Imagine starting a tennis match being perfectly matched up with your opponent and progressing to the point where they’re tired, frustrating and sick of losing points to you.
Keying in on specific tactical advantages makes a gigantic difference as opposed to just focusing on your own strengths and weaknesses. Preying on an opponent’s serve, particularly an opponent who’s confident or cocky with their serve is a tactic that’s commonly used in the pro ranks, but is just as easy for an amateur to incorporate.
If you can effectively turn the other player’s hubris into frustration at the beginning of each point, then each ball you return will become an increasingly large thorn in their side, making rally points easier and easier to come by.
Here are four simple ways to use your opponent’s serve to your own benefit.
If tennis were baseball, this step would be called hitting a single.
Don’t try to demolish your return early in a match. Get behind the ball and hit it with consistent speed and pressure so you can slowly build control over your opponent.
Serving is a physically and mentally difficult part of the match, so make your opponent’s brain and body go right back to work after they serve to wear them down.
Instead of trying to take a point on your return, stay away from the lines and hit the ball down the middle or into an area you’re confident you can nail. This will calm your own mind down and help you avoid the stress that comes immediately before the serve comes.
Keep a deep, moderate pace to your first shot after the serve and your confidence and control will slowly build (while your opponent’s confidence and control slowly fades).
Using your opponent’s serve against them isn’t a skill you can learn overnight. It takes practices and hundreds of repetitions returning various types of serves. If you aim for control over power, however, you’ll get more precise as you improve.
You don’t want to be chasing balls around the court, you want to dictate each rally. Play on your own terms and don’t worry about the power behind your return - your opponent’s power will be more than enough, so just worry about placing the ball in an optimal spot on their side of the net.
The key to returning an opponent’s serve under control doesn’t come from the arms or shoulders, but rather the base you create with your feet. Fabio Walker of the North Shore Winter Club tells his students to feel the court, to use the ground as support for the return swing.
Your legs are the biggest muscles in your body - use them to stabilize yourself so you can focus on your accuracy instead of your power.
Tennis is a game that’s as much mental as it is physical. If you can toy with your opponent and let them know that their oh-so-powerful serve doesn’t mean squat, then you’ll gain a mental upper-hand that’s tough to come back from.