October 27, 2014 - Defensive or Offensive Returns of Short Serves

While this Tip is mostly about returning short serves, it also follows for those who aren't ready or able to loop against deep serves. At higher levels most players loop deep serves, and so only have to make a decision on what to do against shorter serves. At beginning and intermediate levels, however, players often do push against deep backspin serves. If they are going to do this, they should at least know how to approach this with their receive.

Many players look to push back most serves - and are caught off guard against topspin and sidespin serves, often popping them up or making a last-second change to a weak drive return. (You can chop down on these and sort of push them back, but it's often better to drive them back.) Others wait to see if the ball has backspin or not, and have to make a last-second choice between pushing (if the ball has backspin) or driving (if the ball doesn't have backspin). If the serve is no-spin, you can do either, but if you push you have to aim low.

If you want to reach the higher levels, it's often better to approach receive with the idea that you are going to attack all short serves - unless you make a last-second decision to push. In other words, rather than looking to push (and messing up against topspin/sidespin) or having to make a last-second decision between two choices (and so not being really ready for either), it's better to know what you are going to do and be decisive about it - and then change your mind at the last second if you see backspin. There are three primary reasons for this.

First, it's a lot easier to change your mind at the last second from attacking the serve to a simple push if you see backspin on the serve than it is to go from pushing to attacking the serve if you realize it isn't a backspin serve. It's easy to simply open your racket at the last second and push against a slow, incoming backspin ball, but it's tricky close your racket at the last second and drive against a faster incoming topspin or sidespin ball.

Second, you can attack any short serve - even if it has backspin - and so if you decide in advance you are going to attack, you know you can do this. If you instead decide in advance to push the serve, you may get crossed up with a non-backspin serve. And if the ball does have backspin and you decide an attack is risky, it's easy to change your mind and switch to a push. There's nothing wrong with mostly pushing against backspin, though at higher levels you'd need to sometimes push them short or attack them.

And third, it gives you decisiveness. If you aren't sure whether you are going to attack or push, that can lead to indecisiveness, which leads to mistakes.

So look to be aggressive in your receives, with the option of switching to a push against backspin if you aren't confident in attacking it. You may still end up switching to a push most of the time against most backspin serves, but that's easy to do, and you'll be better at reacting to topspin/sidespin serves while learning to at least sometimes be aggressive against backspin serves. It's easier to be aggressive and switch to a push than it is to be defensive and switch to being aggressive, and it's always better to be decisive than to go in indecisively and having to make a last-second decision.