How To Return A Fast Tennis Serve

how to return a fast tennis serve

Want to know how to return a fast tennis serve?

One of the most controversial issues in men’s professional tennis over the last couple of decades has been the importance of the serve. Great servers like Ivo Karlovic and John Isner can accrue an enormous number of aces in a match, especially on a relatively fast court surface, and some people believe that this detracts from the spectacle. 

I personally disagree with this, as I enjoy watching top class serving as much as a great forehand, but nonetheless efforts have been made to slow down courts and balls in order to make it more difficult for big servers to dominate. 

In seniors tennis, at least in the younger age groups, you will encounter plenty of players who still possess a powerful serve. If you doubt this, keep in mind that Ivo Karlovic is still racking up aces on the ATP Tour at the age of 42. Their power will dissipate gradually as they get older, but returning their serves can be a significant challenge. In this article I will look at how to return a fast tennis serve.

Short on time? Here is the quick summary.

How To Return a Fast Tennis Serve – Our 5 TIPS 

1. If your opponent simply hits the ball hard without any great subtlety, you need to consider where they typically serve. Adjust your starting position so that you are well placed to return their favourite serve.

2. Decide how far back to stand and match with your swing (standing further back requires a longer swing)

3. Study the service action of your opponents on video (or previous matches) if possible in order to look for indications of where they are going to serve.

4. For an unfamiliar opponent, try to determine their serve preference from the pre-match warm up, or observations during the match. Once you can read their serve, select the best strategy to handle it.

5. Considering your opponent’s serve and your return preference, select the most suitable grip (closer to continental the less time you expect to have). 

I will explain in details in the next sections.

Dealing With Power

A serve can have a large amount of topspin or slice, which need to be dealt with using specific techniques. The first thing to combat, however, is pure pace. At any level, you will come across players who can hit a serve very hard. The best players can disguise where they are going to hit it, and apply various spins, but lower level players simply hit the ball hard without any great subtlety. This does not necessarily mean that their serves are easy to return, especially on a quick court, as the sheer velocity can make it difficult to control the ball. Nonetheless, there are several techniques you can use to help you combat raw power and neutralise these heavy serves.

In order to return a serve well, you need to begin by taking up a good position on the court. Consider where your opponent typically serves. Do they favour a specific placement, or do they switch between two or more options on each side? Once you have worked this out, you can determine the starting point which will give you the best chance of reaching the expected serves. 

Sometimes, especially at lower levels, a player will favour a single type of serve on each side, and will hit this seven or eight times out of ten. In this case, it is a good plan to adjust your starting position so that you are well placed to return their favourite serve. By doing this, you can neutralise the effect of this serve and potentially force them into hitting one in which they have less confidence. This often results in more first serves being missed, and gives you a better chance of breaking serve.

Another important aspect of court positioning is how far back you stand. This will be influenced by a number of factors, including the court surface, the type of serve your opponent is hitting and the type of return you are aiming to hit. Watching the professionals will give you an idea of some of the options. 

Players who like to hit aggressive topspin groundstrokes, and who prefer slower surfaces, like Dominic Thiem and Rafael Nadal, will generally stand several metres behind the baseline to return a powerful or high-kicking serve. They will then swing at the return fairly aggressively. Those who hit flatter and prefer to play from closer to the baseline, like Roger Federer, will start much closer in and use a shorter backswing. 

Andy Murray, who is one of the greatest returners in the game, began his professional career returning from relatively close to the baseline, but realised that it was better for him to stand further back, and adjusted his starting position by about one metre. He likes to step forward as the server is throwing the ball up, in order that his weight distribution is appropriate for the way he wants to return.

In general, the best way to deal with a powerful serve is to take a short backswing and make sure your centre of gravity is forward. The actual technique, if you choose to take the return relatively early, is like a volley, in terms of requiring a punch rather than a swing. Of course, if you want to return from a long way back like Thiem and Nadal, you will need to take a longer swing. However, in seniors tennis few players have the power (and indeed many courts do not have enough run-off at the back) to use the latter approach effectively. 

Combating Spin And Disguise

Better players will not simply hit their serve hard: they will be able to use various spins and disguise their placement. This adds an additional layer of challenge for the returner. As they only have a fraction of a second between the server striking the ball and its arrival at their end of the court, they must do their best to anticipate the spin and placement. 

Guesswork is of course one option: if you think a sliced serve wide to your forehand is coming, and you would not be able to return this from your starting position, you can begin to move this way as soon as the server tosses the ball up. Of course, if you are playing a good player who can vary their serve there is a 50% chance that this will result in you moving in completely the wrong direction! It is therefore better if you can base your belief about what type of serve is imminent upon real evidence.

Andy Murray famously spends a lot of time studying the service action of his opponents on video in order to look for indications of where they are going to serve. Some players will toss the ball in a different place, or prepare in a slightly different way, for the various types of serve they hit. If you, as a returner, can spot these variations at an early stage, you can be ready for the type of serve that is coming.

A famous example of this concerns Andre Agassi, who was the great returner of his era. He initially struggled against the big-serving Boris Becker, but careful study showed him that Becker would point his tongue in the direction he was going to serve during his preparation. Armed with this knowledge, Agassi dominated Becker from then on. 

As a seniors player, you may have to play someone you have never seen before. In this event, you will need to use the pre-match warm up to see if there are any ‘tells’ in their service preparation. Careful observation during the match may also help.

In most cases, however, you will either know the player or have had the chance to watch them play in an earlier round. Look in particular for how they throw the ball up for their various serves, as this is where variations are most often flagged. If you can ‘read’ their serve it will be much less effective.

Grips For Return

While every player will have their own preferred grip for returning serve, there are one or two aspects which are worth considering. If you are facing a very fast serve which can be placed to the forehand or backhand side, it makes sense to use a single grip which is suitable for either shot.

The continental grip is probably the most suitable, and fits well with the analogy of the return of serve to the volley, as it is the most common volleying grip. For a serve where you have slightly more time, or if you prefer to stand a long way back to return, other grips are possible.

A lot of players like to hold the racket in a weaker version (i.e. closer to the continental grip than they would typically use) of their forehand grip, adjusting to a backhand grip if necessary. This enables them to feel ready to attack any serve which does go to their forehand, and allows them to feel more positive mentally. 

Returning a Fast Tennis Serve is Learnable 

The return of serve is a crucial part of the game at any level, and it is often neglected in practice sessions. If you work hard on your returns, and spend as much time as possible studying your opponents’ serves, you can largely negate the benefit that heavy servers get from their power. This is very demoralising for players who normally get a lot of ‘free points’ from their serve. 

Just watch videos of some of Andy Murray’s matches with Milos Raonic or Andy Roddick. These were two of the fastest servers in the game, and Murray was able, at times, to leave them looking powerless and frustrated.

Whatever level you play at, think carefully about your positioning, grip and preparation, watch carefully for your opponent’s ‘tells’, and you can become a very effective returner.

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