Serve Return Strategy

The receiving position is in the middle of the court, about an arm and a racquet length in front of the back wall. Hold the racquet about waist high across your body, preferably supported by your left hand. You should be in the athletic position with your knees bent and your weight on the balls of your feet, ready to move quickly. Hold the racquet loosely with a backhand grip. I do not recommend bending at the waist. It makes it harder to breathe and you will almost certainly stand up when you move anyway.

When you are receiving serve, you are at a distinct disadvantage relative to the server. You are in deep court while your opponent is in the front court. He has the ball in his hand and can choose from a wide variety of serves. He is even allowed to obscure your view of the ball (within reason under the screen serve rules).

Goals for the receiver

You have two goals. The first is to regain an equal footing with the server, so that you have at least an equal opportunity to win the rally. The simplest way to achieve this goal is to hit a ceiling ball return. A ceiling ball pulls your opponent into deep court and allows you ample time to get into good center court position just behind the dotted line. Try to make sure that the ceiling ball doesn’t rebound off the back wall for an offensive opportunity for your opponent. If it comes up short, you have at least pulled your opponent into the back court with you.

Your second goal is to put pressure on your opponent, so that you actually regain the advantage in the rally. You do this by hitting an offensive shot. However, you should not try to hit kill shots on the return of serve. Remember, you are in deep court and your opponent is probably in front of the dotted line. He is in good position to retrieve pinches, splats, and other attempted kill shots. Don’t try to hit the perfect kill shot from deep court. It is a very low percentage shot, especially when your opponent is in mid-court. On the other hand, because your opponent is probably in front of the dotted line, he is vulnerable to the pass. Therefore, to be aggressive and smart at the same time, hit passing shots on the return of serve.

Attacking the serve

Hitting passes is easy if the serve rebounds off the back wall. However, a good serve is designed to die in the corner where it is difficult to retrieve. So, if possible, attack the serve and hit it before it gets to the back corner or back wall. There are three ways to attack the serve: volley it, short-hop it, or mid-hop it. The short-hop is hit immediately after the ball hits the floor so that the ball is only a few inches off the floor when struck. This is an advanced skill requiring precise timing. The mid-hop is a little easier. Let the ball bounce and hit it on the rise a foot or so above the floor. The volley is the easiest, especially if you hit a ceiling ball off the volley. Just angle your racquet face toward the ceiling about 7-10 feet from the front wall. I recommend some serious practicing before trying to hit an offensive shot off the short hop, mid-hop or volley in a meaningful game. For some examples of pros cutting off lob serves, click here.

So, your first goal is to get the receiver in deep court while you take good center court position. Your second goal is to put pressure on him so that he hits a weak shot (or even better, fails to retrieve the ball at all) and the advantage tilts back toward you. Your first choice should be a passing shot. This achieves both goals. However, if your opponent hits a good serve, you can at least achieve your first goal by returning a ceiling ball.

Watch the server

You might be able to guess to which side the serve is going by watching where he drops the ball and his service motion. Also, if the server gets into a rut and starts hitting the same serve over and over, you can be ready. On the other hand, if the server is having great success with one serve, then move so that you can more easily deal with that serve. At least you are taking that serve away from him and forcing him to hit another serve which he may not do as well.

Be aggressive on the return of serve, but be smart at the same time. Practice cutting the serve off before it gets to the back wall Practice cutting the Z-serve off before it gets to the side wall. Do not attempt to kill the serve. Practice hitting good passes off the serve.

Serve return mechanics

To return a drive serve to the (right hander's) backhand, move the racquet to the ready position while you take a pivot step with your left foot (turn your toes toward the left side wall and take a small six-inch step, sometimes called a "jab step"). Then take a big cross-over step with your right foot. Using this movement, you should be able to reach virtually except the perfect serve that stays  within a few inches of the side wall and dies in the corner.

To return a drive serve to the forehand, take the pivot step with the right foot and the cross-over step with the left foot. Make sure your racquet is up and ready.

You might improve your quickness by taking a "split step," a dynamic hop, as the ball is hit. It is easier to move if you are already in motion. See the section on footwork.

If you opponent is hitting beautiful drive serves into the corners, take the pivot plus crossover step and lunge. Try to slip your racquet under the ball with the strings pointing upward at a 35-45 degree angle and flick it to the ceiling. Frequently, the momentum of the serve will be enough to get the ball to the ceiling, or at least the front wall, and keep you from being aced. For some examples of ceiling ball returns off drive serves, click here.

Cutting off the Z-serve

To cut off the Z-serve, your jab step and cross-over step should be diagonally toward the front corner rather than sideways toward the back corner. This gets you closer to the path of the Z-serve than the usual sideways movement.

More videos

The first video shows several pros returning serves. Note (1) even though Cliff Swain is bent at the waist, he straightens up to move (2) Cliff Swain and Rocky Carson take a split step before taking the pivot step (3) they all have their racquet up and ready as they take their cross-over step. Pro Return Serve Video

The second video shows several pros cutting off lob serves.. The first clip shows Mitch Williams taking the ball on the short hop. Note that he doesn't cross the dotted line. This is a very difficult return. The second clip shows Brent Walters attacking the serve shoulder high. The third clip shows Cliff Swain cutting off a Jason Mannino junk serve. Pro Lob Cutoff Video.