How do professional tennis players successfully return serves?
Georgina Vernon – as part of her PhD at Victoria University – interviewed 8 male professional tennis players (6 former players and 2 current players), with the aim of identifying the key factors influencing the ability to anticipate (and therefore return) serves.
Nine key themes emerged from the interviews (detailed below). Note: the quotes are taken from the original article.
“… tennis players are consciously aware of various contextual and kinematic information sources which would result in a particular outcome that would help them anticipate particular types of serves. This conscious gathering of information would continue during the match and be constantly updated based on new information and information sources from their opponent throughout the match.”
2. Tactical Awareness
“Having good tactical awareness when returning a serve meant being aware of the many contextual and kinematic factors which would contribute to anticipating a high percentage situation.”
Hence, players who possessed a better understanding of tactics were more likely to anticipate the type and direction of serves.
3. Contextual Information Sources
A number of contextual information sources (i.e., cues) were identified as being used to anticipate the type and direction of serves. These included serve preference depending on score (e.g., break points), player handedness, weather and court surface.
Players indicated “that it only took two or three service games from their opponent for them to be aware of the server’s preferences.”
4. Kinematic Information Sources
Five kinematic cues were identified as being important for anticipating serve direction and serve type:
- Ball toss (most common)
- Grip on the racket
- Server’s position on the baseline
- Torso rotation during the serve
- Type of service action of the server
“In order for tennis players to anticipate a serve and use the anticipatory information, they must be confident that the information they are perceiving is sufficiently reliable for them to act upon before ball flight information is available”.
In other words, it is important for players to be confident in their anticipatory judgement.
6. Returner Technique or Strategy
Given that the returner has minimal time to return the serve, it was suggested that it was important for the returner to have compact swings on both their forehand and backhand sides. It was also suggested that an effective strategy when returning serve was to aim for a large target area the other side of the court.
7. Build Pressure on Server
“Many returners say that they would prefer to hit a second serve as opposed to a first serve in a match as second serves are often more predictable and much slower than a first serve. While this is very server-determined, participants discussed the tactic of forcing pressure onto the server to attempt to bluff them into serving either a slower-paced first serve or a second serve.”
8. Returning Characteristics
Although the players described 3 types of returners – (1) aggressive returners, (2) counter-puncher returners and (3) neutral returners – it was suggested that being adaptable was a key characteristic of players who were superior in returning serve.
“… there was consensus among all participants that adaptability and consistency were important characteristics which good returners must possess regardless of returner type.”
There was general agreement amongst participants that returns are not practiced enough. Hence, increasing the time dedicated to practicing the return will likely lead to better performance.
“.. the return of serve is practiced proportionately less than the serve and is often incorporated in point or match practice play during training sessions, however, it was becoming a more important aspect of training”
Timeline of factors influencing the return
The authors created a figure that illustrates when each information sources contributes to the ability to anticipate serves in a match. An important aspect of the figure is that it takes into account the information gathered about an opponent in the day(s) prior to the match.
Vernon, G., Farrow, D., & Reid, M. (2018). Returning serve in tennis: A qualitative examination of the interaction of anticipatory information sources used by professional tennis players. Frontiers in psychology, 9.