How to Improve Your Return Strategy in Singles: Our Proven Method

In this post, you’re going to learn our proven method to improve your return strategy for singles.

Note: This post was originally published on Tennis Analytics.

Similar to the previous lesson on serve strategy, some of this can be implemented immediately without practice time. You will also learn specific areas of your return game to work on in practice.

What we’re about to show you, we do on a daily basis for tennis players of all levels, from beginners to USTA 3.5 to top 10 professionals, across the globe.

By looking at this data to develop a smarter strategy and more effective practice court, your return of serve is guaranteed to improve.

Remember, there are two ways to improve your return.

  • Improve your technique. This would help improve power on your return, placement, or make percentage, and requires lots of practice. We’ll show you how to find out if you need to work on this below.
  • Improve your strategy. You can implement a better return strategy immediately, without much practice. This includes determining where to hit returns to your opponent.

To help you follow along, we’re going to use the example match from our last lesson, the 2019 Shanghai Masters semifinal between Stefanos Tsitsipas and Daniil Medvedev.


Why You Should Care About Return Strategy

Many great coaches agree that the return of serve is the least practiced shot in tennis. However, it’s also one of the most important shots in singles!

You have to hit a return on almost half of all the points you play in singles. A good return can constantly put pressure on your opponent and helps take the pressure off of your service games. If you don’t make returns consistently, you better have a big John Isner serve.

In short, if you care about winning matches, then return strategy should be a primary focus of your singles game.


Step 1: Determine Which Return You Need to Improve

Because we have two serves in tennis, the first and the second, we also have 2 types of returns.

The best way to improve your return is to look at specific parts of your return game and improve the weakest ones.

It’s possible you’re doing a great job of returning first serves, but you’re not as aggressive as you should be on the 2nd.

The important number when it comes to return strategy in singles is the percentage of return points won on both 1st and 2nd serves.

Returning the 1st Serve

These were the return numbers for Tsitsipas when Medvedev made his 1st serve.

Return of serve win percentage on 1st
Medvedev = blue | Tsitsipas = green

Tsitsipas won a slightly higher percentage of 1st serve points than Medvedev. However, it was still only 17%.

This might be something to look at. Perhaps Tsitsipas could change his court positioning to get more returns in the court. Sometimes, however, especially at the pro level, if someone is serving well, there’s not much you can do to improve this number.

Returning the 2nd Serve

On 2nd serves, we find the real difference in the match.

Return of serve win percentage on 2nd
Medvedev = blue | Tsitsipas = green

Tsitsipas is only winning 33% of points when Medvedev hits a 2nd serve. Typically this number needs to be around 50%.

Last time we looked at how to make the 52% number go down, or improve Tsitsipas’ 2nd serve.

Today we’ll figure out how to make the 33% go up. Combine the two and Tsitsipas may win the match!

Bonus Mini-Lesson: Return Strategy on 1st vs 2nd Serve

At most levels of tennis, your return strategy should change from the 1st to 2nd serve.

Returning 1st serve is more of a reactive shot. The optimal strategy focuses on 3 things in this order:

  1. Get the ball back in play. Obviously, this has to be a priority.
  2. Add depth. Hitting returns with depth will help neutralize a good 1st serve and get the server on their heels.
  3. Add direction, typically to the body backhand. We know that a serve +1 forehand is important, so as the returner, we want to see backhands.

Returning the 2nd serve is usually an opportunity for the returner to be more proactive.

In fact, at all levels of tennis except the top professional men, the returner has the advantage on 2nd Serves.
*We know this from analyzing thousands of matches.

This is an opportunity to attack the server by taking the ball early and reducing reaction time for the server’s “serve +1 shot.”


Step 2: Review Return Efficiency on the Deuce & Ad Court

Let’s first look at how Tsitsipas did while returning from the deuce vs the ad court. To do that, we’ll look at Medvedev’s 2nd serve efficiency in those areas.

Efficiency for Medvedev on 2nd serves
  • Deuce Court: Medvedev won 10/13 points = 77%
  • Ad Court: Medvedev won 6/10 points = 60%

Neither side is great for Tsitsipas in this match, but the deuce court is noticeably worse, so let’s focus on that side.


Step 3: Compare Forehand vs Backhand Returns

Next, we’ll look at forehand vs backhand returns on 2nd serves from the deuce court.

As we said above, the return of serve is one of the least practiced shots in tennis, and this is how you can find out which specific type of return you need to practice.

Return strategy efficiency

Backhands

  • 62% of 2nd serve returns on the deuce court
  • 15% were backhand errors, while 46% were backhands made in the court

This means Tsitsipas made 46/62 = about 74% of 2nd serves to his backhand.

Forehands

  • 38% of 2nd serve returns on the deuce court
  • 15% were forehand errors, while 23% were forehands made in the court

This means Tsitsipas made 23/38 = about 61% of 2nd serves to his forehand in the deuce court.
*Again, we know where the numbers should be based on 1000’s of matches of data.

61% is low. This may be a technique issue, or he may just need to spend more time practicing this shot.

To improve your return, you should not only practice it, but find out which of these 6 returns is your weakest.

  • Deuce court forehand
  • Deuce court body
  • Deuce court backhand
  • Ad court forehand
  • Ad court body
  • Ad court backhand

Step 4: What is the Best Location to Return?

Finally, let’s see where Tsitsipas should be returning.

Here are his 2nd serve returns by location.

Return placement strategy for Tsitsipas

You can see that Tsitsipas’ best return location to the Medvedev backhand where he won 3 out of 4 points and missed 0 returns.

Down the middle he won 1 out of 3, however, he also missed 3 returns long.

Wide to the Medvedev forehand was only attempted 3 times, where Tsitsipas made 2 of 3 and lost both of those points.

So what advice would we give to Tsitsipas based on the data from this match?

  1. Hit a higher percentage of 2nd serve returns to the Medvedev backhand.
  2. Practice your 2nd serve returns in the deuce court, especially wide to your forehand.

This does mean redirecting serves down the line on the deuce court, however, on a 2nd serve this shouldn’t be quite as difficult.


The Best Return Strategy for Singles Matches

Combining these numbers is the fastest way to analyze and improve your return strategy.

From analyzing 1000’s of matches, we know that for most players, it’s important to get a Serve+1 forehand. So, returning the serve to the backhand side is usually the best return strategy.

But without seeing the data you might get it wrong. At Tennis Analytics, we uncover strategic opportunities like this all the time for players all over the world, including the pros.

If you’d like help with your return strategy, purchase a Tennis Analytics’ player package. They will create a custom report, and give you access to the same match video analysis above.

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About the Author

Will Boucek is the Founder & CEO of The Tennis Tribe. He has played tennis for over two decades, including in college. Will has worked with ATP & WTA tour players and coaches. He currently lives in Austin TX where he plays USTA leagues & tournaments, writes about tennis, and teaches doubles workshops.