By Larry Hodges
Returning a short serve, especially one to the forehand, can be quite difficult. Most players don’t understand the techniques used in returning short serves, often making them easy prey for a good server.
The most important aspect of returning any serve is reading the spin. Most good servers use a semi-circular motion to disguise racket direction at contact. You must watch the RACKET very carefully to help you determine whether the serve is topspin or chop and how much of either spin is on the ball. Reading the degree of the sidespin that may be present further complicates your task. To learn to read service spin, you must consciously decide what spin is being used and respond accordingly. Trial and error will teach you in the beginning so don’t be afraid to make mistakes.
If you have read the spin correctly, it is usually easy to return short serves, especially those to the backhand. But a short serve to the forehand can be awkward because the table gets in the way. You must practice returning short serves to the forehand or it will remain awkward for you.
Footwork is mandatory. You need to step in under the table for extra balance and reach. Most good players step in under the table for extra balance and reach. Most good players step in with their right foot if they are righthanded for all short serves. (Lefties step in with left foot.) This gives you maximum reach on the forehand and puts you in and ideal position on the backhand receive. Some players prefer to step in with their left foot for short forehand serves because this puts them in a good forehand position, but it takes away almost a foot in reach and leaves you vulnerable to a return to your wide backhand. I would recommend that you learn the right-foot-first approach (lefties reverse) and realize that after you step in, you must also step back out to your original ready position.
Stepping in for the short backhand serve can be done with either foot, provided you understand the consequences. If you go in with the right foot, you can hit a more powerful backhand but it will be more difficult to move quickly to the forehand having committed your right foot and right side to the backhand side. By going in with the left foot, you can sidestep more quickly to the right to cover your forehand. It’s the in-and-out footwork involved with returning short serves that is the key to avoiding placing yourself in an awkward position. Experiment by shadow drilling to get a feel for the differences in going in to the backhand with the right or left foot and do the drill as if your shot was going to be returned. This forces you to consider how you should be positioned for the third ball.
The proper racket angle is essential to returning the different combinations of spin you will encounter. Unfortunately, experience is the real teacher here and that’s why receiving service is usually the hardest part of the game to master. Ask a good player in your club to practice his serves against you. It will benefit him while you learn without the pressures of a real match. You will quickly learn that just returning the serve is not good enough. You must also keep that good player from using his third ball attack.
Against a short chop serve, you can push short, long, or flip.
To push short, you should contact the ball just after it bounces and with a soft motion, return it as low as you can. Given the chance, it should bounce twice on the other side. You shouldn’t get in the habit of just putting the ball back. Try to give that ball a good backspin. You an also take the ball right off the bounce and try for a very short drop return. This takes a lot of touch and if it’s at all high, it’s an easy kill.
If you push the serve long, make sure it goes deep so it bounces within six inches of the endline. A medium deep push is an easy ball to attack. Make sure to put good chop on the ball or it will be less effective.
A flip is a unique shot that is used to attack a short ball. On the backhand, it is just a normal backhand with more wrist snap. Flipping with the forehand is more difficult.
You should be well over the table for the forehand flip with the right leg (righties) well under the table. Extending the arm more than usual, you take a short backswing, and using mostly wrist and forearm, stroke the ball. Generally, flips are hit to the wide angles. By tilting your wrist back, you can make the ball go down the line and your opponent won’t know which way you are going until the last moment. When flipping against chop, you should open the racket more and brush the ball with an upward grazing motion. This will produce topspin with control. Against side/top or a weak chop serve, you should use a more closed racket and hit straight through the ball.
Against a short serve that has topspin or side/top, you can flip or chop back.
A chop block is a combination of a push and block. Think of it as a push with closed racket. You chop down on he ball to produce maximum backspin. You shouldn’t overuse the chop block, but against some players it is effective if they don’t loop it. It can be placed both short and long. To keep it short takes a lot of touch, but many top players do it, especially against a sidespin serve.
When receiving, you should always be trying to get the initiative, usually by attacking. Don’t keep pushing long if your opponent attacks the pushes. Flip or push short instead. A short push stops the loop and brings your opponent over the table, leaving him vulnerable to a deep ball. Flip whenever you can unless your opponent is not following up his serve.
Most importantly, vary the way you receive serves. An effective receive makes the rally go the way you want it, which means you can win the point when your opponent is serving.