Hardcourt Tactics: The Return of Serve Plan
It's the start of Week 3 of the Emirates Airlines US Open Series, and the ATP and WTA versions of the Rogers Cup last week put big, flat serving on display. When it wasn't raining literally, it was raining aces. As I said in my previous article, the hot temperatures really make the ball move fast on the Deco Turf II. Yet somehow, breaks of serve are still happening, and it's been the big returns of Kei Nishikori, Andy Murray, and Angelique Kerber who've overcome their big serving opponents the past 2 weeks to win titles. What they've all done is something amateur competitive and recreational players alike can do against their big serving opponents: have a return of serve plan.
For the competitive juniors I coach, the big flat serve begins to be a consistent problem starting in the Boys 14u and the Girls 16u ranks. That's when I start getting post match reports from players and parents that go something like this: “there was nothing he/she could've done. The opponent hit a lot of big 1st serves, so no chance to break.” That's why in practice I work with players on becoming pro-active returners instead of reactive returners. That is, I teach them to design a return of serve plan. Here's the most common and simple one:
- Opponent begins match hitting a high percentage of damaging flat serves on both deuce and ad courts; fast enough to produce both aces and forced errors
- The server has not shown any ability to hit kick, slice, or topspin slice serves that move severely away from the returner in any direction. The 2nd serve is a medium-paced topspin serve that moves forward after the bounce.
- Return of Serve Plan: move at least halfway between the baseline and fence to allow for more time to make contact out-in-front. If that doesn't work, move even further back.
The purpose of any return of serve plan is to prepare for the server's most damaging and consistent serves and targets. In this easy example, the returner's plan provides maximum preparation for the most damaging serve: the flat 1st serve. It encourages the opponent to prove they not only have power on the serve, but variety and placement. Maybe the server does, but return planning forces that display of higher level serving skill...a skill I find junior competitors and adult recreational players struggle with. I see plenty of 1st serve power, but not a lot of variety and placement.
After serve speed, the next part of return planning is serve direction. At all levels of play, servers have favorite serving targets. ATP and WTA Tour Pros get it down to exact situations such as what type of serve they like to hit, and where, when facing a break point on the ad side. Tour players also have the opportunity to scout their opponents (either via coaches or video). The average tennis player has to pick up preferred serving direction information point-by-point. Here's how to do that:
- Point 1 (deuce): server hits the big flat serve down the “T” for an ace
- Point 2 (ad): returner should now adjust by moving back halfway between the baseline and fence and starting with their left leg in line with the singles sideline against a right handed server (against a lefty, stand directly behind the middle of the box as their flat serve would be most effective down the “T”).
- The returner can only plan based on the information they know. In the early going, the plan is to find out what directions the server is best at by encouraging them to constantly go for different targets. Starting the point noticeably to one side of the service box does that.
- The server is now in a tougher position than Point 1. If the server takes the bait and hits to what appears to be the open side, the returner is betting on that and has a great chance at an offensive return. If the serve is to the side that appears to be covered, the returner is physically there and can really play offense. Only through a higher level of serving will the server maintain the advantage.
- Point 3 (deuce): The returner has one point of prior experience to build on. The returner knows the server can hit a flat ace down-the-T. The immediate goal is to not get beat by that same serve. Force the server to show directional variety. Returner should start halfway between baseline and fence, and with the right foot behind middle of the service box.
- Point 4 (ad): The returner again has knowledge on which to build a plan. The adjustment should be the same: move back enough to handle the speed, and the horizontal position should encourage the server to go away from their preferred target.
As points go on, the returner is constantly getting more information on the server's preferences. In most junior tournaments and even adult leagues I see, the server's tendencies are shown within the first 2 service games. By this time the returner should have separate return plans for 1st and 2nd serves on both deuce and ad sides. Proper execution of those plans will encourage servers to use their favorite type of serve less, and aim to their least preferred targets. Mission accomplished!
When servers truly prove to be skilled in speed, variety, and placement, returners have to do what good poker players do: bluff! When facing a server that can hit with power and angles, as ATP and WTA Tour players do daily, returners play a far riskier game. They often fake a move to one side and then move into the opposite direction; they might also stay on that original side. This could result in an ace. Then again, when the serves are moving in the 130 mph area, trying to react is a losing game. Here's ATP #1 Novak Djokovic showing a perfect display of return planning against ATP #3 Andy Murray:
Notice before each Murray serve, Djokovic is taking a few steps to one side or the other. This is the last information about Djokovic's return position Murray will have before the serve...and it's a trap! Djokovic changes his movement on each serve. Murray can't be sure if Djokovic will stay on the side he's moving to, or change directions. It can't be said Djokovic is controlling Murray's serve direction, but his movement does effect it..and that's the start of the path that leads to the all-important break of serve! Follow Novak's lead, and start devising return plans in your matches; breaks of serve will be in your very near future!