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Coaches Corner - tip of the month

November 2010:


Q. What’s the most ignored shot, in terms of practice time devoted to it, in tennis?

A. The return of serve. Since it’s second in importance behind the serve regarding getting the ball in play, and arguably number two in the difficulty department as well, this is very curious. And, even the pre-match warm-up provides very limited return practice if you follow protocol – at the tour level it is rare that anyone will even attempt it, preferring instead to concentrate on their serves.

Although still a forehand or backhand, it is differentiated from in the point ground strokes hit on the run because it is launched from a static start. Not easy!

Because it is a static start shot, developing, at least at first, a consciously repeatable ritual –  exactly  the same each and every time - that will eventually morph into becoming as automatic and unconscious as walking, is enormously important. So many players, either unenlightened or complacent or both, arrive at their chosen return position with nothing in mind, and then stand there motionless imitating a mannequin at Macy’s. Not good!

After a receiving game point is completed make it a point to inhale and exhale deeply and quiet your mind for a few seconds. Then visualize your flight plan for your next return – one for both the forehand and backhand wing - and release any telltale tension in your jaw, neck, shoulders, and arms and hands while you make your way slowly and methodically to the next receiving position. Since there’s nothing worse than allowing yourself to be quick served, either intentionally or unintentionally, always approach your chosen spot from well behind the baseline while facing the server. Walk well past the baseline if you’re coming from the court proper. If necessary, once you’ve turned around wave off any server rushing you with your hand up until you’ve had time to completely settle in.

Once there, re-energize as necessary by laterally skipping side-to-side, foot-to-foot, followed by the ritual stage typically consisting of a slow and easy side-to-side swaying back and forth of the racket and shoulders. This will enhance both relaxation and rhythm prior to the initial take-back-turn-pivot that’s completed by the time the ball is passing over the net, albeit softly, versus a solid serve once the split step is landed at the server’s impact. And you’d better have a well timed split step if you’re going to be the receiver you’re capable of being.

Now footwork becomes crucial and is fully engaged in either chasing down a serve that stretches you out wide or into the center of the court, or through stutter-stepping, those small, rapid fire adjustment steps that keep you connected and in synch with serves right into your strike zone or ones that are jamming you.

Nonetheless, solid, reliable returning isn’t going to happen without exceptionalball tracking, beginning at impact, to the service box bounce point – a common place to “lose it,” and finally into the hitting zone in front of your body where you intend to strike it based upon your pre-visualized shot selection.

During this always the same sequence of events, from approaching your position, to settling in, to serve recognition, and up to the moment of ball-on-racket impact, your head must remain very still if you’re going to see the ball well. Bobble-heading, or lifting your head up and back as you’re striking the ball, minimally guarantees return misdirection and often causes completely shanked mishits. No possibilities at all!

Returning serve is ultimately about timing through both eye-hand and eye-foot coordination working in tandem – the elusive right place, right time. Teaming up with the approaching ball, working with it versus fighting it, supports the physical components of smoothness versus lunging or jerking at the ball, and also promotes a positive and comfortable mindset that will produce your best results.

Need a model? There is no one better at preparing to return serve than Serena Williams. Her ritual from a point’s end leads up to, and is aimed at, a perfectly timed total focus on the ball and its intended outcome, with clearly nothing else entering the picture. Her beautifully managed tabula rasa moment. Wow!

I’ll leave you with a reminder of a return dynamic that you experience periodically. The ball is served. It appears as if it’s on track to be in. You ready yourself. You start your racket at the ball, but, at the very last moment you realize that it’s just out and you, physically unable to stop the racket but with any pressure suddenly eliminated, completely relax and go through with the return. The result? Almost always a mind boggling, perfectly timed, silky smooth, and effortlessly powerful shot with a GPS-like guided result!

Think about that!

Questions and comments are welcome at anytime for all tips present and past via email.

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