Return of Serve Tennis Guide: Technique, Drills to Improve, & Key Tactics


Every point in tennis starts with a serve, and a return. Your success as a player is highly dependent on your ability to execute these two shots successfully.

A big mistake many players make is thinking that the return is just another groundstroke and that practicing groundstrokes is all you need to return well. The reality is that returning serves successfully requires a very specific set of skills that you can only develop by practicing very specific technical elements over and over.

This tennis lesson will help you understand the nuances of the return and will provide you with several ideas to help you practice and improve this important shot.

7 Steps to a Great Return of Serve: Technique & Fundamentals

The main difference between a groundstroke and return, is the speed of the incoming ball.

When returning a slow serve, there will be very little difference between the swings, but when returning a fast serve, you will have to make several adjustments. Here are the main elements of a solid return of serve:

Step 1: Split Step

A well-timed split step is essential when returning serve, since not starting to the ball on time is a sure recipe for failure.  Let’s take a look at how to achieve this.

Step 2: Get Behind the Ball

Starting with a solid split step will improve your chances of reaching an ideal position from which to return, but equally important is placing your body in a position from which you can return aggressively as you will learn from the video below.

Step 3: Use a Short Swing

If you are not able to contact the ball in front of your body, you will not be very successful returning serve, so in order to improve your chances of meeting the ball at the ideal spot when returning a fast serve, you have to shorten the swing as explained in the video below.

Step 4: Set the Racquet Behind the Contact Point

A good strategy to force you to shorten the swing is working on setting the racquet head just behind contact as explained in this video.

Step 5: The Track from the Bounce

One of the most common mistakes on the return of serve is looking up just before contact, failing to hit the ball at the ideal contact point. Watching the ball all the way to contact is an important skill in every shot, but the higher speed of the serve makes it even more important on the return.

Step 6: Eliminate Any Tension

When facing a fast ball coming at you, it is very easy to tighten up, and if this becomes a habit, you will not even feel the additional tension.

Step 7: Stay Still

It is very difficult to track the ball when your head is moving, and on the return of serve there is not much margin for error, so focusing on remaining still throughout the shot is essential.

As you can see, many of the concepts discussed above will help you in many other areas of the game.  However, the speed of the serve makes them essential to become a solid returner.

How to Hit Different Types of Returns of Serve

The next few slide shows will help you summarize the above discussion. Watch the slide shows and try to identify the return fundamentals presented earlier.

The Backhand Return

A weak backhand return can be detrimental in close matches. If you can’t consistently make backhand returns in the court, then your opponent will be able to pick on this weakness.

The Forehand Return

It is important to note that there are variations to a standard return of serve.

For example, if your opponent does not serve very fast, you will be able to take a longer backswing, and your return will look more like a regular groundstroke as seen in the following slide show.

The Chip Return

If, however, your opponent has a fast serve, you will need to learn how to play a more defensive shot. In this case, a chip return with no backswing may be the best option.

As mentioned earlier, if you want to improve your return, you need to spend some time practicing it. Here are some very effective drills for you.

Drills to Practice Your Return of Serve

As we’ve said, the return of serve is one of the most important shots in tennis. Yet, it is still one of the least practiced!

Use the drills below to improve your return of serve, and start consistently making returns in the court.

The Tracking Drill

If you want to improve your ability to track the ball to contact this drill is for you.

Return Progression

Here are two exercises to help you understand and practice the concept of a short backswing:

Stopping Return

Off the Bounce Return

Getting Behind the Ball Drill

As mentioned earlier, reaching for the ball will not allow you to hit with any power. Here is a great exercise to understand and practice the concept of getting behind the ball.

Practice the Split Step

This exercise will provide you with an ideal platform to practice the perfect split step timing and technique.

Finally, we will leave you with a swing path analysis of Federer’s forehand return. I am sure you will recognize many of the points we discussed.

The Best Return of Serve Tactics

When it comes to returning serve there are a few essential tactical concepts that you should keep in mind.

Get the Point Started

Your most important objective when returning serve is to get the point started every time.

If you are constantly missing returns, your chances of breaking serve are slim. So before worrying about anything else, work on getting the ball in the court eve time. A soft, high return into the middle of the court is better than any missed return.

When Returning 1st Serves, Focus on Depth

The goal when returning a first serve is to keep the server from controlling the point. That is, your return should not allow the server to attack you with his/her second shot. In general, the key to a good first serve return has depth rather than pace or placement. Aiming the return deep towards the middle of the court will not only minimize your mistakes but will also keep the server from controlling the point right away.

On 2nd Serve Returns, Attack

On a second serve return, the goal changes. Now the roles are reversed. You need to approach the return with an aggressive mentality.

Your goal is to start the point attacking, while the server’s goal is to hit a good enough second serve to avoid being attacked.

Run Around Your Backhand Return

Whenever possible, use your strength to return. Tennis is a game of percentages. If your forehand is better than your backhand, run around your backhand as much as possible. The more forehands you hit the better your chances.

Hit to Your Opponent’s Weakness

Similarly, the more you can force the opponent to hit their weaker groundstroke, the better your chances of winning the point. Therefore, any time you have a chance, return towards the backhand side.

Of course, the job of the server is to serve in such a way as to prevent you from implementing the tactics above and that is why we love this game. It is a true game of cat and mouse between two players, especially on the serve vs. return of serve!

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