Returning serve skills can be broken down into three specific skills. To be a great returner of serves you need all of them. The three are the ability to 1) read and react to the serve; 2) make consistent returns; and 3) make effective returns. Let's look at all three.
Read and React to the Serve.
All the great shots in the world won't help you if you can't read and react to the serve. This means reading and reacting to what type of spin is on the ball; the direction; the depth; the speed; even the height. You read the spin by watching the direction of the opponent's racket at contact with the ball, and by watching how the ball travels through the air and bounces on the table.
Make Effective Returns.
This means returning the serve in such a way that the server loses his advantage, and either get into a neutral rally or one where you have the advantage. For example, you may attack the serve by looping, driving, or flipping to put the server on the defensive. (Down side: it's easy to miss.) You may place the ball so the server is unable to follow with a strong shot. (Down side: it's not easy to receive accurately against a varied serve with lots of speed and/or spin.) You may push aggressively with heavy backspin to stop the server's attack. (Down side: Server may loop it, and turn your backspin into his own topspin.) You may push the ball back short so the server cannot loop. (Down side: it takes great ball control, and it's easy to pop the ball up, go into the net, or simply not push short enough.)
Make Consistent Returns.
It's not enough to make effective returns; you have to be consistent. Most top players will tell you that returning serves is all about ball control. They may attack the serve when they see the chance, but mostly they just want to neutralize things while being extremely consistent. This doesn’t mean just pushing every serve back; it means using all of your receives to mess up the opponent, but doing so at a level where you rarely give away a free point.
Here are some other Tips of the Week on returning serves. Receive is often called everyone's weakness, but it doesn't have to be. Many players turn it into a strength. Why not you?