Returning the Racquetball Drive Serve
How to Return Racquetball Drive Serves
Returning serve in singles is a lot like playing goalie in between the posts in soccer and focusing on keeping every shot from completely crossing the goal line. In racquetball, you’re in between the two back corners pursuing the served ball and keeping it from bouncing twice, while also returning it that-away to your must-hit front wall target.
You want to have the ability to field the very difficulty to cover drive serves directly into the back corners that, when you don’t cover or cut off their angle, will bounce twice before the back wall. (Note though that catching up to the ball after it’s gotten by you and whacking the ball up against the back wall is a Plan Z return. That’s letting the ball play you vs your better goal of doing a 180 on the ball and preferably returning it back that-away to the front wall where the opponent will have less time to react). Of course, you are also desirous of covering a wide variety of other drive serves or hard hit serves that don’t go directly into the back corners. The array of serves to fend off include:
(a) a serve that angles the ball off a sidewall directly into you;
(b) a ball cracking out just past the short line that could bounce twice not harmlessly but harmfully right in front of you;
(c) a ball coming from overhead or mid level contact with very hard stroke that precisely bounces just feet or inches from a back corner to catch the back wall and causing the ball to fly out along the sidewall, with this flyer serve taking its second bounce as far as past the dashed line;
(d) a high jamming serve coming at you off one sidewall so you can’t or don’t want to cut off is a jam fly ball after it bounces, contacts the back wall and deflects off at an angle to fall by the far sidewall;
(e) a ball that hits the front wall and bounces to pop off the back wall either out from the sidewall or so the ball bounces, pops off the back wall and angles out toward the sidewall; and
(f) a ball that Z’s out of a front corner so that it could bounce and deflect off the other sidewall one of three ways, including:
(1) a tighter corner target so the Z ball bounces short in the middle of the court angling straight out off the sidewall;
(2) a hard hit, slightly wider angled Z that bounces and angles into the back 10′ to zip straight out off the sidewall, with the toughest of these Z’s nearly paralleling the back wall; or
(3) a leaning Z resulting from an inside out stroke motion that, due its spin, bounces and angles into the sidewall where the ball then deflects off at an unusual angle back toward the back wall so the serve is very hard to get behind to return aggressively.
Any of those 3 types of Z’s, short, deep or leaning could be intercepted after they bounce and before the ball gets to the second sidewall. Although that would take speedy “feetwork”, hand eye trained racquet skills and aggression to step up and cut off a Z after its bounce. Now you have an idea of what a wide variety of “drive” serves there are. Next we’ll talk about how or the method and form to return them all.
What Are Your Options For Returning Racquetball Drive Serves?
It’s time to discuss the options for how to return drive serves. Those options include:
(1) where do you spot up in the backcourt to return;
(2) how do you watch the ball you’re returning;
(3) how do you ready yourself to spring at the ball (body balance and racquet prep); and, when selecting from among your varied feetwork, stroke and shots options,
(4) what is the technique and shot you have (or own) to best return the type of drive serve you face *this time*, as an active, very exploitative receiver.
Where Do YOU Spot Up to Return the Serve?
First, there’s no one-way, my way or the highway spot where you must return serve. Nor is there a certain way how to move from your spot to cover the back corners or the whole backcourt to return serve. As a general rule, being deep in the backcourt while acting as a virtual door guard does give you more time to see an especially well stung Robin Hood serve, which is drive that darts directly into a back corner. BUT when you start way, way back deep you… (a) can’t get to serves that crack out just past the short line; (b) you’d be further back making it really tough to move out with any serve that bounces and pops off the back wall; (c) obviously you couldn’t go back any further for an especially lightening fast drive; and (d) you’d have a tough time always avoiding catching the back wall with your backswing or forward swing as you try to make contact deep in the backcourt. On the other end of the spectrum, being too far from the back wall places you in a situation where you could literally be passed by a drive serve that rockets by you into the back corner before you can react in time to cut off the serve’s angle. The primary return objective for a ball angling into a back corner is to cut it off. Your goal is to meet the ball out in front of you by moving diagonally forward. So somewhere in between wall hugger and dashed line leaner you’ll find your own Goldilocks return spot. Here’s one option: stand facing the front wall in the center and turn and reach back so that you’re about a racquet head away from being able to touch the back wall. That’s about a full stride from the back wall. That’s a good spot to cover the back corners AND the crack outs. Some players can stand facing forward and turn and touch the back wall with the tip of the top of their racquet, so they start a little bit further back. Experiment. It’s good tactics to be ready even in mid match to adjust to the specific serves of the server you’re facing when one of their serves may be giving you fits returning it. For example, against a crack out specialist, when you’re struggling returning the short crack, start a little further up and that’ll pressure their best and perhaps make the server go with one their weaker serves.
Why Move From Your Shady Spot in the Middle?
Why you move from your initial return spot is because a majority of the serves you’ll return will NOT kindly funnel right to you in the middle where you won’t have to move sideways or forward to return them. Although, if a serve does come to you in the middle, then your main concern is avoiding clobbering the server with your return because they may still be in the middle taking away your cross-court and maybe even blocking your straight in shot.
Interestingly, when contacting a serve with your return more centrally, it requires great control to avoid sending your return right back down through the middle, which, again, would feed the server where more often than not they’re bound to be. An example of this situation is a jam serve. Often the jam server stands and serves from the center of the service box.
The ball hits the front wall and then sidewall in about the middle of the service zone or just behind it where the ball then angles back into the middle right at you. The brave or foolish jam server may be facing a quick reaction short hopper in YOU, as you have them in your sights with your return. With that jam serve, the ball is meant to be placed in the middle jamming your stroke.
Most serves are meant to go into or end up close to the back corners. Note that to return a jam ball headed into the middle it takes quick feet to turn to the side and stroke you choose and a QuickDraw (fast and compact) stroke motion to return the bullet that’s coming right at you in the backcourt. If you are confronted by a jam and you quickly read you can’t take the ball off the back wall, pop your feet to angle your stance to the side and stroke you choose and swing through the ball where it *wants to go*, which is often cross-court.
Ideally don’t go right down the middle where the server is bound to still be hovering. Due to its incoming angle, a jam serve is hard to hit straight or inside out away from you along the sidewall where the jam made contact. So that’s why the cross-court is often your first choice. It’s definitely a tough, quick reaction situation worthy of practice and placing a premium on being quick on your feet and fast with your compact racquet prep and forward swing.
How Are YOU Able to Move to Return Serve?
The next step is how do you step from your central spot to move in different directions to return the serve moving: (1) to the sidewall; (2) away from the sidewall; (3) forward in the court; or (4) as you spin to take a ball that’s squirting out of a back corner or popping off the back wall and angling challengingly away from you. First, you don’t want to be anchored down, with your weight on your heels, your legs spread far apart and your racquet held on your forehand side. That would be the trifecta of being unprepared. First, you want to be light on your feet so you’re ready to spring like a cat. When required, you need to be able to get to a ball that’s within range of a bursting, diagonal lunge. Other times you have to run with the ball as it springs far off the back wall. Often you’ll need to read and react to the bounce of a ball that contacts the side and back wall which actually is good news because it slows down the ball and gives you a chance to offensively return the serve. So set narrower feet and get up on your toes. That means balance yourself on the balls of your feet. Now how do you get <there> in that spring loaded, ready mode? Some pop their legs from side to side or rock from right to left, like Serena Williams does when she’s about to return a tennis serve. That keeps her loose. Many tennis receivers step forward with one foot where they then do a split step little hop up and feet spread into a soft landing on flexing knees which spring loads both their legs and their feet. That’s an unfamiliar mode for most racquetballers. From a stationary start, a little hop to spread your feet and spring load your legs is a doable option. Feet hunkered down with your weight back on your heels is a particularly bad start that’s way too often seen on the racquetball backcourt by receivers. Feet just a tad wider than shoulder’s width apart is optimum. Too wide and the first thing you would have to do is move your feet closer together to move, which significantly slows you down. The main thing is get up on your toes…
How Do You Hold the Racquet While You’re in Your Spot?
The tennis method is to hold the racquet out in front of you pointing the tip straight forward with the top of the racquet head about chest high. Squash players hold the racquet up above their head on their racquet arm side. Note that squash receivers usually return quite high squash serves.
In racquetball, it would be okay to hold the racquet any which way you want for say a pedestrian drive serve where, due to its very moderate pace, you could even fend off the slow moving ball when it angles off the sidewall directly at you. However, that’s not reality. The speed of racquetball when returning serve is more like tennis net play. Much, much faster reactions are a must. A tennis player at the net “shields” their body with their racquet head.
To prevent yourself from being handcuffed by a ball zipping right at ya, hold the racquet with a backhand grip and the racquet face in front of you about waist level. That way you can fight off a ball the veers off a sidewall right into your left or right hip or a ball hit up the middle by a server standing way off to one side of the other. Holding your racquet on your forehand side would make you very susceptible to a serve angling at your backhand hip. Stand up and try moving your racquet head from your forehand side across your body and you’ll see the gap in your quick reaction coverage at your hip away from your racquet arm.
What Do You Do to Optimally See the Ball?
What do you do to best look for the ball that’s being served back to the back part of the court? First, don’t do (the suggestion we’re going to discuss here) before you serve (which many do) nor at anytime when you’re hitting the ball because it prevents good body rotation. Only when you return serve should you need to get your eyes down super low. The reason why… First, let’s discuss the rule concerning screens that states … “A served ball that first hits the front wall and on the rebound passes so closely to the server, or server’s partner in doubles, that it prevents the receiver from having a clear view of the ball” is a screen and fault serve. So that means the server is permitted to hide the ball from the receiver: (a) at contact; (b) on the ball’s flight to the front wall; and (c) on the ball’s way back from the front wall. Not until the ball comes even with the server’s body (or arm/racquet) must it be visible. The ball must be in clear view for you as the ball passes next to the server (if it’s going to be close). The server must be inside the service zone until the ball crosses the short line. The fact is that good drive serves are sometimes hit so fast the receiver may not have enough time to react even IF they DO get a clear view of the ball as it’s passing the server. Receivers often argue for a screen call even when the ball is feet away from the server. This situation may be resolved at times by determining the path of the ball between the front wall and the back wall in relationship to the server’s position. Yet here’s the real rub and THE major return challenge. Even when you do see the ball passing by the server, it may be too late to really do much about it when returning a particularly well targeted, crisply struck drive serve. That is especially the case when the singles server has the capacity to pinpoint either back corner with equal aplomb. Sure it’d be a welcome sight to see the server tell you which way they’re serving by how they; (a) change and point their stance; (b) alter their ball toss; (c) angle their shoulders tellingly at contact; or (d) change their pre-serve ritual. When one or more of those “tells” unknowingly divulges and telegraphs their intentions and saves you having to see the ball earlier, cool! Realistically, tactically you <will> look hard for those tells as you keep track of the server’s serves to either back corner when maybe a tell reveals the angle or the serve to you, and seeing is really believing. Now you may <look> for the ball as the ball rockets by the server, but it’s far more effective to get down super low and peer between the server’s legs to *SEE* the ball as it’s going into the front wall and best yet right as the serve rebounds off the front wall. That early reconnaissance is Plan A, as it gives you a jump on the ball’s direction which then prompts your body turn and feetwork to begin to cover the serve. Now granted it’s not going to be where you’ll see every single ball as it’s coming off the front wall or on its way to passing the server. Seeing where the serve hits the front wall is your goal. When you do pick up the ball early, then shift your focus to just past the short line where the ball will bounce. That’s where you’ll reconnect with the ball and continue and complete your ball read. You’re picking up the ball’s sideways angle, height, pace and spin, as you figure out <how> the serve is headed (since you already basically know where). And you are also deciding where you can intercept the ball along its angled path back to the corner or if you’ll wait until after the ball makes side or back wall contact. Most importantly, you finalize your pick where you <will> make contact based on also including your contact zone calculation. Now you’d think Plan B is the waiting game since you perhaps haven’t caught a glimpse of the ball on its way to the front wall or ideally as it’s popping off the the front wall and you’ve seen it just as it’s passing or realistically AFTER the ball is past the opponent, so that would be when you get to make your move to intersect the ball’s angle. Although that rule based timing is honestly not good, but often it’s what you’re dealt. For Plan C you could depend on your collected intel. You read the server’s tells and their tendencies or timing of which corner they pick to attack at certain key moments in the game. Sometimes you just have to go ahead and guess, and then MOVE! Also, think about how a high percentage of serves normally go into your backhand back corner; unless you begin to effectively return a majority of those serves to your backhand so that it becomes a less attractive option for the server. So the ideal active situation is you look and also SEE the ball coming off the front wall AND you also see the ball right as it’s passing the server and then bouncing past the short line. The main point here is it’s a huge ask returning a drive serve. You may barely see the ball: (a) early; or (b) when you should be able to see it as it’s passing the server. Therefore the ball is often visible a little later when there’s only a moment before the ball zips into one back corner. Yet watch the server’s approach to the ball and focus on the front wall in front of the server searching for just a glimpse of the ball early and also keep a halo of vision around the server as the ball is coming back off the front wall and passing by them, while you read the serve, the server’s tells, and deciding where the serve is going, what’s it’s got on it and where you’re going to go get it and hit it.
How Do You Move From YOUR Spot to Return?
—> Now what do you do to intercept the ball you’ve seen the best or quickest way or rule imposed way? Once the side where you’re going to head is seen (a) early (at front wall); (b) on time (beside server); or (c) ahead of time (when anticipating), your very first move is to open the gate of your legs toward that side. That means pop your feet to point ball side by pivoting on both feet to point your toes up just ahead of you along the sidewall (that popping is a very quick move that can be perfected in one drilling session). Then take a quick calibration of the distance you must cover which defines your feetwork to close on the ball and swing. If you must go fastest but not far, you may lunge out to the ball with your near leg. That’s less than ideal because you’d be hitting a long return from a wide open stance. If you have just a heartbeat longer and the ball is a long stride away but closing in fast, you may take a longer lunge with a crossover step with the trail or farthest foot from the ball. That gets you better prepped, but you’re still lunging or stretching to swing. Now, if you have a little more time, the most rhythmic way to move is to jab step, which is a short step with the near foot out toward the sidewall, and then follow up with a diagonal crossover with the trail foot passing the jab foot to take the ball out in front of you, while looking to use the pace of the serve against it. Now the two ways of lunging or jab and cross may get you almost there, but it actually can’t get you all the way to corner stickers or balls that are headed right in to Robin Hood or pierce a rear corner. To get all the way <almost> to the sidewall, you may need to get a little creative with your positioning. First, when the side where the ball is headed is seen and you read it’s going right for the corner, hop off both feet sideways toward the sidewall. Here it’s sort of like you’re going to start your return from a spot just a little closer to the corner by first hopping over. Of course DO NOT hop over before the server makes contact or they’ll see you and serve to the other corner and you’ll be badly wrong-footed. After the sideways hop, land as you’re popping your feet to point them toward the side you’ve picked. From that closer spot, jab and cross or just crossover with the far foot to close the angle and gobble up those corner stickers. Practice all of these feetwork combos so you’re ready to improvise for different serve bounces and angles. Like practicing your strokes, practice your feetwork to return bunches of drive serves. Stand in your return of serve spot and toss the ball to your side to work on moving to return the ball while imagining you’re fielding your opponent’s best delivery. Allowing the ball you toss to bounce twice is ok for you to get the feel for how far you’ll move from the middle to track down and return many serves. Toss and hit, including tossing into the back corners, and then move and shoot your return. Ingrain your feetwork maneuvers so they become second nature to you and then you can use them when you return in matches.
• What Is Your Final Read?
—> Read and define your steps to move (a) diagonally at about a 45 degree angle going forward; (b) straight to the sidewall; (c) drop back slightly behind you toward the back wall; or (d) drop step away from the sidewall. For balls that bounce and next hit the sidewall and then back wall or bounce and directly hit the back wall, you must adapt to where the ball is going to angle out when it’s bouncing off the walls. First, the direct corner attack drives ought to get your most rapt attention because a drive serve into the corner can give you the most difficulty covering its angle, hence the term for the best (or worst covered) of them, “ACE!”. It’s why your feet are ready, why you’re trying to sneak a peek between their wheels (legs) and why you’re ready with a series of feetwork maneuvers to respond to the different serve angles both horizontally and vertically, as well as accommodating the serve’s speed and time you’ve bought yourself to react when either you’ve seen the ball visually or with your crystal ball (tells) or worse case you’re moving with greater exigency when you pick up the ball late and you’re rushed. So in the blink of an eye you determine where the ball is going and where you’re going to intercept the ball before that key second bounce. As mentioned before, for the Robin Hood serves, out front contact is your goal so you’re moving into the ball and hitting it at your chosen contact point. Hitting behind you or when the ball is even with your hitting shoulder creates awkward swings and more difficulty accurately placing your return. So the tendency to diagonally move forward into the ball with a crossover step and timing when to intersect with the ball is your main challenge and your #1 goal. One big advantage of the crossover step is that it’s natural to take a backswing for your backhand return. It’s also best to turn it into a second nature action to take your racquet back as you crossover for your forehand return, as well. The direct to the corner serve feetwork defense includes the the hop when needed, gate opening double foot pop, time allowing jab step and crossover step or just the crossover. Work on all of your feetwork options and be ready to do each type of feetwork according to the ball you’re playing, the time you’ve made by your ball read, your quick movement and the return you choose to execute. Then visualize and crank your return. In dire circumstances, receivers have been known to dive to the back corners to scrape back their return. Or they lunge making contact with the ball even before their lunging foot has had a chance to land.
• How to Return Various Drive Serves
• How Do You Deal with the Drive Z Serve?
—> When the served ball hits the front wall and the sidewall in a front corner to then diagonally angle as a Z serve, the ball can be cutoff or interrupted after it bounces and before it can reach the other sidewall. That cutoff move takes a very quick, early crossover with the far foot to start your engine. Then more quick sidesteps or cross steps get you in an ideally closed body position so you may attack the ball assertively. When you initially cutoff a Z, go with an easier cross-court with your return. Eventually go down the line when you can control the crossing ball’s incoming angle and find the straight outgoing angle with your return. A backup plan is a lifted ceiling ball to a back corner. Sometimes an off stroke, like returning a Z serve to your backhand with your forehand is a surprise play that catches the server unaware and usually dodging to get out of your way of getting popped by your return. To hit with an off stroke, step forward with the foot on the side where the ball is z’ing, slide forward with a sidestep and take a small step back or drop step with the back foot toward that sidewall. Then step in to set the front foot and stance as you wind up to swing at the ball right after its bounce. In this example, the off stroke cutoff opens up the option for an in-to-in forehand down your backhand wall or even a reverse pinch, like your forehand reverse pinch into your backhand front corner. That sneak attack takes hustle and practice moving your feet to time attacking the Z ball right after its bounce.
• How to Return Drive Z Serves After They Contact 2nd Sidewall
—> The Z drive serve that hits one sidewall, bounces and catches the far sidewall, in many cases, comes straight out paralleling the front wall. The first example is a Z that angles deep and close to where you initially spot up to return serve. Returning the deep drive Z serve is all about getting behind the ball and shooting aggressively at your cross-court or straight in target. Although your foot pop, and first step crossover is your initial move to return a deep Z, a drop step away from the sidewall with your back foot gives you the space required to attack the ball. Step back and then step in 1-2, setting back then front foot and getting ready to shoot. Fewer sidewall shots are attempted because simply the server is in great position if you don’t roll out your return. Although cross-court returns are virtually to the server, still the ball coming in toward you often is best hit as a V pass. Cross-courts must be hit extremely hard or wider and around the server as a WAP (wide angle pass). DTL returns should only be attempted when you sense and have practiced missing the sidewall on the shot’s way in and the way back from the front wall. The second example of a drive Z is the one that comes up way short in the middle of the court requiring quicker movement to turn sideways as you crossover with the far foot and quickly slide up just behind and beside the ball. That slide forward can be done with a sidestep if you’re not rushed or with a crisscross step if you have more court to cover. A crisscross step includes a step behind the lead foot with the trail foot and then a stance finalizing stretch forward with the lead foot. The object is to get up close to the short Z ball to play your return very aggressively and take advantage of your position farther forward in the court. As the server, the shorter in the court drive Z tests a tired opponent, a deeper positioned receiver or a receiver unprepared to move quickly forward, as a result of their having seen mostly deep Z’s. Don’t be one of those guys. As the receiver, move quickly forward and crush your return of the shorter in the court Z. Your goal is to move up aggressively and hit your best return available. A WAP around the server or a hard DTL should be your choices when you decide a kill-shot isn’t doable. The third example of drive Z-serve is less of a Zorro straight out off the sidewall Z and more of a leaning Z. The leaning Z is struck with an inside out motion causing the spinning Z ball to hit the front wall then sidewall and then veer diagonally across the court to bounce deep and very near the sidewall where the ball rises up slightly and deflects off the sidewall. Due to its spin, the leaning Z then angles back at about a 45 degree angle to drop right up against the back wall. When reading the leaning Z, turn quickly with a far foot crossover to face sideways and then also drop the near foot back toward the back wall. That dropping back foot will act as the back foot of your return stance. That action begins the movement to set your feet to try to intersect with the ball as it angles off the sidewall before it makes it to the back wall. Some leaning Z’s will get back so quickly and so close to the back wall that you can’t even get behind the ball. They have to be whack attacked up against the back wall just to keep the ball in play. So the lesson here is keep the racquet at your mid line of your body in front of your sternum until you’re sure which stroke you’re going to use. You may be hitting either to the front wall or whacking the ball up against the back wall. If, for example when returning a Z to your backhand, you were to always wind up super early for a backhand return and the ball was then to get behind you, there’d be no way to change at the last second and save the ball up against the back wall with your forehand. So stay neutral until you’re certain the ball is going to be attackable. Then draw the racquet back behind you. This waiting game goes for leaning Z’s that even angle back and pop off the back wall because they may pop out just far enough for you to save the ball back into the back wall. Do make a regular attempt to intercept the leaning Z as it angles off the sidewall back toward the back wall. Go for a best case cross-court zinger or lift to the ceiling to push the server back. Dispense with the DTL as that return attempt way too often catches the sidewall on the way in or on the way back from the front wall and it would then be a setup for the -that’s exactly what I was looking for- leaning Z server.
• How Do You Return a Direct Jam Serve?
—> A serve that hits the front wall and then carries on the fly to hit low on the sidewall about halfway back from the short line to pop off and bounce toward the middle tests your asbestos hands to react quickly and place your return away from <that> guy. Often a cross-court pass is the best choice, as it’s very difficult to redirect the quick jammer into a down the wall angle or to produce an inside out stroke to hit the ball back into the back corner on that same side. Of course, the hurdle to overcome is does the server <give> you the cross-court angle by how they move to clear after they serve their jam or possible deep “crack out” serve. Here’s how to field the ball jamming you off the sidewall: quickly turn with double foot pop, jab step and crossover toward the side where the jam is coming and continue getting ready, with light feet and relaxed hands which gives you the best opportunity to allow your reactions and learned instincts to see the ball and reflex where you can best place your return. Quick little steps, soft knees and eyes glued on your prize gives you the best chance to do your level best to hit a pass or carve up a ceiling, as your return. Take a short, little compact backswing and keep your eyes glued on the ball until you’re seeing the ball through the back of your strings. A note about when this situation happens will offer you some perspective. In this game scenario, the server often hits their first serve as a direct drive into the back corner. For their second serve they go for a jam or low crack out deeper along the sidewall because it avoids a short serve, it lessens the chance their serve will bounce and pop off the back wall and it pressures the receiver’s reactions and return of serve decision making. It’s a common ploy in doubles when the server on the left side is attacking a right handed receiver’s backhand. So the ball angles back to about 25-35′ to make low sidewall contact and then pop out and veer right into the kitchen of the receiver first putting big pressure on the receiver’s decision making. It would be unwise to go for a down the wall shot that would both be tough to keep from contacting the sidewall on the way in or on the way back out and it’d be tougher yet to get the DTL shot around the likely line hanging server. That same server may take umbrage when they’re popped by a cross-court that’s only struck into the minimum angle when looking to place the ball in the far, rear corner. Yet that’s still your first choice return. Secondarily go to ceiling, although that actually would be playing right into their hands in that a perfect ceiling return may just be an illusion. Any ceiling that comes up short of the back 5′ of the court or pops off the back wall or is able to be short hopped after it drops off the front wall and bounces is a less than productive ceiling. Plus it’s very hard to lift a low jammer or crack out up to the ceiling. Perhaps go for a deeper targeted, harder hit ceiling which would eliminate the short hop attempt. Also, the hard ceiling gets back faster to the backcourt pushing the server back deep faster than they are prepared to retreat.
• How Do You Return a Crack Out Just Past the Short Line?
—> A serve that hits the front wall and then carries on the fly to just cross the middle short line and hit very low on a sidewall to pop off and barely bounce tests your receiver foot speed to react quickly and move forward to cover the crack out with the first thought in your mind, “Keep the ball in play”. A first step crossover with the far foot toward the side where you see the ball is cracking out gets you going forward fastest; no popping the feet first because you’re going primarily forward. Sprint forward with the racquet arm pumping along with the other arm. Then, as you close in on the ball intent on playing the ball before its second bounce, have the racquet out in front of you as you make your final approach, with your racquet arm bent. Slow down as you’re about to make contact. That helps your balance, vision and racquet control. The plan is to get the ball back by hitting the front wall. Plan A, from the place you are in the court, is a cross-court pass return, which is your first choice when the prospect of making either a low kill-shot or even a controlled down the wall both seem like they would be a big stretch from your pressured contact. Obviously the objective is to place your return away from the crack out server. Glue your eyes on the ball until you flick your return. Take a very short, forearm back backswing. Note that the crack out specialist often serves from very close along that sidewall which they have under attack. Still the V cross-court angle should be your Plan A return by angling the ball <around> the server to other side of the court. The best cross-court option would be a wider angled pass, if that angle isn’t blocked by the server. If you’ve been practicing your bumping flick kill-shots from 25′ back and the diagonal angle is open, a reverse pinch, with your primary stroke for that side, is a solid choice because it angles away from the server. If the cracker-outer moves away from where the ball cracks out, the flick down the wall kill-shot or kill-pass is doable when you sense you can redirect the ball that pops out off the sidewall into a straight in angle when the server is stepping away from that angle. So the main point is have several return options and be ready to, on the fly, pick the best one to shoot the ball, again, away from the server. These low return options are your best bets, as a running ceiling ball or even a high Z would both be a tall order when looking lift the ball up quickly and place the return accurately high in the front corner or a good ceiling spot to place the ball deep in the backcourt. As a backup option, a flick lob is better than a flick kill that you have low confidence in making or a pass you feel may go too close to the server and just turn into canon fodder. And the lob matches up with your get the ball back in play #1 return priority. Your super quick dash forward and fixation on the ball makes the return of even a very low crack out well within your wheelhouse. Move fast, focus hard, and pick your best response shot as you’re about to catch up to the crack out right before it’s about to take its second bounce. Hustle, improvise and be aggressive, and pause as you swing thru with soft hands and unshifting eyes.
• How Do You Return a Ball That Squirts Out of the Back Corner?
—> Reading the ball’s bounce where you see the ball is going to bounce, strike the sidewall and then stay up enough to contact and rebound off the back wall presents both challenges and often a big setup kill-shot opportunity, with efficient return feetwork. Here’s how to play the sidewall-back wall as a setup…
• Back Corner Setup Feetwork and Shot Options
—> For a ball popping off the back wall in the back corner, it’s a solid chance to read and move with the ball to be a shooter. It takes very active, very light feet, with well practiced feetwork to get in position to return any back corner setup. Your *drop step* is a strong first move to buy yourself space you need to play the ball offensively. This time the drop step is away from the sidewall. As you read a ball going into the back wall after it has bounced and it’s deflecting off the sidewall, your first move is to initially back off which gives you room to shoot. Backing off buys you time and space to either save a too tight to the back wall ball by whacking it up against the back wall or it gets you moving into prime position *behind* the ball to shoot aggressively. Move your feet intent on better by a shooter. After popping your toes to point ball side and a 1/2 crossover step with the far foot, drop step back with the back foot, which was the foot nearest to the side where the served ball is heading. Although, at the same time, don’t draw your racquet past your midline until you’re sure the ball is going to rebound off and be attackable for you to shoot the ball forward with that side’s primary stroke. When you read the ball is close to the back wall to avoid striking the back wall, you may use your off hand on the backhand side or your racquet tip on the forehand side to touch the back wall and get your bearings. Alternatively you may use your back foot by where you routinely place it to locate the wall and keep your spacing. The main object here is to not hit the back wall with either your backswing or when it usually happens with your forward swing. To move your feet, again, drop step AWAY from the sidewall with the back foot. Keep your feet alive as you read the bounce of the ball. After you drop step your objective is to adjust and get inside the ball or behind it so you can aggressively shoot forward, but most of all shoot with great shot control. As you study the ball’s *bounce*, keep pumping your feet so that you are where the ball will be in front of your hitting shoulder at contact, after you move into the ball. You’ll take a stand at the point where you’ve backed away as far as you need to. As soon as the ball is dropping off where you’re reading its arc dropping off the back wall, set your feet in your recursive, well-practiced 2-foot move. Move a little forward in to the court with what’s called your *step back* which sets the back of your stroking base. Often that step back is actually a short step up or forward, while you plant and set the back foot with the toes pointing at the sidewall. Once it’s obvious that the ball is going to bounce far enough off the back wall and you’ve read its falling arc, you’re setting your back foot well behind contact so you can take a forward step with the front foot into the ball to set a wide, low contact stroking stance. Right after the back foot is set quickly slide your front foot forward to size your stance as wide. Right away kick back or press back off the front foot connecting your legs together. Also, as the front foot sets, complete your take back of your racquet in your compactly sized backswing that matches your task to shoot a low ball left way short in the front court by using a precise, compact, sweeping stroking motion. You’re not looking for a super powerful swing here. You’re looking for maximum balance from your stance so you can sweep your racquet very low and very precisely through the low dropping ball. It’s more of a touch, spin, cut shot for many sidewall pinch kill-shots. For a ball that pops off nicely a little further forward giving you an easier setup, a more powerful stroke may be used, when that is your receiver’s choice. In any case, go about your preparation like you’re an automaton, a human impersonating a machine. The more repeatable and basically mindless your feetwork and racquet flow, the better will be your results. Don’t let the situation be any more than routine. For some reason back corner setups are a big challenge for many receivers. It may be due to one or more of the following reasons: (1) the ball’s closeness to the corner and back wall; (2) the movement required of the feet; (3) the shot being a setup; (4) the distance of the shot to the front wall target; and (5) maybe losing sight of the competitor while prepping which causes some players to freeze up and under achieve on back wall setups. Instead shift your consciousness. Recall this setup is a prime opportunity for you to take the rally. The opponent is at *your* mercy. Focus. Move your feet energetically and set a partially closed stance (or sometimes a partially open stance may be substituted and be very effective). Choose your target well and allow your mechanics to create your low target with your repetition-based confidence. Pick out your wall target mentally and concentrate on your shot options that include: (1) a shot straight in to the front wall; (2) a pinch tight into the near corner with your target a spot up along that sidewall close to the front wall; (3) a cross-court very low kill-shot; or (4) a deep sidewall target hit as a glancing blow deflecting off as a trickle splat. For any shot you choose, first visualize your irretrievable result. Flow thru the ball fully and follow-through completely. Then follow your shot forward just in case the competitor makes a stabbing get so you can move in and routinely rekill their possible save. Recall this is a great opportunity to hit a kill-shot. It may be the second easiest back wall setup after a lob that bounces and rebounds softly off the back wall as an easy setup. Even an overhit ceiling is a tougher back wall situation. Often the sidewall-back wall corner shot is easily rhythmic and readable with maneuverable feetwork to take the ball especially low and make the ball go even lower when you’re prepped, on perfect balance and swinging sweepingly, smoothly through.
• How Do Sidewall-Back Wall Balls Occur?
—> Since this sidewall-back wall situation occurs many ways, including non serves, it’s a matter of getting used to the bounce of each. Those situations include, an overhit drive Z serve, an overcooked cross-court pass, a high, left up down the line pass or a similarly left up down along that wall drive serve. Although the angles vary, the ball bounces, glances off the sidewall and pops off the back wall as a setup so your work level and feetwork technique plus your ball read defines your shooting success. Omitted from the list you may have noticed is a cross-court drive serve. That’s because, although it can be played like the others with similar movements and using that side’s primary stroke, like backing off and hitting a forehand on your forehand side or a backhand on your backhand side, a cross-court drive serve also allows for you to do something special with your return feetwork and off stroke. To attack the cross-court drive serve that you quickly read is going to be a back corner setup, first, step inside the ball into the corner as the ball heads there. There you’ll spin and hit with your off stroke, like hitting your backhand on your predominately forehand side. Step all the way in to the corner with the back foot of the off stroke’s stance that you’ll use, while you spin and track the ball with your eyes and body pivot to shoot the best return you can manage. Often a long, near corner pinch diagonally all the way across the court into the opposite front corner, like a backhand from your forehand back corner into your backhand front corner, is your money ball shot. Pointing the two footed stance diagonally toward the corner or pointing them into any angle you choose for your off stroke return aids greatly in your shot accuracy. Setting your feet that way also raises a flag saying, “I’m shooting there –—>”. But it’s okay because you’re going to kill it, right? Also, take note that the diagonal pinch could be blocked IF the server gets there, in between ball and corner, before you first step into the back corner. If they’re late, they’d better be a leaper, knee lifter cover player.
• What Do You Do to Return a Jam Fly Serve?
—> The jam fly serve or what’s now popularized as the wrap around serve (or wrap around shot) is nigh on impossible to cut off on its way into the back wall and tough to return when you wait until later on to return it, too. It’s a big problem returning the jam fly when you wait to hit it later until you practice the moves needed and use the return options available vs, for example, preprogramming yourself to always hit a robotic DTL. Unless you are very lucky and able to lose sight of the ball when you turn away from the ball, facing the far sidewall and then hoping to pick up the ball as it’s popping off the back wall, it’s tough to later on pick up and shoot your jam fly return accurately. It’s also very demanding to get ready to move super quick and be able to short hop a jam fly. As it’s been noted, some turn and face the sidewall where the ball is going to end up and they think they’ll get lucky in that the ball will show up right next to them where they want it and the ball will be attackable, too. That’s not the suggested method, although it’s often seen employed in doubles. In a better world and based on practice reps, instead keep your eye on the jam fly the whole time until contact and move with the ball until you track down the ball and make a very aggressive, wise shot selection. The first time you encounter a jam fly serve you may try to short hop it before it begins to fly by you. Or that first time (or even the second time) it may not even be fathomable how you’ll turn with the ball while keeping the ball in your line of sight the whole time. To return the jam fly most effectively, as you see it’s headed into that first sidewall and then in toward you, it may seem counterintuitive but play it in a way that may at first seem to be unorthodox. First, from the middle step diagonally with your far foot out toward the far sidewall. Tug along the trail foot as you turn to face that first sidewall the jam hits. Then, as the ball is bouncing and heading into the back wall, already begin to pivot and turn with that front foot and swing the trail foot around and past it. That front foot literally turns into the back foot of that side’s primary stroke stance which is what you’ll be using to return the wrap around ball. So you’re initially facing the far sidewall in a stance that looks like you might be going to hit with your off stroke, like a backhand from your forehand side. But you’re not going to use that off stroke. In the interim, you’re just positioned that way. Again, at this point the ball is bouncing and heading into the back wall inside of you, i.e., you’re out of the way of the ball having diagonally stepped out (step 1). Next draw in your back most foot slightly (step 2) and, as mentioned before, begin to pivot off that lead foot (3) as you spin your body and swing your trail leg around and forward (4), while tracking the ball and moving your feet with the ball, as needed, while the ball is angling off the back wall. Also, begin to prep to hit with your primary stroke. For example, a jam fly that angles off your backhand sidewall you’ll spin as the ball pops off the back wall toward your forehand sidewall. You may crossover with the trail foot and then step forward with your front foot or you may sidestep out to where the ball is to return with your primary forehand stroke. Be ready to flick your feet to catch up to the ball and look to make contact off shoulder or out in front of your racquet arm shoulder. Pick the best shot you can place. One shot that’s a natural due to the ball angling out toward the sidewall is a splat. The top shot choices include: (1) the wide cross-court pass; (2) the splat; (3) the front wall first reverse pinch struck diagonally into far, front corner; or (4) the hard hit direct up the middle pass intended to be a body shot at the server. The DTL isn’t in the top 4, as that’s THE most challenging pick. To hit the DTL you’ll have to take off the accumulated ball spin from three walls. You’ll also have to change the ball angle from its tending out toward the sidewall to shoot it straight-ish down the wall. Contacting a little piece of the outside of the ball works most effectively when going for this on the move DTL. Also, following through exaggeratedly down the wall to the front wall also helps when the down the wall is your goal. In reality, either the inside out splat or the outside in cross-court pass are where the jam fly ball *wants to go*. So choose wisely and hit the best shot you sense you can make. Get a training partner and practice the wrap around shot or jam fly serve returns so you’ll be ready to jump on the ball with lots of hustle and solid, in-tune feetwork.
• What Do You Do to Return a Back Wall “Popper”?
—> A served ball that bounces and then ricochets one of two ways off the back wall can both produce challenging return of serve situations. They are: (a) a ball bouncing and popping off the back wall and going straight forward; or (b) a ball that bounces and pops off the back wall to angle or veer out toward the near sidewall. First, you have to ask yourself, “Was that a screen?”. If the ball is far out from the back corner, perhaps you were screened. But, even then, you have to quickly decide, “Is this still a back wall setup for me?”. If no screen is called, the ball is between your return spot in the middle and closer out to the sidewall, but it’s not quite in the corner. So, to cover it, you have some court to make up. If the ball is going to either project straight out or angle toward the sidewall, the first thing you have to do is MOVE! Pop your feet to point them to that side and right away crossover with the far foot as you simultaneously read the ball as it’s popping off the back wall. Be deciding how much court you still have to make up out toward the sidewall and forward, too. If it’s going to pop further out, get ready to put wings on your feet. To move further out, take another crossover with the trailing foot (that started as the near foot to the ball) and flick your feet forward into a quickly set stance to shoot your best keep-away return shot. A ball that bounces far enough out from the back wall and still carries and pops off the back wall gives you a setup closer to the back wall; so staying close to the back wall works best for you then. For a ball that pops off the back wall and then veers out toward the sidewall, the ball is going to stay close to sidewall and it presents some special challenges returning it. It may come up just short of making sidewall contact. If you hustle then and catch up in time and you’re able to swing smoothly, shoot a trickle splat into a close, slightly lower than ball contact sidewall target to produce a very low, front wall return result. If instead the ball pops off the back wall and angles to fully catch the sidewall, it’s going to deflect off the sidewall just a short ways and carry with it lots of spin that actually turns <in> toward the sidewall. A splat return might seem like a good option, but the spin is difficult to control after the ball has already hit the sidewall. Instead look to drive a cross-court pass low at an angle as wide as you can manage when placing the ball around the server. Neither of those situations where the sidewall is involved should normally be answered by going with a down the wall return, nor should you consider the DTL to be easy or automatic. Contacting the sidewall produces very tough action on the ball where it would be very hard to remove the ball spin, alter the ball’s angle and add the right spin to find the right angle to hit a down the wall pass that won’t pop out into the middle off the sidewall gifting the server what they want, a setup. Consider that these serves that would bounce and pop off the back wall are usually served from off center on the other side all the way out closer to the far sidewall. Seeing the ball early when you *move very quickly* is a must-have receiver reaction. Not moving is going to leave you stranded in your spot watching the ball squirt off the back wall away from you leaving you maybe, st. best, a stabbing get. Due to its incoming angle and the ball’s pace, the serve’s trajectory popping off the back wall makes it a read you must make extremely fast. This is another reason why you’re watching the ball early through the server’s legs. When you see the angle plus read the place you know you must be, you then have to get on your horse to run downhill on these type of serves so, although you play them often on the run, when you move your feet with efficacy, you are able to move and set your feet to treat them as a setup vs as a lunging, desperation flick return.
• How Do You Return a Dead in the Back Corner Crack Out “Flyer”?
—> A variation on back wall poppers are serves that bounce very close to the back wall and then hit directly in the back corner which causes the ball to fly so out fast right along the sidewall it’s like the ball was shot out of a cannon. These flyers offer complex and physically demanding return situations. The service motion for these flyers is either: (1) a quasi low contact stroke from waist high or slightly lower contact; or (2) a forehand overhead motion, like a tennis serve. Either flyer results from very powerful contact. The main focus of these flyers other than their accuracy into the corner is where they bounce. The closer these balls bounce near the corner, the further out along the sidewall the ball will fly. Due to the ball contact at either height these flyers are tough to cover. But the number 1 flyer, from lower contact, might be even more challenging to track down simply because it’s so unexpected and unpredictable. At times low flyers may actually result from an accidental bounce and a miss-angled higher trajectory for a serve that was meant to bounce twice before the back wall. Low flyers are surprisingly angled so you aren’t ready to sprint out along the sidewall like you WILL BE when you see an overhead flyer just about to be cranked. Although you are very ready to move sideways and return a 2-bouncer into the back corner or you’re prepared, if need be, to back up and dance for a back corner setup or you’re ready to step, cutoff and shoot a drive Z server, changing gears and getting off the mark for a fast start for one of these low flyers is a big MUST and, due to the element of surprise, a big ask of your returning skills. Getting down in your return of serve stance is objective #1. Popping your feet to that side where you SEE the ball is going (because you’re looking between their legs or because you can see the flyer coming from most spots where they serve, with the exception being those when the server gets closer to the sidewall on the side of that back corner, which makes these just plain t-o-u-g-h). Start with a far foot crossover which kickstarts your engine for your dash out and along the sidewall to run down these low flyers, which will stress the importance of your court speed and court feetwork. And, when you catch up, your on the run shot selection plus shotmaking will be tested. A cross-court is your Plan A return because of the on the run return hitting. A DTL may be attempted or it may even be all that’s left to you, but there will be difficulty attempting to control a down the wall return. A running, blasted deeper contact ceiling is a good defensive back up plan, too. The number 2 flyer, the overhead flyer is at worst a return of serve adventure. Granted you don’t have to get down super low in your return stance and you absolutely know it’s coming, having seen it before, so you already have on your track shoes and you’re leaning forward, ready to go. Still timing your return movement is delicate, especially in singles because the overhead server may be able to catch either back corner with their overhead flyer which would take away a couple return tactics that you see. For example, in doubles when the overhead ball is only going to go into one corner and the receiver on that side definitely knows it’s coming, by knowing it’s coming there are a few overhead flyer return tactics. Once you know it’s an isolated attack on one back corner there are 3 return options: (1) one avant-garde return option is to take the overhead on the rise right after it bounces and carve the ball up to the ceiling while ideally avoiding sidewall contact on your ceiling ball’s way forward, which is a real challenge due to serve’s powerful pace and its angle breaking away from you out toward the sidewall. That’s your Plan B; (2) Plan A is to move to AND along the sidewall in a planned, early, all out sprint as the server is in the middle of their swing forward so that you are running WITH vs running <after> the ball. One drawback with the sprint is that, as you run forward, you face the front wall. So body position adds another wrinkle to your return stroke. As you run down the ball and you sense the ball is playable with a doable body turn, turn sideways to face the sidewall and try to hit with that side’s stroking stance. Or adjust and prep to return, when needed, from an open stance. A key is to slow yourself down as you are swinging through making contact vs running pell-mell through your swing. Hitting on the run severely overstrains your racquet face control; (3) As Plan C, you can use your cross steps to grapevine along the sidewall. After you turn and face the sidewall with an initial crossover step with the far foot you may still be quite a gap away from being in position to return the overhead flyer. Therefore cross your trail foot in front and over your lead foot as one cross step method. That second crossover step moves you far out along the sidewall. Another cross step, when you’re less pressed to cover a great distance and when balance is your main priority, is a step behind the lead foot and finishing off with a balancing, stance setting stretch forward with the lead foot. That’s a crisscross step. As mentioned before, the worse case return situation for an overhead flyer is in singles when either corner may be under attack by the server. Since the only other possibility is the server might substitute in a high lob or off speed lob serve, you may confidently adjust your position so you’re a step further forward as the server begins their high ball bounce and right as their arm motion in about to go forward. When you see which way the ball is heading, crossover quickly with the far foot and bolt diagonally out toward the sidewall on the side where you see the ball heading. Be prepared to take another crossover step or crisscross to set your feet as best you can to hit on the controlled run in this diagonal run down. Now shot wise, from the early sprint, the cross steps along the sidewall or the crossover and diagonal bolt, choosing or making your shot selection when returning an overhead flyer is return of serve improvisation at its very best. You’re moving with a ball you’re watching spring off the back wall. Perhaps you’ll catch up and a controlled bunt down the line will be there. If less time and a non ideal contact zone is the demand placed upon you by the moving target ball, a cross-court pass is perhaps your better play. Always the running lift to the ceiling is your backup plan, even going for a front wall first ceiling. Balls that spring far off the back wall sometimes separate themselves from the sidewall. If you can find the high angle into the opposite front corner, a high Z is an option that will quickly push the server back. Another option can be the front wall-sidewall reverse pinch into the opposite front corner which is a very aggressive rally ender option when you catch up to a ball that is still a little bit out in front of you at contact, but you sense it’s a ball that you can attack. Additionally a running lob return may catch the server admiring their serve and making them have to backpedal fast. Perhaps they’ll try to do something ill advised as they retreat, like going for a leaping overhead. Rally overheads usually set up the well positioned defender/cover player, which, in this case, it’s YOU!