The first priority for the returner is to neutralise the threat posed by the first serve, thus preventing her opponent from striking first. This means returning well enough so that a neutral position remains after the serve and return have been played. By doing this, the returner may then be able to assert her own authority on the game. This objective is assuming an even greater importance as the length of rally in the women’s game continues to shorten. In an interesting study, Peter O’Donoghue and Billy Ingram analysed the average length of rally in women’s tennis in 2001. In their study of the four Grand Slams, they found that the average number of shots per rally was 7.0 at the Australian Open, 8.6 at the French Open, 5.8 at Wimbledon, and 6.8 at the US Open (O’Donoghue and Ingram 2001). However, more recent expert opinion suggests that the average length of rally is getting shorter and that in some cases women’s rallies are now shorter in length than men’s (which averaged 5.2 in 2001 and hasn’t significantly changed since). In other words, the returner is having less time and fewer shots to establish an advantage over the server—and the serve and return themselves can count for almost 50 percent of the game!
A player may need to look at the stance, rhythm, and pace of her return, as well as her actual shot selection, to reduce the effectiveness of the first serve. altering her returning stance can throw a server off her stride because it changes the ‘look’ that a returner gives her opponent. taking two steps backward may allow the returner more time to perceive the oncoming ball. Taking two steps forward may intimidate an opponent into ‘forcing’ the serve too much. Moving more to one side may create a doubt in the server’s mind as to the direction she should serve to next.
When players serve extremely well, they usually find themselves sticking to a consistent routine that helps them maintain their rhythm. They take the same amount of time between serves and points, bounce the ball the same number of times, and even try to use the same ‘lucky’ ball. Breaking this rhythm may require the returner to vary the amount of time she takes between points—for example, ‘hustling’ the server who likes to play slowly or taking more time against an opponent who likes to play quickly.
Varying the pace of the return may prove effective against an opponent who is constantly dominating with her serve and second shot. Using only blocked returns for a while or ‘stepping up to the plate’ more often (i.e., hitting more aggressively) can sometimes reduce the server’s dominance. It is important to remember that many of these subtle changes in stance, rhythm, or pace don’t have to last long. Simply changing one element of the return for a few points can be enough to change the entire feel of a tennis match.
The first serve return tactics covered in this section all involve hitting the return to a high-percentage target, which can be altered as the returner gets used to the style, pace, and shape of the serve. For the more advanced player, this may mean aiming the return toward a relatively small target area that is safely positioned inside the court. This small area allows the returner to narrow her focus onto a specific target while maintaining a high margin for error.