The Return Of Serve – the difference maker at Wimbledon
Of the 4 Grand Slams, Wimbledon is historically known as a server's paradise. There's strong evidence that reputation is as true as ever. Through one week of Wimbledon so far, the Men's Ace leader, Nick Kyrigos of Australia, has 76 aces. The Ace leader for the French Open (Milos Raonic), and Australian Open (Stan Wawrinka) had 83 and 81 aces through 2 entire weeks of play respectively. The Wimbledon grass isn't playing as fast as it used to, but it's still a very fast surface, and much damage can be done on the serve alone. Despite the serve devastation at the All England Club, the return of serve is the shot that separates the champions from the rest. The Big 4 on the Men's Tour (Djokavic, Federer, Nadal, and Murray), all Wimbeldon Champions, are all the best on tour at breaking their opponents serves. Players of any level can improve their match results by following the footwork and variety those 4 players show in this all important shot.
Return of Serve Movement
With serves on the ATP Tour reaching up to 162 mph, how are these guys able to not only return the serve, but win entire service games against such heavy artillery? The first part part is movement before the return is made. If you want to catch up with a fast moving object, doing it from a static position is the hard way. Defending Champion Andy Murray of the UK is neck and neck with Novak Djokavic, as the odd-on favorite to win the Men's Singles title. It's no coincidence that he and Djokavic are regarded as the best returners in the world. Here's Andy Murray showing off his forehand & backhand returns of serve:
The key factor here is how his feet are moving long before the ball lands in the service box in front of him. This movement allows him to build up momentum that can be transferred into the return of serve. Not only does this delivery increase his ability to hit deep returns, but it will allow whatever type of spin he choose (in this case topspin) to be more damaging.
Return of Serve Variety
The other key component to breaking down the big guns being fired at Wimbledon returners is the variety of spin. If the returner can consistently keep the server guessing as to what type of spin and speed of return will be coming back, they can steal the offensive advantage back from the server. No player does this better than 7-time champion Roger Federer of Switzerland. Here's Roger hitting backhand return of serves:
Notice his ability to switch from shot to shot whether the racquet comes over or under the ball. That variety makes it far more difficult for the server to take advantage of his big gun and move forward into the court for a second offensive shot. This variety can be so confounding that the server can often go from a big serve to hitting a defensive shot off of Federer's return. Throw in the uneven bounces that are part of grass court tennis and chasing down the varying spins on returns is a server's nightmare.