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Anticipating the Serve

Machar Reid, Miguel Crespo , Damian Farrow

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What strategies do great returners use to anticipate a 125mph serve?

Many elite players, particularly in the men's game, are able to direct serves in excess of 125 mph to all parts of the service box. This presents a considerable challenge to their opponents, standing some 78 feet away, who have approximately one third of a second between the hit and the ball bounce to assess the ball's flight and begin a well-timed return.

The battle between the server and returner has attracted the interest of researchers for more than 20 years. Various researchers have focused on what information or cues returners can use in that third of a second of ball flight—as well as the split seconds prior to the hit --to help determine the serve's likely direction, allowing for an improved motor response.

Skilled players have been shown to use two forms of advance information. First, situational probability information, such as strategic insights based on known preferences of the server. Second the mechanics of the service action.

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Machar Reid is the innovation catalyst at Tennis Australia. He established the Sports Science and Medicine Unit there in 2008. He is the coauthor of several books on tennis sports science and coaching.


Damian Farrow holds a joint appointment within the College of Sport & Exercise Science, and the Australian Institute of Sport, where he responsible for research and support of coaches seeking to develop the skills of Australian athletes. A former tennis coach and physical education teacher, he has worked with Cricket Australia, Tennis Australia, Netball Australia, Surfing Australia, the Australian Rugby Union and Swimming Australia.


Miguel Crespo is the research officer at the International Tennis Federation Development Department, Spain. He oversees the ITF’s coach education program and has coauthored and edited many ITF publications.


The game of tennis has changed drastically over the decades, as developments in technology and conditioning regimens, among other factors, have altered the style of play. Underpinning many of these developments is science, and this book explains the scientific wonders that take the ball from racquet to racquet and back again.

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