Growing up, I was a big fan of Jimmy Connors. His return of a serve was considered the best in the world for a long time (before Andre Agassi came along). Connors seemed to take great pride in returning some of the fastest cannonball serves. It also became my favorite shot in tennis. Most of the principles I learned from watching Jimmy still hold true today.
Move forward before your split step
When your opponent tosses the ball, move forward a step or two. Try to time your split step with his contact and react to the direction of the ball. By moving forward, you will cut off the angles somewhat and your lateral movement will be more explosive. When returning some of the biggest serves, I always envisioned being a goalie ready to “dive” into the corner.
Shorten your swing
When you are returning first serves, all you should be thinking is to use the pace of the ball. By shortening your backswing, you give yourself a better chance to meet the ball in the desired contact zone. If you normally have a loopy swing in your baseline play, you might want to straighten out your swing path on the return of the serve. This will enable you to make solid contact more often and your confidence will grow.
Go against the grain
To give yourself the best chance of returning big serves, let your natural body rotation tell you where you should aim the ball. For a right-handed player on the deuce court, that means you will be aiming your forehand cross-court and your backhand straight ahead. And on the ad court, you will be aiming your forehand straight ahead and your backhand cross-court. By just focusing on the timing of the contact and on your body rotation, this should make a lot of sense. An added bonus is that balls that are caught “late” will still safely land in the playing area and will give you a fighting chance.
Change your return position
When you feel you are returning well, but you are still not winning many points, think about changing your position on the court. You can decide to move right up to the service line to take the balls earlier, or do the opposite and stand way back behind the baseline. Just like it is effective to mix up your serves to keep your opponent off balance, it is just as important to change your return position. It will change the timing on your opponent’s first shot and might be the key to changing your luck!