How to Improve Your Tennis Service Return?


Many players underestimate the importance of good service return skills. Even when they do recognize its value, few really understand how to improve their own game in this area.  

Take a look at some tips below to help you get better returns today!   

Focus on timing, not speed 

Many beginner players think that the faster they can hit a return, the better it will be. In reality, the best returns are the ones that happen at just the right moment when your opponent’s shot is passing you on its way over the net. 

So don’t try to rush everything. Instead, focus on coordinating your body so you’re ready to move in the proper direction at just the right instant. 

Keep your eye on the ball 

Tennis players who return serve often lose track of the ball and just focus on their opponent’s body language. If you’re one of these players, try this: Stand with your back to the court and watch a few serves go by. Then turn around and try to hit a return based on what you saw in your opponent’s body language. 

Adjust the angle of your racket 

You’ll get better results from your returns if you adjust the angle of your racket slightly as your opponent is serving. If he serves a hard, flat serve at shoulder height, return the ball with a racket angle of about 60°. If he serves a soft, topspin serve at shoulder height, return it with an angle of about 45°. 

Keep your legs moving on your returns 

Regardless of where you’re returning the ball, keep your feet moving throughout the entire stroke. Also, try to swing on the way up and hit through the ball toward your target. 

For instance, if you’re trying to return a hard first serve down the middle of the court, don’t just lean into it with an open racket. Instead, move forward as you swing and keep your legs moving until after contact is made.

Even on soft serves that go wide, keep your legs moving so you can follow the ball to the corner of the court. 

Keep your elbow close to your body on returns 

One of the most common mistakes players make when returning is that they point their elbow out toward their opponent instead of keeping it close to their body.

You’ll get much better results if you keep it tucked in. The closer your elbow is to your body, the easier it will be to hit flat returns that stay low or slice returns that spin away from your opponent. 

Don’t lift your head when hitting backhands 

Your eyes are important on all strokes but especially when returning a big shot with lots of topspin. Many players return with their head held high, which can result in off-center shots. 

Try to keep your head steady and still as you hit the ball. If you need to adjust or look up at it after contact, that’s OK – but try not to do so before it reaches you. 

Get Ready As Opponent’s Getting Ready to Serve 

Here’s a little-known fact: In most cases, your opponent is more nervous on the first serve than he is on the second. 

So when you’re returning serve, watch carefully to see how your opponent moves around and does things before he serves. Pay particular attention to his grip change if he uses one. You can even try some psychological warfare and do a few practice serves yourself before he begins his motion. 

Keep your wrist flexible when you return 

One mistake many players make is that they keep their arm stiff when returning. It doesn’t matter whether you’re pushing or hitting; it’s important to keep your wrist loose and flexible so you don’t add extra weight (and thus extra power) to your shots. 

If you’re pushing, move your arm when you hit the ball. This will add a little extra spin and make your opponent’s next shot a little harder. If you’re hitting, fully rotate your upper body when making contact with the ball. This will help keep your wrist loose and conserve your energy for future shots. 

Don’t try to run around your backhand 

It’s extremely difficult for most players to successfully return serves that go down the line to their backhand. So it’s natural for them to just turn and play the ball with their forehand. Don’t fall into this trap. 

Even if you can get to the ball, leaving your opponent’s serve is extremely difficult and requires a lot of skill. So don’t try it unless you’re sure you can handle it. If not, just play it with your forehand and give up the point early. 

But you’ll get better results if you learn how to move in toward the middle of the court. 

Watch how the pros return serve 

If you watch a few pro matches, you’ll see that all of them use the same basic technique for returning serve: They stand well back from the baseline and move forward as they swing. And if their opponent hits a hard, flat first serve, they tend to counter-punch rather than block the serve back. 

So even if you’re a junior playing in your first tournament, try to move in when returning serve. It will make life much easier for you when it’s time to play that big match. 

Develop Your Own Ritual for Receiving Serve 

You should develop your own service-receiving ritual that’s right for you. Not all players need to bounce the ball five or six times before they hit a serve return, but most will benefit by establishing some sort of routine.

There are several benefits to doing this: It helps you relax and concentrate on the task at hand; it’s a great way to break momentum in a tight match, and it also makes your opponent think that you’re getting ready to return his serve when you really aren’t. 

Adapt Your Stance, Depending on the Server 

In general, you’ll get better results if you’re ready to move in toward the middle of the court when returning a serve, but sometimes you need to get back even further.

Some servers have so much power that it’s not possible for the returner to counterpunch unless he stands back near the baseline and lets them have a go at it. 

If you’ve got a good chance of making the ball, go for it. If not, stay back and play it safe. You may end up losing a few points due to missed opportunities (and perhaps some games as well), but eventually your opponent will begin to miss his first serves and you’ll be able to move in with less of a risk. 

How to Return a Fast Serve 

When a serve comes at you, there is not much time to get into position and master your return stroke. You need to practice as often as possible so that it becomes committed muscle memory but also: 

Stand back against the baseline or close enough for an easy swing  

Don’t crowd the service line. 

Take a step back as soon as you see the ball leave the server’s hand to help generate power and time your return better. 

Don’t try to block or crush the first serve—it takes too much timing and power. Instead, play a mild cut shot with a little slice or topspin, 

Sway from side-to-side while keeping yourself on toes (or jumping) in order to reach out when needed quickly without wasting any motion by reaching too far ahead of where they throw their next ball. 

Maintain this balance and timing in order to return a fast serve at least into the service box. 

How to Return a Spin Serve 

You need to be mentally prepared for the return of a fast serve. Try and guess which spin it has, top-spinned backside or side-spinned? Once you know this information or think that you do then use your feet!

As soon as the incoming ball is about ready hit anticipation by moving into an appropriate stroke; forehand if serving at chest height while throwing down elbow level receptions off both sides (in case there was no response). 

Be ready because even though these shots may seem simple – they’re anything but easy when played against a professional or even a regular opponent that can serve well, which is why you’ll have to return the ball back into play before they advance up to the net for a volley. 

How to Return a Slow, Kick Serve 

You have to return a spin serve with the use of your legs which should power you up through the ball. It requires great timing but once you’ve reached this level, you won’t have to think about it again because that’s how committed muscle memory is created! 

Taking control of the ball is all about anticipating how it will bounce and return accordingly. For example, if you anticipate that this shot may kick away from your body then try taking a slightly more defensive approach with a spin by getting down low while horizontally crossed. 

I’m not gonna lie: It takes some practice but don’t worry; once learned these techniques become second nature so much faster than if I had just done everything automatically as usual. 

How to Return Slice Serve 

The slice serve is a very effective way to introduce some variety into the service game. It’s not as fast as a regular serve so you can stand closer to the middle of the baseline and it doesn’t have as much spin as a top-spun serve which makes it easier for returners to control with their forehands if they practice by slicing the ball back over the net and into their side of the court. 

The key is to not commit too early and lunge out at it since this will expose you to a more aggressive shot by your opponent. Instead, wait for him to hit his spot and then try slicing the ball away from the body towards an open court if possible. 

I’ve found that if I can return a slice serve into the middle then this is the best way to deflect an opponent’s next shot away from your body, making it harder for him to hit his next shot. 

Drills to Practice the Return of Serve 

This is by no means an exhaustive list but it can be used to get yourself started. 

Note: Not all of these drills are suitable for the beginner tennis player because they require that you hit hard-hitting forehands or backhands aggressively. Don’t try that unless you’re very comfortable with your ability to return a shot! 

I think these three drills are excellent for everyone to practice with:

Meeting the Ball Early in Front of Your Racket 

When dealing with a fast serve, you need to make contact with the ball in front of your own racket (about 10-20 inches in front ideally) where there is still ‘time’ to generate some kind of power and control.

It’s like making a defensive handshake when meeting someone else’s hand at eye level, following through and down, in front of your body. 

Getting in front of the ball at contact ensures that you won’t be late and give away cheap points and/or make errors if you do get hit by a strong serve; it’s all about patience and good preparation. 

This is the most basic way to return a tennis serve but you’ll need to do it consistently in order to get good enough at it so that you can actually win the point instead of losing it by sending your return long or into the net. 

Practice Returning Different Serves 

Serves are varied between ones to the T, ones that go wide, ones that go straight to your body, short ones, fast ones, etc. so you need to practice returning all those different serves as well as their forthcoming returns. 

I have seen a lot of beginners don’t anticipate the shot and just hit at it with no real technique since they’re only thinking about getting their racket on the ball instead of focusing first on being in front of it, but that’s going to lead to errors. 

Try “Dry Practicing” If You Don’t Have A Ball 

Not everyone has access to a ball-tossing machine and these devices aren’t cheap, so what you can do is set up your camera on a tripod so it takes slow video of you facing this way and that way. 

It’s not as good as having someone strike the ball at you but it’ll give you some idea of where you need to get in front of the ball at different heights, speeds and distances. 

Be sure to practice your returns on the run so that you can also anticipate when your opponent is going wide or hitting it straight at you. 

Tennis Reflexes and Tennis Reactions 

These are things that, for the most part, take time and effort to master. Try to really think about what’s going on as well as be patient with yourself as you practice all these different types of returns. 

When I first started practicing on my own I was always in a rush because I wanted to get better right away but this mindset only got me into a lot of trouble and I didn’t really improve that much. 

A Return In Tennis Is All About A Fast Reaction Time 

We’re talking about tennis reflexes and reactions here so just remember that to get these ‘reactions’, you need to have prepared yourself beforehand by being in the correct position, backswing or whatever it is. 

For example, if your opponent serves very close to his body but with a lot of spin on the ball then he’s likely going to put the ball out wide, but you need to allow yourself time to pivot along with your backswing so that you can hit it very hard and far without making too many errors. 

Final Thoughts 

You don’t have to go off the deep end with these types of tennis tips, or any other tip for that matter. You can always ‘muddle through’ without much thought by following your instincts but I would really urge you to take a step back and think about why you’re doing what you’re doing instead because that way it’ll become rather intuitive. 

Tennis players serve the ball at speeds up to 155 mph. The tennis player must return it within a few seconds or risk losing the point. This article will teach you how to become proficient in this game by understanding what goes on during these brief moments. 

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