I encourage the middle return hit with quite a flat trajectory straight at the feet of the server. Hitting this ‘mirror return’ needs a lot of guts, great anticipation, and the skills to effectively cut off the angles when pushed wide.
—Steven Martens, Six-Time Belgium Federation Cup Captain
Returning the first serve down the middle of the court is perhaps the most common returning tactic used on the WTA Tour today. It is a high- percentage shot that allows the returner to play with a large margin for error because it is hit over the lowest part of the net and into the most
central part of the court. Crucially, this return allows the player to contact the ball late (always a possibility against a strong first serve) yet still make the shot into the court.
the middle return also reduces the angles available to the server on her second shot. By not giving her an obvious space to hit into, the returner forces the server to decide where to hit to next. the server can easily make an error if she tries to create an angle from this middle position.
Another advantage of the middle return is that it forces the server to move out of a space rather than into a space. Good footwork and balance are required for moving around the oncoming ball, and many players find this difficult or simply don’t practice these movement patterns enough. tall players, in particular, who use long ‘levers’ to hit the ball with, can easily become too cramped when trying to hit balls close to their body. In fact, the middle return can cause any server the same problem if hit with enough pace. By contacting the ball in front of the body using a strong, low base and a simple forward swing, the returner can send the serve back so quickly that her opponent has no time to prepare for her next shot. Using the pace of the opponent’s shot in this way is highly effective and requires strong, efficient technique and quick perception of the oncoming ball.
To practice the middle return, see drill 2.1 on page 72.
The middle return is also used as a vital tactic in doubles against both the serve and volley player and the player who chooses to serve and stay back. The key here is to prevent the server’s partner from intercepting the return at the net. Therefore, the return must be hit with accuracy, because a middle return that floats without purpose will usually be picked off. By making the server play the second shot (whether this is a volley or groundstroke), the players on the returning team buy themselves more time to establish a better court position. They also give themselves a better chance to construct their own winning pattern of play if they neutralise the serving team’s position. Conversely, if the server’s partner is able to regularly intercept the return, then the returning partners will continually find themselves under pressure, unable to take control of the net or centre of the court.
The middle return may also cause some confusion for a serving team that doesn’t have clearly defined roles at the net. This middle ball may tempt both players to go for the volley—or neither of them! This lack of communication will often be experienced by two players playing together for the first time. Their unfamiliarity should be exploited by the returning team whenever possible.
Finally, the middle return can prove highly effective against a serving team that uses the I formation (see chapter 1) and chooses to cover both sides of the court without covering enough of the middle of the court. This situation is often seen with less experienced players at the net who feel the need to move away from the centre of the court to properly cover ‘their’ half. This can often cause a big gap to appear down the middle for the returner to hit into! The more experienced net playerwill hold her position in the centre ratherthan make big moves to either side and will tempt the returner into hitting down her line ratherthan allowing the middle return. Figure 2.1 illustrates this concept, showing a serving pair playing in an I formation with a first serve hit down the middle from the deuce court. The server follows her serve in to the net and covers the right side of the court, and her partner moves from her central position to cover the left side of the court. This leaves a gap down the middle of the court for the returner to hit her high-percentage return into.