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When It Comes To The Serve or Return…Control Time

Play at your own pace, not theirs.

Unlike tennis, in racquetball you needn’t play at the pace of the server, but…when you are the server and say you want to pick up the pace, you can literally sprint (or jog, as that’s much less obvious) to the service box, while checking out the readiness of the server on your way. As soon as the ref (or one of you) has called the score and you’ve checked them, it’s game on! It may be as fast as putting in play with a 1-step drive serve or an off speed lob deep into a corner that may catch the receiver very ill-prepared.

As server, just as soon as you are between the lines in the service box, you can go into your service motion and serve unless the receiver is clearly signaling unreadiness. At the complete other end of the spectrum, as server you may go through a very elaborate, orchestrated, ritualistic service motion that occupies the whole interval between score calling and racquet to ball contact. For example, you can shake out your arm, straighten your shirt and shorts and dribble the ball that X number of times each and every time before you toss the ball and serve. Or you can bump the ball around the front court against the front or sidewalls or both before you dribble the ball and put the ball in play, as long as you check the receiver before you serve AND you haven’t exceeded the maximum allowable 10 seconds of “shared” time by both of you between score call and ball hitting your racquet. Other than raising the ire of the opposing receiver or their anxiety level, that like clockwork pre-serve protracted ritual is intended to put you in a happy place, centered, sure or your serve choice, and ready to attack before you serve.

You do that ritual vs. thinking in mid motion…”Where should I serve this one?”.  Worse case avoid changing your mind on which serve or where to hit the ball in mid-service motion. One caveat to that is it’s a worthwhile spending time drilling and serving as a trick is to learn how to drop the ball as if you’re going to serve into the left, rear corner. Pretend as if the receiver moves too early to the left and you change up and hit into the right, rear corner to wrong foot the receiver with a ball angled away from where they’re headed. Of course that takes practice, racquet head control and the ability to change the path or your stroke and the angle of your racquet face at contact as you flow the racquet head thru the ball; ergo practice.

As Part of Your Pre-serve Ritual…Be Ready

Before you serve ideally, subtly take in some relaxing, reinvigorating oxygen. Do that while making sure “they” don’t see you do that so they don’t see you’re working hard. Pre-serve scenario…shake it out (your arm). Regain your rhythm, re-balance yourself mentally, while you review past rallies and how those panned out for you. Parse through your serve choices. Review even recent additions and select a real winner. Visualize your choice so you actually mentally rehearse this serve to the point where you mentally see your serve going exactly where you plan for it to go.

Now you’re ready to do-it-like-you-drew-it up on your mental chalkboard. Having rehearsed this serve in solo drills on the practice court, as well as having successfully executed it in competition before, you’re fully aware of your prior serve results and “their” common returns by this receiver (or others). Alternatively it may be as simple as a short review of your favorites serves, a ball dribble or two (or none), a sneaked last peak at the receiver’s location, while asking yourself, “Is their racquet up?” and “Are they cheating over to cover for their weak link backhand?”.  Then take in a quick, final mental imagery of your serve and then…(Whamo!) serve up the one you choose.

Time Your Serve For You

Time your delivery to suit your own game playing tempo, not theirs or ever for that Rec player who is all about keeping their heart rate up to get in a good workout. Remember why you’re there. Recall you’re there to play hard, play well, play your game (not theirs), and, when you do play your way, ideally you have lots of fun doing it.

Defensive Return Timing…

…now, on the other side of the ball…they serve ONLY when YOU are good and ready, not when they want to, especially when you’re not well prepared. If this server likes to quick-serve you, either raise your racquet or show them your back. Do one or the other every single time so you avoid that one time when you don’t signal and they quick-serve and it snookers you as you’re aced or you can’t do anything but return a bunny they shred with shot #3. As soon as the rally’s over and you’re in the doghouse in the backcourt, signal your unreadiness by raising your racquet as soon as the score is called. Then then they can’t serve until you drop your racquet back below head height. Also, if you spin away and face the back wall (which is the only way to “safely” dry your goggles), make sure to raise that racquet as you turn back around. If you don’t have the racquet raised as you spin around, as soon as both of your feet hit the ground, the server can play you, which means they can quick-serve you while you’re getting your legs primed.

If it’s in their repertoire of tactics to quick-serve you, know they won’t stop trying to rush you. Also, in the case when you need to recover physically or mentally between rallies, take about 6 seconds to get back in the right frame of mind as “receiver – loaded for bear”. By the by, when you delay them 5 or 6 seconds, the server gets just 5 or 4 seconds to put the ball in play, not a new 10 seconds to go through their own protracted pre-service ritual. Recall that, as server, if someone has a tendency to delay your serving, again check them right as the score is called and you can make a beeline to the box and start your accelerated service motion or you can go through your methodical, protracted pre-serve ritual.

Know the ref is going to keep a mental 10 count cuz they wanna be there much less than you do; so they’ll wanna keep the game pace up. Also, as you’re just about to unleash your serve, give um that one last look to check out where they are back there, in case they’re shading over to one side and you can attack an the open rear corner. Also one more time check to see whether they’re exceeding their use of the shared 10 seconds between score call and your service motion, which may require you hit the ball on time while they’re still raising their racquet, trying to frustrate you. Don’t let it. If there’s a ref, show them to two flashing five fingers with your non racquet hand.

A funny aside is a student of mine liked my signaling so much that once when I was lifting my racquet they served my really startled partner after a whopping 5 seconds of waiting; that kinda demonstrates the signaling’s tactical power to delay the server’s champing at the bit desire to…”Let’s get the rally started!”.

As Receiver, Take Time To Reset

Note that either you’re starting a new game and you’re receiving or you just dropped a rally so you’ve got things to prepare to get the serve back. First, you need to get ready to defend from your best spot in the backcourt. You need to return from your best mental frame of mind. And you need to be in your optimum emotional place, too. First, you gotta let go of the last rally or get over having lost the toss (or the picking of a number or picking a color on the score card in cases when the ill-prepared ref has no coin to toss) or you have to overcome the hurdle that they scored more points in games 1 and 2 so now it’s time to D-up to start the breaker intent on get-the-serve-back.

Know that although it’s very good to study your server and check out their position in the box while you ponder what sort of serve might be coming from that spot, avoid any tendency at all to predict that serve or ever mandate your return of serve ahead of time. Wait until you actually see their serve first and gauge your reaction to it, deciding what you quickly sense you can do with this ball and account for where the server is when you’ve tracked down the serve so you don’t inadvertently hit your return right back to them. It’s more than okay to have at-the-ready feetwork routines to return serve. In fact, it’s big. For instance, it’s crucial to be ready to move to defend the back corners.

Also, be ready to move forward with a ball that bounces right before the back wall and ricochets way off the back wall along the sidewall. Or have the feetwork grooved to spin and run with a jam fly (or what’s called a wrap around serve) that hits one sidewall-bounces-angles to the middle of the back wall-and then rebounds off the back wall at an angle out along the other sidewall. Or it’s solid tactically to be ready to step up and cutoff a drive Z serve before it can bounce and come off the sidewall unpredictably and sometimes too challengingly. Or be ready to spring forward and flick your return of a serve that cracks out off the sidewall just past the short line. These return of serve moves need to be pre-practiced and not something you invent on the fly. With each return, the objective is to improvise and pick your best return strategically from your repertoire of tactical return of serve feetwork moves, stroking skills and proven return of serve shots and then follow on defensive movements into coverage.

#1 Return Strategy: Hit Front Wall

There are several strategies afoot as you return serve. One is you have to get the ball back to the front wall, period. That’s strategy #1: hit front wall with your return. That means, by whatever means necessary, you have to control your racquet head for your return shot when choosing from among shots… (a) direct to the front wall; (b) direct into a sidewall; (c) up to the ceiling; or (d) infrequently whack your return up against the back wall, with all those shots ending up consistently contacting the front wall. Basically the objective is to make the server hit another ball or hit um where they ain’t meaning move the server out of the middle with your return.

Return Options Include Strategy #2, Avoiding Hitting To The Server

Your choices return trajectory-wise are a combo of side to side and up and down angles, with high to low shooting keyed on NOT grounding your shot or skipping in your return, ever. First, pick a side, which means hit to the side you’re on or the other side of the court. The basic plan is to either put the ball deep in one back corner or hit the ball so low it bounces twice before the service line which is 15′ back from the front wall. Therefore part of the shot selection process is a quick self assessment: “What can I do with this serve?”. Quickly ponder to yourself…from this contact height, “Can I go for a very low kill-shot and make it?”. Factor in that any missed pinch, splat or any left up low kill-shot that is shot directly to the front wall either as a cross-court or straight in angle can be gobbled up, like the sidewall shots, if your shot doesn’t nearly roll out because the server is right there in front of you positioned very well, so…as a tactical plan, reserve your tendency to shoot super low for when their serve bounces and pops off the back wall as a juicy setup and you’re pretty darn sure you can leave the ball up there in the front court in that first 15′ causing the ball to bounce twice before that first line.

If you are more sure about placing the ball away from the server with a shot deep into the backcourt, that’s your default better choice. Strategy #2, after you hit that 800 square foot front wall target, is to tactically, usually avoid hitting your return up through the center of the middle of the court after your return… (a) strikes the front wall; (b) strikes the sidewall and then front wall; or (c) strikes the front wall and then sidewall. So here again your returning is all about controlling your return’s height AND its angle into your wall target, as well as how your return angles coming off the wall (or walls) you hit.

Obviously, with your return, you’re trying to avoid the server who is most likely in the middle. Note that when you hit cross-court ideally your return is a maximal 45 degree angle or “V” angle, when shooting from deep in the backcourt on one side and hitting your pass to the far, rear corner. If you under estimate that V angle, you’d better be intentionally hitting the ball up the gut or right up through the middle intending to jam the server’s body with your shot or you see the singles server is well off to one side or the pair serving in doubles are split too far apart when they spot up against both sidewalls right after serving.

However, when the server or opposing doubles pair is in the middle, although a howitzer up through the middle that you hit from off off to one side may be doable, you still must factor in that your return could be short hopped or volleyed away unless it literally has a vapor trail following after it indicating it was hit with mind numbing pace. From further up in the court when returning a ball after it cracks out past the short line or after a served ball bounces right before the back wall and then flies way off and zips along that sidewall, there’s two options not available from the backcourt because the opponent usually, legally blocks them.

First, from further up, you may go for a wide angle pass that hits farther over on the front wall than the V angle and it goes cross-court to hit the far sidewall beside the server and then the ball may go around them into the backcourt. Or, second, you may hit a ball farther over on the front wall that then deflects off the far sidewall up in the front court causing the ball to veer into the middle jamming the hanging up too far server or serving pair.

Return Taking Stock of This Serve and Your Optional Responses

Strategy #3 is to quickly decipher, “What pattern is this return of serve?”…and, when it’s a situation you’ve seen many, many times before, ask yourself…”What is my best counter play?”. Many would say you can hit a ceiling anytime. They might even say hit almost every serve up to the ceiling with the plan to turn the tables on the server so you can move into center court while the server must leave center court to track down your ceiling in the backcourt. Uh uh. Not this century! That’s way too defensive and way too simplistic. Capturing center is a tactical result, not a strategy. First, you can’t guarantee you can go to the ceiling. It all depends on the served ball you’re fielding. Second, these days a weak, soft ceiling could be met by a dash forward by the server, as they move up *in the spur of the moment* to take your dropping ceiling on the rise as it bounces up while often countering it with a baby overhead punching the ball easily, simply away from you while you’re still moving up first staring up watching your ceiling and then looking down and watching in sheer horror as they poke away your return before you have time to move up.

This illustrates that you can’t pre-plan your return. As a secondary concept, when hitting ceilings you’re just begging the nothing-to-lose server to shoot your ceiling ball even from deep in the backcourt as an overhead even when they’re off balance because… (a) it’ll pressure you; (b) when it’s a good shot, they’re golden, so why not go for it?; and (c) recall worse case they lose the rally and they return to start the next rally, so even a wild hair idea is worth trying when scoring a point is their main objective as the server. Plan A may be a passing shot, but make note of where the server is and pass away from the side they occupy and get your pass close up against a sidewall as it angles back, if possible.

When You Return Serve…Take Steps That Work

Use only very familiar feetwork. Ideally having returned most serves you’re gonna see from this server…as you field this ball, quickly parse through your return options. Keep it simple and make a choice from among…

(a) hit the ball down along the wall (assuming you’re contacting the ball from along one wall);

(b) hit the ball super low when the serve is truly attack-able, like, for instance, when the serve takes a bounce and angles into a sidewall to then deflect off the back wall as a sweet setup; or

(c) hit cross-court taking into account that is the server’s side of the court and you must hit your return as wide as possible and very hard or it could be gobbled up by the server who is prone to be over there cross-court able to cover any V angled pass.

As a tactical example, if you select a down the wall shot and you sense that for this serve both a low kill-shot or DTL passing shot seem hard to control or the server is hanging right there on the line covering that angle, hit a harder hit, deeper targeted ceiling. Aim for a target behind the 1st row of lights and that will eliminate the server short hopping your return when they could do that were you to hit a sliced, tighter to the front wall ceiling target. And that harder hit ceiling would allow you move forward to cover the shot they use to return your fast, dropping like a rock ceiling that bounces hard and rises high to a spot deep in the backcourt or even when deeper, harder hit ceiling catches the back wall, again, it drops like a rock falling off the back wall.

Move Effectively in Rally After You Successfully Return Serve 

A huge facet of playing with an attacking style when returning serve is to move aggressively, but tactically by being in the very best position you can assume to cover the server’s next ball after you successfully return their serve to move them out of center court. That means get into center court yourself and get ready to cover. Still know that once you’re there in center your job is only half done. You must cover the server’s next shot which may be very aggressive in the mentality of serve-return-shoot or 1-2-3 racquetball most servers are won to observe. Therefore you must be prepared to cover their shot.

Be ready to…(a) hustle quickly forward when they shoot low; or…(b) be prepped and ready to cover the DTL when it looks likely that’s the play (while you position to take a rear foot step out to the sidewall and then a crossover step with the front foot to intercept that DTL on its way coming back off the front wall); or (c) when you see their out front contact or you see a revealing front foot decidedly pointing cross-court and you sense a V pass coming, that’s your #1 cover priority, the cross-court option, so be ready to drop step with the front foot and spin and crossover with the rear or trailing foot to cut the pass off intercepting the V pass or turn and save the ball to the back wall, when necessary.

Battle Tooth Nail To Return Their Serve

You gotta defend those rear corners. You’ve got to have down the feetwork to intercept balls you recognize are making a beeline into a rear corner. It’s an invaluable, must-have move to get down the steps needed to move into a back corner and return serve effectively when the ball is going to take its second bounce in the corner or it’s going to bounce and rebound out of the corner as a setup. Your owning or making time by recognizing the situation and possessing your own ROS (return of serve) technique puts you in the mode to read the angle to the right or left rear corner, and, when you pick up the angle, you’re ready to go in attack mode with your practiced feetwork and stroking technique.

One way to determine that angle is to get down low enough to see the ball hit the front wall by peering between the server’s legs. Or you may pick up a tell or tipoff like where the server drops the ball. Or the server may telegraph their serve’s angle by how they point their feet into the angle where they’re aiming. ROS feetwork-wise you develop and have moves at the ready to use based on practice reps where you pop your toes toward the side where the is headed by pivoting both feet toward where you “read” the serve is angling (or where you see the ball is going). Then, after popping your feet, jab step with the near foot, as well as crossover with the trail foot to turn and ideally make out front contact with the ball while moving aggressively into the ball to make very firm contact intent on hitting the ball where they ain’t or away from the center where the server is most often bound to be.

Be Ready For Awesome Serves, Too

Now admittedly there’s some serving wizards out there. They can Robin Hood both back corners with equal aplomb. If you’re getting schooled, heck every once in a while it’s okay to guess. It’s like a vastly experienced player said to me, “it’s 50/50 and you just might guess right and then you make them think how it is you knew”. It’s recommended you make them have to wait a little while to serve to one or the other rear corner. Watch like a hawk hoping to decipher their choice before you have to “anticipate”. To anticipate means that absent complete information you move before you actually see the ball based on your perceptions and making an educated guess. And…for example, there are times when you just know they’re going to try to…jam your backhand or they’re likely going to test your backhand return of serve here at game point. So camp on your backhand ready to shoot if you get a weak serve or an opening you can exploit. Or D-up if it’s a good one and live to fight for the next shot in the rally.

It’s Your Time; You Decide When to Say En Garde

Take advantage of the time you have before you serve or before they do. Use that interval between the last rally and the ball being served to be calm, cool, collected, composed and yet uncompromising. Play at your own game pace. If you like to play fast, go for it. When you get to serve, go get the ball and make your way quickly to the box, while clearly looking at them in case they’re signaling unready. When you get between the lines, get right into your long or short pre-serve ritual; meaning you have both when needed. Oh, do have that ritual? A ritual gets you ready and it’s just the right sort of regimentation that promotes accurate, effective point scoring serves and that routine, consistency centers you and promotes serving success. Now, when returning…have a pre-return ritual, too. First, they serve at your pace or when you’re ready to unleash the dogs of war and attack a weak delivery or craftily lift a ceiling or a high Z to counter a really good serve.

If one serve is tormenting you, first camp on it. Even consider moving early for it. Also search through your memory banks for solutions. Ask what would be your plan A, but also have a plan B, a plan C, and a plan D just in case, but don’t preordain any return. Returning is reactive vs. proactive. In your pre-return ritual go through your own check list: (a) shake it out; (b) check your goggles for fogging or droplets of sweat, check your gloves dryness, and check your strings being all there and straight; (c) get in your return of serve spot…for instance, face front and reach back, but come up short of being able to touch the wall with the tip of your racquet by about a racquet head…(d) take a nice, long deep breath and get yourself ready mentally to return. In singles play hold your racquet in a backhand grip not just because servers often serve to make players hit a backhand. It’s also because a jam serve coming off either sidewall that’s either intentional or unintentional is best returned with a backhand flick when the ball is coming right at your body. Holding your racquet with a forehand grip makes balls over on your backhand side just an adventure you don’t want to be on when you must return a serve on that side of your body.

Also, take the time in your pre-return readiness to get your legs alive. Get off your heels. Get your legs closer together. One trick is to do a split step before the servers finishes their service motion. The split step is where you step up (forward) with one foot and, as it lands and the trailing foot is pulling up alongside, jump off the landed foot, spreading both feet apart a little wider than shoulder’s width. When you land, you’ll find yourself up on your toes which means you’re on the balls of both feet, ready. Plan B is jump up right in place and land on springy feet and legs. Time it, in either case, so you land right before the server makes contact so you can land and bolt off in the direction you read or see their serve is heading. Time is your ally on both sides of the ball. Rushing is playing into the hands of the opponent and it makes you have to play catch up from the get go.

Serve when you’re ready with a planned serve and return when you’re ready to cover the back 15′ of the court with your movement and improvised tactical return game and ready feetwork moves and stroking technique, as well as your follow on movement into coverage and defense turned offense play ultimately geared toward your primary objective: GET THE SERVE BACK!