Returning Slow/Second Serves
Updated: Dec 20, 2019
We all have parts of our games to work on and other parts of our game we find easy to execute. Some of us execute forehands well but backhands not so well. Some people find volleying easy while others find it difficult . Some people have a natural understanding of how to cover the net and use the geometry of the court to their advantage while others need to be taught. Everyone has shots or concepts they naturally execute better than others. In my case, I have an easier time returning fast serves compared to medium paced or slow serves.
To me, returning fast serves are easier because I just have to time it correctly to send the ball back almost as fast as it came. A few other keys I like to focus on when returning fast serves is seeing the ball early coming off my opponents racket to get a beat on the direction of the serve; I also have to read the spin, anticipate the bounce, and have a wide enough base to be eye level with the ball. Once I’m doing these three things well, returning fast serves feel automated and muscle memory takes over. The easy part about returning first serves is I don’t have to worry about generating pace because it’s already supplied by the server. As long as my base and posture is stable enough during impact to withstand the pace coming at me, the return should be sent back with good power. Generating pace is much tougher on slower or medium paced serves. Timing must be used properly with the legs to generate momentum which creates effortless power.
From my experience, I get the most natural power when I make contact with the ball as I’m stepping towards it. When I make contact with the ball, my stepping leg is still in the air and lands after I hit the shot. This may be a weird picture to imagine, but there are video examples towards the bottom of the page. I also get good, natural power when I make contact with the ball immediately after my stepping foot hits the ground. The timing of both techniques work, but I personally get more power from making contact with the ball while my leg is still in the process of stepping rather than completing my step and then making contact with the ball. The number one mistake I make when returning slower serves is planting my feet too hard into the ground once the serve is contacted and is on the way to me. Hard planting is such a killer because once my feet are planted, I can’t make additional adjustments with my legs to the ball before hitting it. For example: If a second serve has a bit more slice than I was anticipating, my feet will be stuck from heavy planting, and I’ll likely be reaching for the return because the slice will carry the ball away from me.
I feel that there’s a misconception that the harder we plant and load, the more power we get. The reality is our loading (on returns) should feel light with our feet, and the power comes from the timing of when we release our load into the shot. Once again, I’m going to emphasize that the load should be a quick, light, and released at the last second. If the serve is traveling to you and you realize it’s slower than anticipated, the double hop/slide can be used. The double hop is you taking a small, light hop directly after splitting to adjust to the path of the ball. Another way I think of it is whenever feel myself start to plant too heavy, I resist that urge and take another light hop or take another adjustment step to the ball. Here are all of the video examples.
In this video, my feet are heavily planted and stuck to the ground. I’m unable to get enough power on the shot because I don’t have momentum moving into the ball with my legs. However, My spacing looks pretty good which tells me that I judged the direction and the spin of the serve correctly. If I could hit this return over again, I’d step towards the ball with my right leg and make contact with the shot as my leg is in the air and is in the process of stepping.
This is how I would have handled the serve in the first example I showed you. After my split, I didn’t get too heavy on my feet. I stayed light and made contact with the ball as I was stepping towards the ball and had natural momentum on the shot because of it.
I want to take a small break and dig deeper in the concept of making contact with the ball while the stepping leg is in the air before it lands. I like referring to this concept as “flow”. When hitting a forehand or backhand return, I can flow with either leg and in any direction. The key is making sure that my leg is in the air and moving in any direction while making contact with the ball. Ideally, its best to step with the left leg to the ball (for right handers) on the forehand return and with the right leg on backhand returns. However, it’s sometimes unrealistic to always step with the proper leg to the ball when reacting to a 120 mph serve with spin. Luckily, you don’t have to be text book with what foot you’re stepping with. You just have to make sure that a leg is stepping in any direction as you’re making contact with the ball. Here are more examples.
I’m light with my feet, so I can get out of the way of the serve. Once I’ve established the light feeling, I make sure a leg is in the air and stepping as I make contact with the ball.
Same thing here. Maybe freeze frame the video and take a close look at how my leg is still in the air and is in the process of stepping as I make contact with the ball.
I do a good job of having light feet, making contact with the ball and flowing with the momentum off to the right.
In this video, I use the double hop: I take another small adjustment hop directly after my
split to adjust to the ball, and both of my legs are actually in the air as I make contact with the ball as I flow with the shot and generate power.
If the videos aren’t showing, I’ll post them in my Facebook group “My Tennis Journey.” If you aren’t a member, ask to join.