The Purpose of the Return of Serve

What is your “intent” when you return serve in doubles? If it is to win the point on that andrestroke, you are probably over reaching and making too many return errors.

Playing a good doubles match recently, it dawned on me: The return of serve is like an approach shot in singles… your intent is not to win the point on that stroke; but to set up the NEXT shot.

In doubles, the return is usually cross court and (hopefully) low; so the server coming in has to “volley up.” That is the signal for your partner to step into the middle and then put away the next shot.

If you lob, it should not be trying for a winner; but to drive your opponents off the net; you and your partner come to the net; and then take the offense away from the serving team.

Even if you hit at the net man, again, you should be looking for him to just block it back; then you, or your partner, attacks the short ball for the winner.

So in doubles, the returner is the “setup man” and his partner should be ready to play the role of the “put away player.”

I once asked Roy Emerson at camp, “What should be our goal for return of serve percentage in doubles?” His answer was “100% returns in play!” And he backed that up by telling me he did exactly that in a Wimbledon doubles final!

1 thought on “The Purpose of the Return of Serve

  1. Doubles is a team sport, not an individual sport. Many, many players forget that. It does not matter who is the hero — i.e., the put away guy — and who is the set up person or “Steady Eddie” player. Both are essential to have on any and all good doubles teams.

    Under this concept, the returner is always the set up guy by virtue of the immutable fact that the point is lost unless the receiver gets it in play. So that would be priority number one, in my view. Even if the receiver does not have a very good return, no power, no touch, no disguise, no lob, etc., the receiver absolutely MUST get the ball back over the net and somewhat away from the opponents’ net man or else the point is lost. Even a pretty crappy return can be compensated for, a bit, if the receiver’s net many is quick and aggressive and has a good volley and overhead.

    Depending on the skill level of the receiver, there are various additional things that he or she can do with the return to make it harder for the serving team to win the point. These include:

    (1) Hitting the occasional shot down the line. However, this ball must be struck with good pace and topspin to make it effective. It also works well against a team where the net man is aggressive and likes to poach a lot as it tends to keep a poacher “honest.”

    (2) Hitting a return that is very wide or deep, thereby giving the server a hard time to get the ball back and preventing the net man from poaching. Although this shot can be hit with any spin, or even flat, it is usually better to hit topspin if the goal is to hit the ball wide into the opposing alley or to hit it flat, like a drive, or with underspin or side spin if the goal is to hit deep. Spins like those give more margin of error and make the ball that much harder for the server to return.

    (3) Hitting the ball right at the net man. However, this ball must be an asbsolute screamer to be effective, and it can only be used occasionally for the surprise effect or else a good volleyer will get accustomed to the tactic and start to eat up the shots.

    (4) Lobbing over the net man. This tactic is especially useful against a net rushing server or where the serving team is not that fast. In my opinion it is not used enough in higher level doubles as everybody somehow feels they are too macho to lob. But, to be effective, the lob should be hit with some topspin — a defensive lob off a service return is a sure fire way for the receiving team’s net man to get a ball sandwich — and placement is important. In other words, do NOT hit the lob high toward the incoming server. He will thank you mightily for the easy put away shot that you have just hit to him. However, do hit the offensive or topspin lob right over the net man, preferably over his backhand side or so that it lands right in the corner, where the baseline intersects with the alley.

    (5) Hitting a little dinky cross court that is essentially a drop shot that drops in the alley away from the receiver. However, this must be carried out to perfection to be successful and it usually works best against a team where the server likes to stay back and not rush the net and where the net man is not particularly aggressive or fast.

    – Marty

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