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Entries in Returns (14)


Returning Against a Serve and Volleyer

Not many players favor the serve-and-volley game style in the modern game of tennis. Accordingly, facing such a player can be very frustrating sometimes unless you have a great deal of experience under your belt. Here are some things to keep in mind when facing a net rusher:

1. Make him volley. This may seem like routine advice, but that's not quite the case. A S-V player provokes the following unconscious thoughts in your mind: A) he's coming in; B) he's coming in because he likes it; C) if he likes it, he must be good at it; and D) if he's good at it, I better keep the ball away from him. This is exactly the way the net rusher wants you to think; he wants to tempt you to go for the low percentage passing shot off his major weapon. It's hard enough to pass someone who is coming in off a ground stroke! Why would you try to do this off a serve?! Therefore, a better tactic would be to make the player volley and see what tools he has on his belt. Maybe it's all just a bluff! You will never know unless you test him. 

2. Your point of recovery following the return should be inside the baseline. The good serve a volleyers will attempt to combine good serves with sharp angles. For them, this guarantees that the returner has the most ground to cover. Therefore, returning and then recovering deep behind the baseline's center-T plays right into their hand. You want to recover in an aggressive position in order to ensure that you are as close to the next shot as possible. Force them to aim their volleys deep - not only may this draw errors but it will also reduce the angles that they can create. 

3. Don't forget about the chip return (NOT a slice). Depending on how solid your chip return is (if it's not, try to improve it), a chip return may give you a better option if you're unsure of your opponent's tendencies. For one, the chip requires little or no back-swing (you're utilizing the opponent's pace and only redirecting the shot) so you can make the decision on where to hit and how deep much later (in terms of tennis-time). Also, the chip requires a continental grip so if you have a one-handed backhand, it's easier to transition from the forehand grip (Western or Semi-Western) to the chip (since you only have to go half-way). In addition, a chip has a completely different spin - something that the volleyer may have difficulty handling. A topspin ball dips into the volleyer's string-bed. A well-struck chip will "pop up" of his strings - thereby forcing the volleyer to make adjustments. Volleyers are more accustomed to volleying against a topsin than against a ball that spins the "other way". 

4. Stay close in. Similar to playing a big-bomber, it's important to stay closer to the court when returning and thereby position yourself so as to cut off the server's angles. Most likely, the serve and volleyer will attempt to come in off a spin serve (kick, topspin, or slice) in order to give himself more time to close in. If you stay back, you will allow him to take an extra couple of steps - at which point, it will be difficult to make him volley below the net (your goal is to make him pop up the volley as opposed to sticking it downwards). Stay close in, use the pace of his serve (even a kick-serve has sufficient pace for you to use and redirect) and seek to make the rusher volley behind the center-T or half-volley around the center-T.

The center-T should be your target in these instances. Pound it incessantly and force the volleyer to generate angles from the middle of the court; don't give him an opening (i.e. too far away from the middle but within reach) from which he can generate an angle. Unless he's very, very good, chances are that he will have difficulty handling these shots. The best return is, actually, slightly cross-court from your return position - this force the opponent to adjust the face the face of the racket and to generate a slight "inside-out" angle. For example, if you're returning from the deuce side down-the-line, the opponent can stick a cross-court backhand volley without much difficulty. Return cross-court, and he will have problems generating the same angle with his forehand volley down-the-line. 

5. Attack. Another oft-forgotten play is to come in yourself (chip-and-charge). This may work as a great surprise-tactic since the server expects to face an opponent who is staying deep. You have a slight advantage in these situations because out of the two players, you're the only one who knows what to expect. Depending on the serve, you may in fact "beat the player" to the net since, the ball would have reached your position a split second after the server's contact with the ball. Chip down the T (low), rush in and pounce on the opponent's next shot (particularly any pop-up floaters). Stun him once or twice and you will either force him to do more with his serves (resulting in more double faults or second serves; [DING-DING] BONUS) or his volleys (errors). If you're lucky, you might actually force him to stay back ([DING-DING] DOUBLE BONUS) and that's when you know that you have really rocked his boat. 


Video: Return Middle and Pounce

At the highest levels, returning a first serve is not an easy task.  The smart returners (the ones who tend to win) try their best to get the ball into play, style points aside.  One of the best ways to do that is to aim for the center of the court.  

A) This gives you (the returner) a lot of room for error.  Even if you miss your target, you are in great shape.

B) The server will struggle to get out of their own way if the return is struck with enough depth and/or force.  Not an easy thing to deal with, possibly giving you a weak reply.

C) Lastly, the server has no angle off your return to run you off the court.  

This is incredibly simple stuff, but knowledge is only a fraction of the puzzle.  Returners need to have the motivation to be disciplined and not be tempted to go for the "hero" shot.  Attempting to slap a winner off someone's first serve or missing a 2nd serve return by 10 feet clearly shows a rookie player (or one who has checked out mentally because they are frustrated).  Keep pecking away and the percentages will slowly turn into your favor, giving yourself the best odds for winning.  Nothing is a guarantee, but smart decisions time and time again can increase your odds- that's all you can hope for.  

Here are two examples:


Returning: Long-range sniper or Ninja Assassin

If you find yourself missing your targets in the return, ask yourself: "am I a long-range sniper or a Ninja Assassin?" Sometimes, I find that a student is missing too many returns off totally playable serves. The standard question often is: where were you aiming? The standard answer is (pointing at a particular spot on the court): there or there.

For the most part when returning, the fact is that the server controls the point (at least in the later stages of your development). This means that even if your forehand is a weapon, so is his serve. Using a hyperbole, your forehand may be a bazooka but it's usually trumped by the A-bomb posed by the serve. Therefore, when missing the serve, remember to throttle back your ego and play smart.

Instead of aiming for targets on the other side of the net, aim for imaginary targets ON TOP OF THE NET. Instead of being like a long range-sniper, get up close and personal with your intended target. In other words, aim for something closer to you. Know that if you hit the target on top of the net, the ball will follow its intended trajectory and find its ultimate target on the other side of the court. To put it another way, if you had a gun, would you rather shoot a target that's 15 feet away or a target that's 50 feet away?! If you've ever fired a weapon, you know that the bullet will drop due to gravity and wind resistance. The further the target is, the more adjustments you have to make. Furthermore, you only have a split second to make these adjustments since your "bullet" (I.e., ball) is a moving target itself making it all the more imperative that you bring the target closer.

So learn from the Ninja Assassin and bring your target closer for the definite kill. To practice this, thread broomsticks or PVC pipes through the net and aim for them initially. Keep a mental check of where the ball landed in comparison with your close target. When you're in a match situation, you will have developed a feel for how you need to strike a certain ball in order for it to reach its ultimate spot.


Steal This Drill: Serving With a Purpose

The purpose of this drill is to practice connecting the serve with the next shot in order to combine a deadly 1-2 punch combination. Often times, players will practice their ground strokes, then practice their serves (usually at the end of practice) and, perhaps, play a couple of points at the end. This is the only times when they have the opportunity to combine the two and figure out what they want or need to do with the shot that comes back after the serve. And, unless you're name is John Isner, the serve will usually come back. Therefore, it is important to master a combination play and take the guessing work out of the situation.

In other words, IF the serve comes back, you know exactly WHERE you place the next ball and HOW you can go about doing it. In the figures above, the blue line represents the path of the serve; the yellow lines represent the path of the returns; and the red represent the path of the server's follow-up shot.

First, set up the service box by dividing it into two halves. Tell your partner the half of the box into which you will be serving; s/he will then return it either down-the-line or cross court (agree in advance; maybe 5 minutes on each side). The server takes the return and redirects it again towards a target to the opposite side of the court (i.e., away from the returner). The players can either do a set number of serve/returns or stay in a particular role for a set number of minutes and then switch roles. This way, both players get to serve/open up the court and return. This is a drill that can be done with/without a coach so there's no excuse for not doing it. Thus, when your coaches tell you that you need to "work on serves and/or returns", please feel free to "steal this drill" and accomplish your mission. By repeating this drill a few days a week, you will become more confident at knowing how to react to a returned serve (fast feet; low center of gravity; quick back-swing; explosive follow-through) which will take more pressure off your serves to begin with (because you won't have to rely on an Ace or service winner to win the point). In addition, this is another great way for the players to get focused and repetitive practice for their returns.


Steal This Drill: Return Practice

Here is a neat drill for practicing two things: returning solidly away from the sidelines (thereby neutralizing the server's initial advantage) and, for the server, learning how to construct points without relying on aces and service winners. The fact that the server is also trying to improve his jam-serve is a bonus (since this is often under-utilized in junior tennis). 

The drill is as follows: set up an area in the middle of the service box that is 2.5 feet from the [service box] sidelines (see shaded service box area above). This will give the returner ample opportunity to "see" many serves and get the balls back in play. Also, set up an area on the server's side that is 3-5ft from his sidelines. The returner must return in this area in order for the point to start. After that, anything goes (i.e. players can use the whole court). But the purpose is to train the returner to hit smart, high-percentage shots on the returns and apply lots of pressure on the server. This is also good for the server (especially if he's the big serving type who relies a lot on quick points) since now he has to construct a point with his head and his heart. Play practice games up to 10, 15 or 7-11 (I.e. Where the server must get to 11 before the returner gets to 11) and rotate; rinse and repeat as necessary. With lots of opportunities to see the serve and practice returns you, as a returner, will become more proficient at putting some heat on the server. As a server, you will gain more confidence from knowing that you can construct a point without relying on aces or service winner (allowing you to actually be more relaxed on your first serves). If possible, have two or three servers against one returner and play two points against each. This way, the returner gets a "look" at more than one service motion and can adjust for each.