If you’ve been reading my tennis lessons for a while then you know how big a fan I am of poaching in doubles.
BUT, poaching isn’t actually my biggest strength as a doubles player. People do think I’m a little crazy at the net – think “dog chasing a tennis ball” – but what I hear people tell me most is that my return of serve is my biggest weapon.
In this lesson, I’ll share how I think about the return of serve and how you can start returning better and break your opponent’s serve more. After that, you’ll have specific strategies for returning from the deuce side and the ad side.
Like all of my tennis strategies, I’ll follow one of my favorite tennis principles and keep it simple.
Footwork is the single most important part of the return. If you get this wrong, then you will never be able to make returns consistently. Almost every time I miss a return, it’s because I don’t move my feet. I stay flat-footed like I have bricks for feet. This happens especially during tight matches so you must focus on your feet.
Against most servers, start a few feet behind the baseline. As they get into their service motion and toss the ball up, start taking some steps forward to get some forward momentum.
This will also make sure your feet are moving when you hit.
Once the serve is coming you’ll want to take a few small, quick shuffle steps to position yourself for the shot, then split step.
Make sure you’re body’s momentum is still moving forward and leaning in the direction you want the ball to go. Without this, it will make your actual shot motion longer and more difficult.
On the forehand or backhand side, there are two keys to the backswing.
Andre Agassi had one of the best returns ever.
See how short his backswing is in slow motion here.
A long backswing leaves more room for error and makes it difficult to catch up to a faster serve.
Since your momentum is moving forward already, you won’t need a big swing to get power behind it. Just lean into the shot and use the server’s power to generate pace.
It should feel like you’re almost punching the return back since it’s not a full swing.
The trajectory of the serve is also an important variable to consider.
If the person has a kick serve that comes up high, you’ll want to stay a little more upright and swing high through the ball.
If the serve is weaker or lower, like a slice, then you’ll need to get low and almost lunge on the return.
On contact, focus on getting your racket around the outside of the ball.
For a right-handed player, this means your strings need to brush the right side of the ball on your forehand and left side on your backhand.
This will generate topspin and help you to dip the ball against players who serve and volley. It also makes it difficult for teams who poach.
When you follow through, focus on keeping your momentum in the direction you want the ball to go. I like to hit it at the middle net strap since it’s the lowest part of the net and it keeps the shot cross court.
If you make good contact, you can use that momentum to get into the net for your next shot.
Missing in the net.
Missing returns in the net sucks because you’re giving away points. At least miss it long and rip at the net player so maybe they’ll gamble and hit it a few.
If you’re missing in the net a lot, then you’re probably dropping your front shoulder. Especially if it’s on the backhand side.
This happens often when the serve is low and you’re being lazy. So instead of getting down for the serve you just dip your shoulder and try to guide it up with your hands, and of course, miss.
Just focus on getting your front shoulder up and you’ll start hitting them back over the net.
Leaving it up too high for the net player, or missing long.
This happens when you’re not getting your racket around the ball.
Start your swing a little earlier so your racket head is making contact out in front. That will help you hit it further crosscourt and with more topspin.
Just remember to make adjustments. If you notice yourself missing in the same spot every time, just change something. Regardless of what else happens on your return games, if you’re making a lot of returns, then you’re making them play. At the 4.0 to 4.5 level, that will keep you in 90% of matches.
If you return on the deuce side in doubles, you might actually have a tougher job than returning from the backhand side. Hopefully, if you’re right-handed, your forehand is stronger so you’ll be able to get some pace on your returns. Let’s take a look at why returning from this side can be harder.
This is assuming you’re playing 2 right handed players.
There are some obvious advantages you have on the deuce side though.
So how can we take advantage of returning on the deuce side?
First, I’ll tell you what not to do…
It will be tempting to go up the line at the person’s backhand volley a lot. I only recommend it if the opponent has a weak 2nd serve, to your forehand. Even in this case, I wouldn’t go down the line over half the time, and when you go up the line, don’t try to kill it. Spin a shot that you know will be consistent down the alley, and typically the best the opponent will do is pop the ball p, and set you up for an easy next shot.
The reason we don’t want to go up the line a ton, is that it’s a low percentage shot. If the 2nd serve is weak, why not go with a high percentage shot crosscourt that you can use to get the server on their heels and let the net player finish the point?
So if we’re not going up the line much, then we’ll hit mostly crosscourt returns. But this all depends on what type of opponents you have. There’s really four types of teams you’ll face.
[I’m creating the phrase “alley hugger” – don’t be one]
The net player is an alley hugger and the server is a baseliner
If the net player hugs the alley, don’t go at them a ton, but hit a solid crosscourt return back to the server. Ideally this will be a deep heavy ball. Since the net player is hugging the alley, you can try to put this over the middle net strap which may get to the servers backhand, or at least make them move around it.
The net player is a poacher and server is a baseliner
In this case, you have options depending on your strengths. The best option is to hit a low ball over the middle net strap. This will take away the angles of the poacher and give them a tough volley if you can drive the ball well, and you don’t have to think about what they’re doing. One of the keys to returning against someone who poaches is to ignore their movement. So you pick your spot before the point, and hit it.
Another option is to go up the line. I wouldn’t recommend this more than 20% of the time. The key when going up the alley is to get it to the opponent’s backhand volley, NOT to hit a winner every time. If they don’t move, you’ll jam them so they can’t do much with it. You’ll typically want a low ball in this case too, but changing it up is a good idea. Try spinning it at their feet a few times, then try lobbing over their backhand side.
If you’re not a great returner, especially keeping the ball low, you can try lobbing up the line. This will be to the servers backhand, and it will have no pace. A lot of players struggle to generate their own pace on backhands so this should put you at an advantage.
The net player is an alley hugger and the server serves and volleys
If the server likes to serve and volley then you want the ball at their feet. You can spin a ball to land around the service line or before. The other option is to drive a ball low at their feet that they won’t be able to do much with.
Again, since the alleyhugger won’t poach, go at the middle net strap. You’ll get it to the server’s backhand volley, and take away their angle. The middle net strap is a great tactic for all the best returning strategies.
The net player is a poacher and the server comes into the net
This is the least common duo in recreational tennis. A low ball at the net strap is again, where your bread and butter should be. Similar to the approach against the 2nd team above, you can also go at the net player getting it to their backhand volley, and a lob is a good option as well.
At the end of the day, if you’re hitting solid low returns at the middle net strap, you’ll break a good amount of games.
Returning from the ad court is an easier task than the deuce court. This is assuming you’re playing 2 right handed players.
The disadvantages are:
Here are some of the best strategies for returning on the ad side.
Again, going down the line is a low percentage shot, and it’s to the net player’s forehand volley.
Typically the net player won’t poach a lot from this side, so a solid crosscourt backhand deep in the court will put you in a great position to come into the net, or have your net player move on the next ball.
If the other team serves and volleys, or the net player is poaching a lot, we want to try to keep the return low, and at the middle net strap. This will make for a tough backhand volley for the poacher, and take away their angles.
If the server comes in it will make for a difficult half-volley at their feet that they won’t be able to do much with other than get it back.
Again, if the net player is poaching a lot, you’ll be tempted to go down the line. I would still do it less than 20% of the time. A good low return will still be a tough volley for them and you’ll find that you win a lot of points that way.
The key to breaking serve in tennis is to make a lot of returns.
You do NOT need to hit winners, or even good return, you just need to make them consistently. Eventually, they will make mistakes on their next shots and you will break.
Decide where you’re going before the serve. Changing your mind based on how the net player moves is exactly what they want, and it will cause you to miss a lot of returns.
I’ll say it again… The key to breaking serve in tennis is to make a lot of returns.
Will is the founder of The Tennis Tribe. He has been playing tennis for over 20 years, played college tennis, and has worked with former professional doubles players. He is dedicated to helping other tennis players become better at doubles through tips, tactics, and strategy without having to put in dozens of hours of court time.