you have to execute the pass on the return. Take it when it comes to you, but don't
force it. In many situations, the return can be part of a two ball or even a three
ball combination. Get the ball low at the server's feet. You may be surprised how
many times this is enough to draw a volley error. It may not seem glamorous compared
to a 90mph return hit on the rise, but it is can be just as effective and is a much
higher percentage play.
If the volleyer plays the ball off the low return, he must hit the ball up
to get it over the net. This is likely to give you a far less difficult ball to hit for
the pass. If you feel pressure from the first volley consider playing another low ball
or a short wide ball and see if the next volley gives you the ball you want.
What direction will I hit? Whether the serve is to your forehand or backhand
side, know what direction you intend to hit the ball and stick to that decision. Against to
serve a volleyer, going down to the feet is your the primary target, hitting either down the line or the cross court angle.
Playing baseliners, the direction of your return should be designed to set up
your preferred cross court rally pattern. If you attack the net, then you will tend to hit
more returns down the line, although in the ad court you can sometime hit the inside out
approach if the ball is near the middle of the service box.
Will I stay back or attack off the return? Against big servers, you'll find
few opportunities to attack net in first serve situations. But on the easier spin second serves,
the chip and charge tactic is very effective at applying pressure to the server.
If you want to be successful with the return and volley tactic, you need to know
before the serve is in play that you intend to attack. If you wait to see the quality of your
return before making your move, you'll often get caught out of position to play the
The returner has the ability to apply pressure and influence the server's thought
process by becoming more proactive with court position, movement and actions on the return.
This can have a real impact on the server's confidence and overall mental game.
One obvious example on the second serve is when the returner moves forward to a
starting position inside the baseline. When the server sees this, he may respond in a way that
is to your advantage. The server may over hit and try to power through the returner. Or he
may become more tentative. Either way, the returner is affecting the thinking of the server
and can sometimes illicit a double fault or a weaker return.
This is just one example of the ways the returner can influence the server. A
second is starting position from left to right. Typically your normal starting position for the
return will be halfway between the most extreme serve placements either wide or down the T.
We call this position "neutral" because you favor no one particular side and leave no major
openings to attack. But as the match progresses and you begin to see the server neglecting
specific serve targets, you should adjust your court position to facilitate attack.
If the server is constantly working the backhand side, then shift over a step or
two towards the backhand side. This will improve your wide reach for the backhand attack. It
may give you the chance to get around more balls on second serve. You are also challenging
the server to go for the target you leave open on the forehand side. This again can affect
him mentally and result in missed serves as he struggles to force the ball into
When you're up against a server with the capability of hitting all the serve
targets and effectively disguising these placements, sometimes you just have to become more
patient to get an edge. I often talked to Andre Agassi about this. I'd tell him, don't
worry about that big serve. You may miss a few returns. But don't show the server that
you're emotionally upset. Make up your mind: "I'm going to get the next one." Eventually,
if you have that attitude, you'll connect on a few and that's all you need.
The bait and switch tactic involves using your court position to create openings
for the server, then taking the opening away before the server makes contact.
As the server steps up to the baseline, he'll usually look down to watch the bounce
of the ball. Then he'll look up to check the returner's position. The server will expect to see
you in your normal starting position. If you change this position, a red flag goes up, and the
server sees a possible opening to attack.
If you adjust your starting position to the left, for example, you are baiting him
to serve to your right side. When you change your starting position by moving in much closer to
the service line, you challenge the server to overpower you. And when you move much further back
from your normal neutral position, you challenge the server to go for the extreme
Once the server sees you have changed position, you have baited the trap. There
is a good chance the server will try to exploit this opening and/or teach you a lesson. That's
where the switch comes in. The moment the server's eyes look up again to watch the toss, you
can move back to your normal neutral position, with a good idea of where the serve is going.
You're now in your normal return position no matter where the serve is placed. Used sparingly,
the bait and switch will work effectively, so try it when you need it the most.
A similar point applies if you are looking to run around your backhand and hit an
inside forehand return, wait until the server's eyes look up with the toss before you make your
move. Once the server's looking up, they are more focused on executing the serve and are unable
to see you make your move.
Your court position depth can also be used as one of the most effective tools to
break down the serve and volley attack. If you always return from the same depth in the court,
the serve and volleyer can more easily establish his movement pattern and timing for the split
step and first volley. If you vary the depth of your position on the return by moving forward
or back a step or two, that will often be enough to disrupt the server's attack. Rather than
thinking you should be altering your strokes, change your position instead and you may find
your opponent constantly searching for timing and rhythm.
Here is a final aspect to the return game that applies at the club level, Many
club players use a serving strategy we call "Blast and Push." They lack the correct grips and
motions to serve effectively with spin. So they blast away at the first serve hitting it as
hard and flat as possible, usually with a forehand grip. When it doesn't go in--and it usually
doesn't--then they push the second serve into play, again hitting little or no spin.
Since this strategy results in such a low first serve percentage, most of the
points begin with a second serve. But occasionally these players will get a first serve in that
will be difficult to deal with. In those cases the strategy should be just to neturalize the
first serve by chipping or just blocking the ball. The second serve can actually be difficult
to deal with because the change in speed is so great compared to the first ball. This is where
an inexperienced player can donate a lot of points trying to hit big returns
agains "easy" serves.
Remember that generating your own pace on the return is actually more difficult
than taking it from the serve. You must establish a rhythm and often this means hitting the serve
back at something close to the pace at which it came to you in order to make the server play.
As your rhythm solidifies and your confidence increases, now you can start to hit some approaches
off the returns, or increase the pace. But don't turn the push second serve into a weapon for
the server by making unforced errors because you think you should be able to blast
the ball yourself.
So there we have it. We've covered the technique, but we've covered the equally
important mental and strategic aspects of the return. One thing is for sure, if you can't break
serve, it's very difficult to win matches. Too many players never consider how the returns differ
from the groundstrokes or work systematically on developing them. Follow my advice in this
article and the two other return on Tennisplayer (Click Here) and you'll have a huge advantage
over most of your opponents.
Nick Bollettieri is the legendary coach who invented the concept of the tennis academy
more than 30 years ago. He has trained thousands of elite players, including some of the greatest
champions in the history of the game, players like Andre Agassi, Tommy Haas, Jim Courier, Monica Seles,
and Boris Becker, as well as upcoming stars including Maria Sharapova. IMG Bollettieri Academies are located in Bradenton, Florida.
Learn more about Right Back Atcha Returns, and the other great
videos from Nick in this series.
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