It's the mano a mano moments in sports that are most welcome by the best competitors. The occasional penalty shots in hockey and soccer, and the game-ending shootouts.
In sports like tennis and baseball, these one-on-one moments occur repeatedly, and represent the core component characteristic of each. Server versus returner. Pitcher versus hitter.
Every point in tennis begins with this same dynamic and is precisely why the serve and return are the No. 1 and No. 2 most important shots in the game. Why on earth club players commonly forgo even a little serve-return practice in the pre-match warmup, and instead lower their playing bar by embracing "FBI," is hard to explain. Shouldn't the receiver then announce "FRI?"
Waiting for serve
Photo by Shaun Ondak
As the returner, one faces the task of taking on an essentially "free shot" from the server, who gets two chances! Unfair? Not necessarily.
You can absorb a heavy, well-placed serve and just block it back into play. You can attack a weak delivery, a not unusual opportunity in clubland. Or you can play a neutral, safe return for serves somewhere in between.
The good news is that all serves are "short." Since they must land in a service box that's a mere 13 feet wide and extends only 21 feet beyond a 3-foot plus net barrier in a court that's 39 feet long per side, "deep" serves pale in comparison to deep, in-point backcourt balls.
That's very fair, and there's generous spacing - 40 feet from service line to fence - to choose the best position to lock onto the server's speed, spin and bounce height. Cake.
The bigger challenge is negating the lurking downside of the static start inherent in the return. Anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds elapse prior to the start of the server-returner duel on every point. How you fill that time is crucial in remaining engaged and connected.
Overcoming the potentially undermining nature of static states is prevalent in sport. In baseball, you can picture the batter taking numerous practice swings prior to the pitch. In golf, it's the "wiggling" and "waggling" before hitting. In basketball foul shots, it's the rhythmic ball bouncing followed by the in sync shooting, non-shooting hand-arm gyrations.
In tennis these "tics" are a necessity on the return - and the serve as well - and are referred to as "rituals," which every heady player at any level embraces and put their own signature on.
First, after pacing about - do not ever stand still between points - make an educated guess on position. Prior to even arriving there visualizing the return should already be taking place, picturing both your intended direction and margin to the net in your mind's eye.
Then settle in by swaying your shoulders, with the racket, a bit side to side - after all, turning, pivoting, and preparing the racket is always the first move once the serve is recognized. Also, include a subtle foot-to-foot weight transfer to keep the feet stimulated and ready to go. Feel the ready to rock rhythm.
A perfectly timed split-step will lock your eyes onto the ball at serve impact, maximize your reaction to its direction, and contribute to maintaining ball-tracking from contact, to bounce point, and right into your racket.
Develop your own ritual. Embellish it. You'll soon be relishing the return as opportunity.
Jak Beardsworth, USPTA, author of "More Than Just the Strokes," is based at the Crowne-Plaza Lake Placid Club for adult and junior lessons. Email him at JB1tennis@comcast.net, call 941-626-0097 or visit www.JakBeardsworthTennis.com