Chapter 17: Return of Serve and Singles Strategy

There are two distinct returns of serve. One is the response to a forceful serve–you block the ball to get it back in your opponent’s court. The second is the reply to an easier serve. You drive the ball with pace and with a definite idea of playing it down the line, crosscourt, or forcefully down the middle.

For the blocked return, get your racquet on the ball with a short and firm action, the racquet angle depending on the placement you want. Get the ball over the net without much forward movement of your arm, using the momentum of the incoming ball to get good speed on your return ball.

You need to tighten your grip prior to the impact with the ball and to be very conscious of the angle of your racquet, because it will determine both the placement of your shot and whether the ball goes over the net. On this shot the racquet face angle should be slightly open, but of course it will vary with each return. The stroke resembles a volley, except that you hit from the ball forward, getting more of a followthrough.

Professional players make sure they get the return of serve in the court. If they get a chance at driving the return they will definitely do it, but their uppermost goal is to get the ball in the court.

They put a lot of pressure on the opponent that way. Balls constantly coming back to the server are a lot more work, and he starts to get the feeling that he has to force the action to finish the point.

That kind of pressure makes for more errors, although a player with a forceful serve has the upper hand. He will get some points on “aces,” outright service winners in which the ball gets by his opponent before he can touch it. He will also force his opponent to mis-time and mis-hit service returns, getting more outright service winners.

Those points, added to the normal percentage of return errors, and also some weak returns of serve where it is easy to put the ball away, give the player with a very good first serve a tremendous advantage.

On grass courts, it is unusual to see a good serve-and-volley player lose his service game. The low and uneven bounce of the ball, especially when the grass is damp and slippery, makes returns and passing shots very difficult.

On hard courts there is a great variety in court speeds. It varies according to the roughness and the type of paint coating of the court, and whether it has a cement or asphalt base. If the court is hard, smooth or slick, the game is very fast and that favors the big server.

Some decades ago in the U.S. the tendency was to build very fast hard courts, especially for the major championships, favoring the big serve-and-volley players.

Today most hard courts have surfaces that slow down play to where you can play successfully from the backcourt against a net rusher, although a big serve-and-volley player still has an advantage in his service games.

On clay courts you have plenty of time to hit good returns of serve. Just stand behind the baseline to return a hard first serve, using your normal strokes. If your opponent misses the first serve, move inside the baseline to return his second serve. The second serve will most likely be slower or else there is the risk of serving a double fault.

Returning a Twist Serve

Professionals rely on a twist second serve because of its accuracy and safety. They spin the ball so much that, even while clearing the net by two or three feet, the ball still curves down into the service court and then takes a jump.

To return a twist serve successfully you have two choices. The easier one is to move back to let the ball lose some of its height and spin and then drive it back with topspin. The other choice is to move forward to hit the ball before it goes up above your shoulders. This second choice is risky because the ball has not lost its sting, but a firmly blocked return should get the ball in your opponent’s court.

Attacking a kick serve after the bounce is a specialty of some top players. It requires perfect timing and a closed racquet angle to keep the ball from coming out of the racquet higher than intended, or off to either side.

Other pros resort to hitting the ball harder than it came into their racquet, therefore canceling the effect of these spins. If there is any difficulty on a particular shot they switch to a firmly blocked return.

If you are facing a twist player it takes several service returns to understand what you have to do to block the ball with precision. Don’t despair. Even the pros sometimes experience this at the beginning of a match, then they adjust as the match progresses.

Many players have trouble adjusting to a left-handed player’s serve because the ball curves and kicks differently. If you are right-handed and a left-hander is curving the ball to your backhand side, you need to move in diagonally to make a dent with your return. Otherwise, the ball will slip farther and farther away. The best option, prior to a tournament match, is to get a player with a similar serve to practice with.

Return of Serve Summary

Get your return of serve in the court, any way you can. Then you can really start the point.

“Finding” the ball is a “must”. Most people think of their stroke first. Against a big serve, they are trained to react right away with the arm. On the contrary, avoid rushing your arm. Get your body as a whole to react first, with your hand and racquet finding the ball, then hit.

You need to react fast to a hard serve, but be totally aware of meeting the ball in the center of your racquet strings. You need to observe where the ball is going after the bounce in your service court, even if there seems to be no time, or you’ll miss more returns than you get in.

As you find the ball, refine your racquet angle to control your shot. There isn’t much time when receiving a hard serve. But instincts, honed with practice, will help you if you don’t overreact.

Get the ball safely over the net first, then, as you get more accurate and experienced, you can go for better angles and harder returns.

Singles Strategy

Rally game philosophy (Chapter 11) is very good even when playing a standard match at club level. Of course, you don’t hit toward your opponent but slightly away from him to make him sweat it out. Hit to the open court when you have a sure shot. Keep the ball in play, without making silly errors, and you’ll slowly learn to win points.

You would be surprised how many people–perhaps ninety percent of the fifty million or so who play tennis–cannot hit as many as twenty balls firmly back and forth in the court.

In club play more points are lost on mistakes or unforced errors than are won by hitting winners. If you keep the ball in play you’ll end up winning much more than you lose.

Rallying is the part to learn first. In a match on any medium to slow court, the professionals get into a rally before they start going for winners. You should do the same. Hit several feet over the net with power and plenty of topspin, not only to be safe, but also to get depth and a higher bounce. This will force your opponent to return from farther back, reducing his chances of hitting a winner or a quick shot that can catch you unprepared.

Margin for Error

If your opponent has a weak backhand, or his forehand is a much bigger weapon than his backhand, direct your shots to his backhand side. If your opponent’s game is balanced, hit most of your returns crosscourt or down the middle, over the lower part of the net. Avoid making errors or opening up your court. Then, when you start sensing where he’s vulnerable, hit the ball there, always keeping a good margin for error. For example, if you know that in the down-the-line drill you need to aim three feet inside the sideline to avoid hitting out, in a match, aim the ball at least three feet inside.

The same goes for height over the net. If aiming one foot over the net results in errors during practice, hit the ball at least two feet over the net, with plenty of topspin, during a match.


If the ball is bouncing too short in your opponent’s court, hit it higher. You’ll get more depth and more jump on your shot. It is far less dangerous to hit the ball closer to the service line than to go for the baseline. And it doesn’t make sense to hit the ball long when you have enough topspin to make it land well inside the court and make it jump.

Attacking Short Balls

After you hit a forceful shot, move a few steps into your court. Your opponent will likely respond with a shorter or easier shot. As you go forward to get to a shorter ball, hit your groundstrokes lower and with more topspin.

Closing the racquet face, and pulling up more on the stroke (whether you then finish the stroke higher or lower than you normally do), will accomplish that, while still clearing the net. Lower clearance and more topspin is needed because the ball has a shorter trajectory to go down into your opponent’s court.

The same goes for passing shots, in which you want the ball to get plenty of topspin so it will dip down soon after crossing the net, making it more difficult for your opponent to volley.

Drifting Back to the Center

When you hit a good crosscourt shot from the backcourt and your opponent is also back, drift slowly toward the middle. It is very likely that your opponent will hit crosscourt, the best percentage shot. You don’t want to get caught running fast toward the center of the court while your opponent hits to the place you just left.

If your opponent happens to go down the line with a shot, close to the sideline, he’ll be risking much more. In any case you’ll be facing slightly in that direction while going slowly toward the middle, so you’ll just need to accelerate to get to the ball. Otherwise, if your opponent hits behind you, pivot, and you should be pretty close to the path of the ball.

Hitting Crosscourt

When you are pulled wide, which occurs mostly when receiving a crosscourt shot, hit the ball back crosscourt, so that you don’t open the court much to your opponent. A weak return, of course, would be a setup for him. It will be short and allow him to attack you on either side, to come to the net, etc. But if you hit the ball past your opponent’s service line, with plenty of topspin, he won’t be able to do much with it.

If you don’t have a strong crosscourt shot but are pulled wide, lift the ball high, down the line, but well inside. You could also hit it down the middle, again high and past your opponent’s service line. Either choice will give you plenty of time to get back to the middle of your court, ready for the other player’s next shot.

At a high level of play, a crosscourt shot would take precedence over any other shot as a return of a good crosscourt shot, unless the opponent has stayed too close to the side he made the shot from, therefore leaving the other side wide open for your down- the-line shot.

The second-best choice would be a high topspin shot, deep down the middle. This is especially true on clay courts. You see the top pros get into crosscourt rallies mixed with down-the-middle shots, risking nothing, waiting for a weaker shot that opens the play for something different.

To show you how dangerous down-the-line shots can be when you are pulled wide, try it practicing with someone good. You hit only down the line while the other player hits only good crosscourts. You would soon be out of breath because you are running many more yards to get to each shot than your opponent is. A good crosscourt shot will pull you beyond your sideline. From there your down-the-line shot cannot be parallel to the sideline, or else it will land outside your opponent’s court. You have to angle it toward his court. After the bounce the ball will continue to get closer to the middle, giving him a good chance to cross it the other way where you left a wide open court. Now you have to race all the way across your court. A few shots like that, and you’ll feel that you are chasing a rabbit, while your opponent is easily strolling around the court. You may also start to hit short, allowing your opponent to come to the net.

Studying Your Opponent

You need to adjust your game tactics to your opponent’s play. Stay cool and see what gives him trouble, what he likes and what throws him off. Unless you know your opponent well, “feel” your opponent at the beginning of a match. Throw some “junk” at him, mixed with your good shots.

Many players don’t handle a change of pace well, others thrive on your hard shots, making you feel that the better you are playing, the better they play.

Throw some high topspin shots that bounce deep and high, and see how your opponent reacts. If he has trouble, keep it up. It is part of the game. If you are playing competitively, you are not there to hand the match to your opponent, but to beat him or at least to have him sweat it out until the last point is over.

Practice Matches

Practice matches or social matches are different. You try to get the best workout possible. Sometimes your friend across the net doesn’t have a good backhand. If you hit mostly to his forehand, you’ll get the best possible practice, only reverting to winning tactics if you need to.

In practice focus on consistency and accuracy, rather than raw power. You can hit hard, but use a lot of topspin. The tendency in tournament matches is to hit forward, flattening out the stroke. Practice the other way around, getting your muscles used to lifting the ball. It will be easier to resort to topspin in tight spots in match play.

Rushing the Net

When you approach the net, whether with your forehand or your backhand, a down-the-line approach will cut the angle of your opponent’s passing shot. After you hit the ball, continue to advance and stay to the side you made the approach from, perhaps two or three feet from the center line, depending on your shot’s depth and how close you get to the net. Your opponent will have only a small opening to pass you with a sharp and short crosscourt.

For the average player such a sharp angle is a low percentage shot. Unless he has plenty of topspin, he’ll have to resort to hitting a slow shot to place the ball in the open space, giving you a chance to run it down.

Defending Against a Net Rusher

If you are in your backcourt, and your opponent has made a good approach that doesn’t give you much angle to pass him, you can “dink” the ball. You hit it so low and so slow or with so much topspin that the ball goes down to his feet or to his side. From there your opponent will have trouble volleying with pace and usually gives you a shorter ball and a better chance to pass him with your next shot.

If your opponent is very close to the net, your best choice is a good lob, making sure you get the ball well over him even if he jumps back and up. A “dink” usually drives your opponent close to the net, making it easier to lob the next shot over him.

Backcourt Tactics

Let’s say a right-hander is playing a right-hander. A very good tactic is to stay in the backcourt a little to the left of the center, and pound the ball into your opponent’s backhand, over and over, your backhand crosscourt, your forehand inside out toward your opponent’s backhand. Whenever possible, run around your backhand, forcing your opponent to hit closer and closer to your left sideline. After every strong shot, especially with your forehand, move a yard inside your court, still slightly to the left of the center, ready for a weaker return.

After a while your opponent will feel pressured. There’s not much room for a crosscourt backhand, and he’ll risk sending the ball down the line. If he makes a good shot, run it down and hit it with plenty of topspin, high and safely, toward the middle of his backhand side. Then move into the court again, toward the left, and keep pounding his backhand side. As soon as he makes a weaker shot, jump on it crosscourt with your forehand, with plenty of topspin and hard. It should be a safe shot if you get enough topspin, and your opponent will have a hard time reaching it and even more difficulty handling it. If by then you are at the net, you probably have a big open court for your volley, and an easy put-away, or a smash.

This type game requires a lot of patience and very good stamina. Some pros with a big forehand sometimes play two yards to the left of the center of the court, hitting patiently to their opponent’s backhand side, pounding their forehands there, or hitting sharp crosscourts when the ball comes to their backhand. They wait for the short ball that they can attack savagely, forcefully, and hit far from their opponent’s reach.

When they get to the net the point is already almost won. Unless their opponent, risking everything, hits a miraculous winner or an incredible angle shot, fate is in the attacking player’s hands. He has a wide open court to hit either his volley or his smash.

First Serve Percentage

Getting your first serve in is a very good way to put more pressure on your opponent. Even a slower first serve gets treated with more respect than a second serve of the same speed.

If you miss your first serve consistently, the other player will soon be attacking your second serve and making better returns.

You can do the same if your opponent misses his first serve. Move inside the court and attack his second serve.

Crosscourt Returns

The safest return to hit is usually crosscourt, over the lowest part of the net and toward the longest extension of the court.

When an opponent is coming to the net following his serve, pounding the ball crosscourt will give you good results. The ball will dip down sooner than a down-the-line shot and it might very well go by your opponent, or give him difficulty, because of the pace. You don’t risk making a mistake as much as with a down-the-line return of serve, closer to the sideline and over the higher part of the net.

Steady Tactics

Of course, you would vary all these tactics depending on the degree of success your opponent has in handling them. You can surprise him with a change here and there, but keep winning tactics steady. Don’t change a winning game–but always change a losing one.

Don’t vary winning tactics just for the sake of change. It might give your opponent a lift and change the whole match.

The same goes for your basic game. You know your best weapons. If you have the fundamentals of this book down well, your consistency will be very high.

Stick to your topspin and the “finish” of your groundstrokes. They will get the ball in the court, and you won’t have to resort to frightful halfway strokes.

Stay in the match as long as possible. Don’t rush. Keep the ball in play one time more than your opponent and you’ll beat players that look much flashier than you.

Overall, respect your opponent and his shots. Never underestimate anyone. If you can beat someone easily, do so without snubbing them.They’ll appreciate your game and your behavior. They will also know that the points or games they won they did on their own, without you handing them anything they didn’t earn.

And if one player keeps beating you no matter how well you play or how hard you try, recognize that he or she is better than you are. Keep playing your best and learn from the experience. It is possible to improve every day, to learn something good every day. And we learn something every day, whether we recognize it or not.

A positive experience depends only on you.