Don't tell me you go out on the tennis court just to play and have fun.
You go out there to win! The fun part is going home and saying, "Hey, I won today
against the big server." You have to have the attitude, but you must also know and
feel exactly how to hit the return.
In the first article in this series, we looked at the return mentality.
(Click Here.) Without the right attitude, the rest doesn't matter. But now that we have
established the return mind set, we can address the issue of technique.
There are no huge mysteries in this day and age about how to return.
When you drive returns, your swings should have the look of a more compact version of
your groundstrokes. When you chip and block returns, they take on the look of your
volley. In the pro game today, there is also a third option, which is to move back,
particularly on the second serve, and let it rip with a full swing. (For more on
this see Bobby Bernstein's fine article, Click Here.)
The hard part about the return of serve isn't the theory. The hard part is
the execution. So let's go through and look at how you can make all this happen in your
game, step by step.
There are a lot of possible grip options when waiting for the return. But
my feeling is that players who wait with full backhand grips have greater difficulties
switching quickly enough when the serve comes to the forehand side. For whatever reason,
that grip shift is more awkward than the other way around. I've noticed that players who
wait with the backhand grip tend to position deeper in the court to allow more
One compromise here is the return grip used by Roger Federer, similar to Pete
Sampras before him. Both of these great returners waited with a less extreme version of their
forehand grip. This gives the option of either blocking or chipping the return. It is also
a relatively small adjustment to the full forehand or backhand grip when he decides to drive
the ball with a fuller swing.
It's been said many times before, but it is still true: the timing of the split
step is critical for the return. As the server makes contact with the ball, the returner should
split step and establish a wide athletic base for quick reaction left or right. That means a
base that is two shoulder widths apart, or even wider, a low hip position through bending the
knees, and strong upright back posture. (For more on the Athletic Foundation,
You want to pause only briefly, if at all, in the split step position, long enough
only to identify the location of the serve. On many returns, elite players actually begin to move
toward the ball with the outside foot during the split step itself, rather than coming down on the
court with both feet. This results from years of practice in reading the serve off the racket
and/or the motion of the server which can tip off the placement even before contact. Don't try
to force this--let it develop naturally as you become better at reading and reacting.
A common problem many players experience on the return is what I call the "Jack in
the Box." The moment the server makes contact, the returner springs up too high into the air
like a jack in the box.
At the moment they should be reacting and making their move to the ball, these
players can be a foot off the ground. By the time they land, it's too late to execute. Launching
upward may feel like you're creating power but often this results in losing control of the stroke,
causing frequent miss hits off the bottom edge of the frame.
Whether you want to drive or block the return, you must learn to keep the backswing
short and the contact in front. Most players know they should use less swing, but still don't. The
question is how to learn this. There are two simple, but very effective techniques we use at the
Academy to help players feel how to shorten their motions and time the return. I call the them
The Fence and The Wall.
The fence is a great teacher. I use it and I don't have to say a word. I just watch. If you stand
just in front of the fence you'll will quickly learn to shorten the swing. Have the server move in so the ball reaches
you in your strike zone. It's impossible to return
when your backswing hits the fence! Sometimes students don't really believe how big their back
swing is, but the fence doesn't lie! The players automatically learn to turn their hips and shoulders and
take a very compact swing. All the explanation in the world can't substitute for the feeling
you get from this exercise.
Training with a backboard has become a lost art. But it is a fabulous tool for
working on the return. I often hear this excuse: "I can't work on my return, because I don't have
somebody to serve me hundreds of balls." Guess what? You don't need a server. Used correctly,
the backboard becomes the server.Here's how it works.
The student starts about thirty feet from the backboard and hits forehands and
backhands using a neutral stance. Notice at this distance he can go into an open stance, has
plenty of time to make the grip change and can take a rather big swing.
Now move in a step or so. This automatically forces the player to start shortening
up, picking up the ball a sooner, making that quick transition from a forehand to a backhand grip,
and also utilizing the open stance a lot more than ever before. Now another step. The more
confidence you gain, the closer you're going to get to that backboard. By controlling the
distance you can set the timing to the same interval as receiving that big serve. With the
wall you can hit hundreds of returns in a row. It's more efficient than with an
Developing a consistent routine leading up to the execution of the return will
play an important role in establishing your timing and feel. One of the most effective routines
is to start back a few steps and as the toss goes into the air, then move forward to establish
momentum. This is particularly common in pro tennis when players are planning to chip or block
the return, or hit a forcing return on the rise.
In other situations, you'll see the returner start closer in, then move back a few
steps before split stepping. This happens more often on second serves, when the returner moves
around the ball and hits a forehand return with a full swing. If you use this routine, make
sure you drive your body weight forward as you execute, to reverse the momentum you created
when moving backwards.
Other players are successful staying in one position, not moving forward or back,
creating the split step at the same depth as their starting position. Every player can experiment
to find which routine or routines work best for them. Just make sure you maintain the timing of
your split step with the contact point on the serve and make every effort to create forward
momentum in every return.
If you want to be able to handle big serves, you have to develop quickness in your
lateral movement. You have three quarters of a second or less to react and execute against a 100mph
plus serve. The true test of a returner's skill is their range of coverage on extreme placements
that make the returner move and/or lunge to execute. When the ball is wide, this means players
often hit with open stance, or hit with one foot in the air, ending up in a neutral stance
on the finish.
Most players struggle to generate power and maintain control on the full reach return.
This is because the majority of players prepare for the full reach return by taking the racket back.
But the best returners prepare by positioning the hand behind the ball as if they are going to
catch the ball off the bounce.
It's this initial movement that keeps the motion of the great returners so compact.
Watch that the hand and racket never go back behind the edge of the body. Power comes from the
explosion forward from the legs into the shot. This is naturally combined with a pulling action
of the racket back across the body. So if you want to hit great full reach returns, prepare
by reaching out and positioning the hand behind the ball. You'll be able to use this compact
motion to put those would be aces back into play. You'll also have plenty of power to drive
through those off speed spinners. Remember the goal is to go home a winner against those big servers!
So that's it for the first two parts of the return: mentality and technique.
What's next? Stay tuned for Part 3 on planning.
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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