Return of tennis serve
In tennis, a return is defined as hitting the ball into play after an opponent’s service. The goal is to neutralize the opponent by engaging their first service ball and attack the second in order to take control of the game or to score a point. With the improvement of service techniques over time, this stroke has become an important part of modern tennis. Statistics of returns are now carefully studied by coaches and high-level players. The time spent on training to improve in this area has increased over time.
It is important to study the techniques needed for a good return as well as the tactics needed to put the opponent in an uncomfortable situation.
The first step is to position oneself on the side of the court where the point will be played (deuce or advantage). Following this, the player will place themselves in the far corner of the court, next to the tramlines. Generally, below a certain level, most players will use the baseline as a starting point. It is important to adapt to the speed and the characteristic of the ball (such as spin) Too many players stay on the baseline no matter who they’re facing. The quicker the ball, the further you should be from the baseline. This will give you time to analyze the speed and the trajectory of the ball and move towards it. For the second ball, you will need to be positioned further forward to be quicker than your opponent and play the ball out of their reach. This is the time when many players perform small good luck rituals for confidence and concentration.
Analyze the situation
Your gaze should be fixed on the ball as your opponent gets ready to throw if above their head. Your eyes will communicate with your brain through your nervous system, to give orders to your limbs needed to hit the ball. Reaction time varies between individuals, but it is possible to improve it through training and to improve response to audio-visual stimuli. Concentration is key to a better analysis of the ball’s trajectory and speed.
The ready position and changing your stance
The ready position and changing your stance are the two key factors of a successful strike. The speed of the movement is fast so it’s important to have a dynamic ready position. For maximum stability and striking power, your legs should be apart (wider than your shoulders) and slightly bent, your chest should be tilted forwards, and your shoulders relaxed. In order to optimize the speed of the strike, you should use your forehand grip, if the ball becomes a backhand shot, your free hand (found at the top of the handle) will allow you to change this. When the opponent hits the ball for their service, you should change your stance in order to mobilize yourself. You jump slightly forward onto your forefoot and prepare to launch yourself in the direction of the ball.
Preparing the movement
The preparation of the movement starts once you’ve finished changing your stance and your forefoot touches the ground. This is a quick and short movement and a slight realignment of the shoulders is recommended. The racket stops at hip level while the shoulders rotate. The angle of separation (difference of the line between the shoulders and that of the hips) is less than when at the baseline. These two aspects of the technique will allow you to have a strike zone that is further forward and help you control the direction of the ball.
An open stance is best for returns, it allows you to move your body forward and execute the movement quickly. The aim of the strike is to stop the ball’s trajectory and quickly gain control of the point. Because your legs are facing the net you’ll need to use your outside leg to push-off and land on the other leg. This stance will allow you to use your upper and lower body more separately and summon the energy needed to strike the ball.
The areas of play
The areas of play differ according to the type of service to be returned. Faced with a first service ball, the goal of the receiver is to play long in the center to neutralize the opponent. A second service ball return is generally crossed in order to strike the ball at high speed while providing a margin for safety. In doubles, the favored area of play is also crossed and short to avoid interception of the player by a volley and obliges the server to raise the ball in case their shot hits the net. Faced with a volley server, we will try to get back on our feet. It is obvious that the return area should be adapted according to the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent.
The return is a key part of the game and to master it demands a lot of technique work. Other than technique concentration and analysis skills are vital to exceling with this shot. In the future, as the game evolves and new technologies come into play (in training and competition) the return will play a more and more important role in the game.