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Entries in Returns (14)


Defeating the Big Bombers

When you're young, big servers can be very intimidating to play. The size difference seems downright unfair. A lot of players "bag it" early thinking that there's no chance to ever break such beasts. Nevertheless, as players get older and wiser, they are often able to come away with a win despite their opponent's height and power. So, when facing Goliath, what is the best way to neutralize his/her power?


Here are some tips that you might find helpful:

1. Try not to back up when hitting returns. Backing up only increases the distance that you have to cover in order to return. Although the server's angle can be the same, the further back you go, the greater the side of the triangle that you have to cover. If anything, try to move in so that you can be closer to both sides of the triangle that make up the potential trajectories of his serves. 

2. Being closer to the court = quicker reaction time. This is really not the time to be a hero when it comes to hitting returns. Cut back on your backs-swing and try to "smother" the serves like soccer goalie on a PK. The object is to get as many returns in play as possible. You may prefer to keep a relatively tight neutral grip and block the return off both sides. If you're strong enough, you should be able to redirect the return deep without much swing and position yourself in middle of the court right away. 

3. Keep mental tabs on the big server's peculiarities. It is often easier to "read" a taller person than a short person. A taller person tends to telegraph his movements a lot sooner so once you notice something out of the ordinary (be it toss, shoulder movement, hip turning, etc. ) make a mental note of it and see if it pops up again next time he aims for the same target. Then, the third time, you can start anticipating. 

4. For the most part, big-serving juniors have not mastered the slice serve (out wide on the deuce or down the T on the ad-side). So it may be worthwile to squeeze the backhand side and bait him to go to your forehand. Maybe you can move towards the backhand a couple of inches but maintain (or change to) a forehand grip just in case he choose to go to the forehand. He will then be forced to go for a riskier serve towards your backhand or an un-tested serve towards the backhand. 

5. Spend a great deal of energy focusing on winning the first two points of your service game. You do not want to go down 0-30 against someone who's "nothing but a serve". If they go up, they will start taking chances on your returns knowing that the chance of being broken themselves is quite small. Often times, they will be relaxed and get lucky with some low-percentage slaps. Don't give them this opportunity. 

6. Seek to wrong-foot them in rallies. Once you get the point started, big/tall players have an easier time running for a ball that's in front of them than changing directions (which, depending on size, is like asking the USS Nimitz to do a quick turnaround in port - ain't happening). But also be aware of taller players who are lazy and prefer not to run at all. Make THOSE guys run. 

7. Keep the ball low. There's no shame in slicing the ball low or hitting flatter (but not completely flat) shots than usual. Make the tall player get down for every ball and then move. Get down; move; get down; move. Not everyone's built the same way so certain plays may be more taxing on some players than others. 

8. Take the net away from them. Again, given that taller players don't always move as well side-to-side and prefer to be the aggressors, it may be worthwhile to "take the net away" from them. Chip-and-charge or rush in on some plays and force them to move quickly and change direction for the passing shots; in other words, force THEM to be the rabbits. 

9. No silly mistakes. Keep these players in the point. Yank 'em side to side and push them back and diagonally forward. Try to wear them down with long points and capitalize on the drop in serving speed and loss of focus. Remember, they expect to win quickly and on short points; so the longer they're out there, the greater the chance that they'll be rattled and start making unforced errors themselves. 

10. DO NOT GET INTIMIDATED. Show them that you are up for the challenge and you will not be a walk-over. The reality is that, for the most part, big-bombers/tall players are somewhat one-dimensional (things change, of course, on the Pro tour). At first blush, taking them down may seem like a daunting task, but if you're willing to rock the stone column long enough, eventually it will come down on its own. 


Serving Day

As we've said before, it seems that the serve often takes a backseat to the rest of the game. Everybody who knows about tennis believes that your serve is the most important weapon but how many players, in fact, practice what they preach? Not many. During "lessons", serves are usually struck at the end (if you're lucky, the last 10 minutes; more likely, the last 5) and it's almost as an after-thought. Maybe this gives the chance for the coach to relax or to be up-close-and personal with the student. Parents also see serves as a "sedentary" position and, hey, since they are the ones footing the bills they want to see little Johnny sweating and not "standing around." Of course, the coaches do say that the serve is something that player can practice on her own but does she take him up on the offer?! Don't worry; I already know the answer. 

When dealing with limited time, it is advisable for players and coaches to incorporate serves throughout the practice and, also, to have at least one day per week dedicated to hitting serves. For example, when a student has a problem with the serve - perhaps it breaks down during the match - the team (coach/player) can consider including the serves in all the drills. For example, are you doing figure-8s or cross courts? Great; have the player start the point off with the serve. Are you working on volleys? Have the player serve and volley. Same with side to sides and every other drill that you have. Through this, the player will not only get a lot of practice hitting serves (thereby building endurance) but they will also do so while in the process of being exhausted. However, the player is tricked into hitting a lot of serves and developing the stroke. This is often a good way to practice for women tennis players since, sometimes, they tend to not like hitting serves (sorry for the generalization). 

Lastly, have a day during the week that is made up of mostly serves (maybe this is the day when the player also plays sets). Practice hitting serves from everywhere around the baseline and even behind the baseline. Set up targets all over the box and aim for them. Use a radar gun. Combine serves with sprints (so that the player has to concentrate on the serve when exhausted). Use a different racket for every serve (to get used to serving a second serve in the event the string broke on the first). Put a basket of balls at the service line and have the player serve and "rush in" to pick up a ball (simulating a serve-and volley). Combine the serve with a low hand-fed ball (to simulate a quick return from the opponent). Have a kick-serve competition (see who can hit the ball the highest/most angle). See who can hit the most second-serves in a row. These last drills are obviously great in split-lesson formats. 

Develop your serve as a weapon and not only will you take pressure off yourself, but now you can use that added energy to put pressure on the opponent's serve during the match.


Keys to Good Returns

Returns are the most difficult shots to execute. The primary reason for this is because at the higher levels of the game, the players have usually mastered the service motion and turned this stroke into a weapon. Also, this is the only shot in tennis where you, as a player, have ZERO say in how the server is going to execute his stroke. In other words, the returner does not (i) toss the ball to the opponent, (ii) make the opponent move to the ball, or (iii) influence the server's heart rate. As a result, all the factors are really in the server's favor. Nevertheless, too often the returners attempt to do more with the return than is necessary. Now, going for a flat out winner ONCE IN A WHILE is different than attempting the same low percentage shot over and over again. Everyone remembers Djokovic's return down match point against Federer at the 2011 US Open. What they don't recall so easily is the number of steady, mediocre returns that Djokovic hit throughout that match (or the following match against Nadal). 

In my opinion, the primary goal of the returner should be to neutralize the server's advantage. In order to understand this, the returner should know the server's primary motivation: opening up the court and creating some sort of imbalance in the returner's positioning. As a result, the returner's duty is to not allow this to happen. The returner should do this by pounding the middle of the court (preferably 4-5ft inside the baseline). This way, the returner (i) hits over the lowest part of the court; (ii) hits to the relatively "long" part of the court; (iii) does not change the trajectory of the ball at all (i.e., returner acts, simply, like a wall); (iv) forces the server to react immediately (perhaps being jammed); (v) creates no angle for the server to capitalize on the next shot; (vi) does not fall off balance; and (vii) remain in the point if the ball if 10ft away from intended target (not the case if you're aiming for the sidelines). There's nothing more disconcerting for a server (especially a "good" server) than having to grind and fight for every point. Conversely, there's nothing more that a server enjoys than getting free points (even if the returner gets lucky once in a while, the percentages are in the server's favor). 

 Here are some tips to improving the returns:

 1. Cut back on the stroke. Pretend that they are volleys and don't swing at the ball. Generate power with simple shoulder rotation. If possible, try "hand-cuffing" yourself with a belt or a rope in order to keep your hands in front of you. Even on a kick-serve, the power generated by the server is sufficient for the returner to utilize the same. Punch; don't swing. 

 2. Light feet. The returner should be light on her feet and ready to react for all potential serves. Light on your feet means weight is on the balls of your feet and you are softly bouncing up and down. Practice timing the landing of your feet with the bounce of your serve so that you are ready to split step in all directions. One way of doing this is by practicing returns while you're barefoot. This teaches you to stay light and stay in motion on your toes.

3. Practice pounding the basket. The server/coach should serve from half-way between the service line and the baseline and the goal of the returner should actually be to hit the basket with every return. For live-ball exercises, mark an alley by placing strips of athletic tape or plastic lines within 5ft on both sides of the center line. The players should play points where the server gets one serve (or 2 serves, but in a designated area) and the returner has to return every ball in that zone (otherwise it's out). 

4. Practice returning from different places in the court. You never know, you may actually have a better reaction time from 2ft inside of the baseline that 6 ft behind the baseline. Experiment with return positions and figure out what works best for you. Adapt and Survive? 

5. Another great drill is for the returner to have her back turned to the coach when practicing serves. The coach should toss the ball for a serve and concurrently yell "Now". At this point, the returner turns around and tries to pick up the serve. This is a great drill for working the hand-eye-foot coordination by training the eye to immediately pick up the pace, spin, trajectory and angle of the ball. If the player's getting better at this drills, have him start either 6 ft behind the baseline or to the side of his return position. When the coach says "now", have the player back-pedal, turn and return. What we're doing is trying to train the eyes to pick up a moving object while the player is slightly disoriented (maybe even dizzy). 

6. Lastly, another favorite drill is the machine-gun drill. This is where the coach starts at the baseline with 5-6 tennis balls in his hand. With each serve, he move closer and closer in, delivering the ball in rapid succession (coach gets paid extra for this drill - j/k). Again, the purpose of this drill is to work on reaction and adjusting to different pace, angle, spin and trajectory. 


Steal this Drill: Games To Improve Your Serve

Often times, the server takes a back seat to the rest of the game. It is practiced at the end of the workout when the player is fatigued and the least attention is available for improving the shot. It is true that the serve is the type of shot that can be practiced on your own. In reality, however, how many people get to do this?! 

To improve your serve - and particularly the second serve - try doing serve specific workouts. My favorite drill involves serving a game up to thirty points where one player serves the entire game. Also, the player is allowed only one serve. This is a great way to build up stamina for the serve and learn how to win points on your second serve. You will be so much more relaxed on the first serve if you know that holding the game with the second serve is "a lock". With two players of equal ability, the server should win (if you follow the stats of the best professional players, you will always see second serve percentage of points won that exceed 50%). With developing players, however, this is not always the case; they hit way too many double faults and, initially, their serves will be shaky even if they manage not to miss. But the serve will get noticeably better from week to week as the player learns to RELAX UNDER PRESSURE. This drill will definitely shine a light on the player's serving skills. Furthermore, this game is far superior to the baseline game as it is purposeful practice. 

Once this drill is mastered, the players can transition to other serving-based games. Another favorite drill is for the players to play a set where one person serves the entire set (this time, she gets two serves). Then, the other player will serve the entire second set. Another variant is for each player to serve two games at a time (and they play an 8-game Pro Set). These games are intended to build stamina and confidence. In addition, as one of the most important strokes in tennis, the serve will once again take center stage. 

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