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Pro Patterns:
Serve and Return Diagonals

Craig Cignarelli

Printable Version

How can you use your serve to create your preferred return diagonal?

In our previous articles, we analyzed the basic crosscourt diagonals, how pro players impose them on their opponents, and the battle for control, including how players switch the diagonal from an unfavorable to a favorable pattern. (Click Here.)

But tennis points don't start with crosscourt rallies. They start with serves and returns. So let's take a step back and see how players use the serve and return to try to establish their preferred patterns. Serving well for most players isn't a matter of hitting aces and big unreturnable serves. It's knowing how to use the serve as the first shot in a sequence that leads to winning points and matches. That means using the serve to create the diagonal exchange that gives you the advantage.

Unknown Patterns

Although it is not widely understood, most players will hit returns that follow predictable patterns. These depend on the location of the serve. So serving to the right spots can give you a huge advantage by starting out most points on your service games in the exchange you want. You need to understand how these patterns really work if you want to establish your preferred rally in your service games.

Forehand to Forehand
Deuce Court
Serve the body on the backhand side
Serve wide to the forehand

Patterns are critical in learning how to win the style versus style match up from the baseline. But it continues to amaze me how few players--and even coaches--understand this aspect of tactics and how to exploit it. First let's look at how the placement of the serve effects the angle of the return. From this we can see how a player can use his serve to control the diagonals of his points.

Most players will follow these patterns most of the time but it goes without saying that there are exceptions. No two players are exactly the same. No player hits the same return all the time, and a smart opponent will adjust his returns if he sees they are yielding unfavorable diagonals.

The patterns presented here represent a starting point. If they aren't producing the exchanges you want against a particular opponent, you will have to experiment with different combinations. Which serves yield which returns, and what is the relative strength of the return ball?

Forehand to Forehand Rallies

If your preferred rally is forehand to forehand here is the scenario. In the deuce court there are two serves that will generate the forehand to forehand pattern. The first is a serve directly into body on the backhand side. In general this will result in an inside out backhand return to your forehand side.

Forehand to Forehand
Ad Court
Serve the body on the backhand side
Serve down the T

The second is the wide serve to your opponent's forehand. In most cases, your opponent will hit a forehand crosscourt return. The exception is if he feels he can hurt you with the return down the line.

In the ad court there are also two serves that will tend to generate a return to your forehand. The first is the serve into the body on the backhand. The jams the player and makes it difficult for him to get the ball sharply crosscourt, returning to the middle or down the line. Either one should allow you to take the first ball crosscourt with your forehand. (This is distinguished from a wide serve to Ad which is also a backhand return, but is usually hit crosscourt.) The second is the serve to the forehand down the middle.

Now, depending on the exact position of the crosscourt return, use the following guidelines for your next shot:

If the return comes deep to your forehand--play deep crosscourt

If the return comes deep and wide to your forehand--play angle crosscourt

If the return comes short to your forehand however you can break the pattern and attack down the line by trying for a winner or hitting an approach shot

One way to change to the forehand diagonal: a loop backhand down the line.

Changing the Rally

What if you want to mix up your serves, or if your opponent breaks the typical patterns and returns to your backhand in either court? You can still get the favorable forehand to forehand rally by changing the exchange in the following manner.

If the return comes to your backhand, you can loop down the line and tempt your opponent to hit crosscourt to your forehand. If the return comes deep to your backhand--play a loop deep crosscourt and move around the next ball to play an inside out forehand rally. Then switch this to an inside-in on the next ball.

If the return comes deep and wide to your backhand--play a loop or soft, slice deep crosscourt and switch to the inside out forehand rally, then switch to an inside-in on the next ball. In all these cases you have now accomplished your goal of establishing the forehand to forehand rally and have the opportunity to take control of the point.

Backhand to Backhand
Deuce Court
Serve to the backhand
Serve the body on the forehand side

Backhand to Backhand Rallies

If your preferred pattern is backhand to backhand, here is the serve and return scenario. In the deuce court there are two serves which typically produce returns to the backhand. The first is a serve into the body on the forehand side. Typically this will be returned down the line to your backhand. The second is a serve to the backhand, which will be hit crosscourt.

In the ad court, there are also two serves. The first is a wide serve, which is typically returned crosscourt to your backhand. This can be broken when a player's strength is the big backhand and he can hit an offensive return down the line. The second serve in the Ad court is a serve into the forehand which is usually returned inside out crosscourt.

Backhand to Backhand
Ad Court
Serve wide to backhand
Serve into the forehand

Depending on the exact location of the crosscourt return, the basic patterns in this case are:

The return comes deep to your backhand--play deep crosscourt

The return comes deep and wide to your backhand--play angle crosscourt

The return comes short to your backhand---attack down the line with a winner or approach.

By looping your forehand down the line you can change to the backhand diagonal.

If the returner breaks the pattern, you can switch the rally to get into the favorable backhand to backhand rally as follows:

The return comes deep to your forehand--play a loop down the
line aiming well inside the sideline.

The return comes deep and wide to your forehand--play an angle, which will open the backhand side for your next shot.

The return comes short to your forehand--attack down the line or hit line and cover crosscourt

Inside Out
Deuce Court
Jam the returner on the backhand
Hit a big serve down the T

Inside Out Forehand to Backhand Rally

This pattern is more difficult to initiate with the serve, but some service patterns can give you the opportunity to hit the first ball inside out to your opponent's backhand.

In the deuce court, a serve to body on the backhand side may jam the returner and lead to a return hit close enough to the middle that the server can it the first ball up the line and move to the inside out position.

Another option in the Deuce court is to go for the big serve down the T. In many cases the returner will be unable to get the return crosscourt. Again this will allow you to move around the ball, it up the line and establish the inside out baseline position.

Inside Out
Ad Court
Hit a kick serve into the forehand
Hit a short angle kick serve wide

In the Ad court a kick serve into the body on the forehand side can produce the same result. If your opponent is jammed he may not be able to get the ball sharply crosscourt. If the ball is close enough to the middle you may be able to get around it and hit the ball with your forehand Inside In, or hit it Inside Out behind the receiver.

The second option in the Ad court is to hit a short angle kick serve. This can often pull your opponent so wide that he will be unable to create a crosscourt angle with his return. Often players will end up chipping this return to the center of the court. This effect can be enhanced by standing wider when serving to the Ad court, a tactic Andre Agassi has used for years to generate an Inside In or Inside Out forehand on the next ball.

If you aren't able to create it with the serve, you still have to switch the rally to get the forehand to backhand pattern you prefer. To achieve this, follow these shot patterns and move to the Inside Out position:

To switch to the inside diagonal, hit your forehand deep down the line and move around the next ball.

If the return comes deep to your forehand---loop or hit hard and deep down the line to the backhand, then move inside.

If the return comes deep and wide to your forehand---play an angle or down the middle then look to hit deep to backhand.If the return comes deep to your backhand---loop heavy crosscourt and move to inside out.

If the return comes deep but also wide to your backhand---hit high and deep crosscourt and move to inside-out. If the return comes short to your backhand---drive line and approach or roll crosscourt deep and move to inside-out. If the return comes short to your forehand---attack down the line or loop heavy down the line and turn to inside-out.

Serena can break the return pattern with her inside out backhand return.

Breaking the Models

The astute player will recognize some players use patterns that break the models. Martina Hingis does this by hitting most of her returns down the line. Serena Williams is another, returning her backhand inside out on the deuce side. A player should know the basic patterns and build a game around those patterns of return. Thereafter the player can work on the exceptions.

While it can be frustrating when a returner is breaking a pattern consistently, it only means the returner has created a new pattern for the server to exploit. Once the server understands the returner's tendencies, he can create a modified game plan. At the high levels, all players can read patterns and creativity must be allowed into the game. But if you can master the shots outlined here they will prove more than useful in getting you started in using your serve as the foundation of your tactical game.

Craig Cignarelli is one of the most prolific and successful developmental coaches in the country. His original analysis of professional tactics and movement is unique in modern coaching. Based at the renowned Riviera Country Club in Southern California, Craig has personally nurtured 4 junior players from the beginning of their careers who have gone on to achieve #1 national rankings. Currently he is working with a cadre of aspiring WTA and ATP players, as well as competitive juniors at all levels. Versed in 4 languages, Craig is completing his first book "What Champions Know," which forms the basis for his articles on Tennisplayer.

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