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Return of Serve Footwork

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The return of serve is a vital shot to your success in either singles or doubles and yet MOST club players are missing a crucial part of their preparation for the swing.

Today’s video will show you two different ways to get ready for your opponent to hit his or her serve.

Questions? Comments? Leave them below. Thanks for watching!

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  1. Diana G May 6, 2016 at 4:28 pm - Reply

    Hi Ian,

    Regarding your return of serve footwork, when is it the best time to split step? When the server is making contact on his serve or after he or she hits.

  2. Elaine Curley May 5, 2016 at 6:47 pm - Reply

    Thanks, very informative.

  3. Noushin May 1, 2016 at 12:57 pm - Reply

    Many thanks for sharing your experience! It's really appreciated!

  4. zosimo April 29, 2016 at 5:50 pm - Reply

    Can you put up a video about how to play when you are against the wind or when the wind is behind you, please?

  5. KT April 28, 2016 at 7:35 pm - Reply

    Ian you are a leftie, right?? (I should say, correct?) In this video you are holding the racquet in your right hand. When you do your preferential staggered stance before the split you have your right foot forward in this video. Were you teaching this for righties?

  6. Karen April 28, 2016 at 5:26 pm - Reply

    I'm using the split step now on return of serves, but will now try taking the step up. Thanks for the info on this. I'm using all of your information from other lessons as well. It's elevating my game!!

  7. Bruno Bowald November 12, 2015 at 4:52 pm - Reply

    Hi Ian / Ira – great advice – (as usual) – thanks

  8. Shankar March 20, 2014 at 5:58 pm - Reply

    VERY USEFUL for a beginner! I just started trying this and am already seeing good results. I do the 'step in and split' (working on the timing though). Instead of standing there waiting to be aced, I am now ready and guessing where the serve will be. One of the side effects I see is, since my body is moving forward, I get good punch on the return. Won quite a number of points with that.

    Thanks Ian. You are awesome. Looking forward for more good videos.


  9. Brett March 10, 2014 at 2:08 pm - Reply

    Ian, I need your podcast back in my life! Seriously though… I miss it. Nice video though.


  10. Fred March 4, 2014 at 1:47 am - Reply

    There's a third variation of the split step on service returns — Perhaps it's an advanced option? Take a step BACK (from the baseline?) before the split step. Tommy Haas and many other pros do this on occasion as an option from starting real deep like Nadal does at times…

    It's especially effective on first big serves and/or when you're expecting body serves on critical points. On the body serve, when you're moving slightly backwards, there's more time (for my slow witted brain) to transition into a good return with quality footwork stepping out of the way of the ball to avoid getting jammed while also preparing for a quality return.

    Also, if you tend to want to hit big returns (yep, I'm slow and stupid), then a backwards split step will put you deeper and perhaps moving slightly backwards, which can help prevent over hitting a big return, which is easy if you're split step takes you forward. Beware, big deep returns may take longer to get to your opponent than close in blocked returns, if you've got the reflexes for such things…

    On the down side, backwards split steps can give away precise line serves if you don't read them at your split step and react. It's a trade off gamble — can your opponent actually hit that line serve consistently vs a body slam?

    Also, if you start at the baseline for big first serve and split backwards, then if you're expecting a weak second serve, you can switch it up with a forward split step from the same baseline position to take the serve on the rise without giving too much away that you're coming in. Or just do the in place split step… It's not difficult to add any of these options to your tool bag with a little practice…

    Bottomline — Ian's right, the split step is essential for quality service returns.

    Also, for me, as a modestly tall guy, it's also important to split into a slightly crouched position to explode from to the ball. I like to be deep enough to barely touch my opposite hand to opposite knee in a balanced crouch. If I don't 'get down', my returns look like a giraffe with its feet stuck in mud trying to play tennis — Not a pretty sight…

  11. Mary March 2, 2014 at 6:42 pm - Reply

    PS Ian:

    Your lessons are very good. I really enjoy them and I am thankful too. One more thing about splitting is that it gives you something to concentrate the mind, rather than something to "think", a ticket for disaster.

  12. Mary March 2, 2014 at 6:34 pm - Reply

    HI Ian:

    I have become a split-step believer. Another benefit for women is that many women serve from a position where they are nearly facing the receiver, as opposed to the pro serve where you are sideways. I have found that I can get a good server to mess us and even double-fault by moving during the serve. And if I am moving in, they might even change where they were going to serve. And I don't consider this gamesmanship because I am incorporating it into the split.

    Also, you said that a person probably won't want to step inside the baseline or start that way. But scary as it sounds, I find it essential in mixed doubles. So many men have a high bouncing serve that an average height woman can no touch it if you start back. And you give them so much of an angle out wide or a possibility down the middle if you are back. I learned this from returning my husband's serve while he practicing. Most women cannot even touch his serve when we play mixed. But I find it almost easy to get it back because I start at the baseline and take a big step and split inside the baseline.

  13. johnm March 1, 2014 at 6:20 pm - Reply

    The split step and watching the ball and the players arm, body variations helps start early your mind and physical movement to return the ball. You need all the help you can get.

  14. Ed B February 28, 2014 at 3:40 am - Reply

    Hi Ian,

    Aside from the well-known benefit of the split step, getting the player's body into the athletic position and firing all the muscles up for the first step, I believe there is another important benefit: forcing the player to concentrate and anticipate.

    To split step right, you have to split just as the opponent swings forward to hit the ball. To do this right, you have to watch the opponent as well as the ball. I strongly believe that by forcing a link between a physical movement (the split) and the requirement to watch your opponent's swing, the player quickly develops a sixth sense about where the ball will go, shot type, and shot quality.

    I don't of course have any evidence to back this up, other than my own experience. I *always* split for ROS, and I rarely miss a return. ROS is probably the best part of my game. However, I sometimes go through periods when I forget to split step during the rallies, and when this happens I become consistently late on my shots, even if I don't have to move to get to the ball. Start splitting again, and normal service is resumed. IMO there is a clear link between the split step, reaction times and anticipation skills.

    Just my 2c worth!

  15. Michael February 28, 2014 at 12:01 am - Reply

    I'm a nearly 66 yr. old 4.0. I can use the split step effectively on second serves, but my timing is off on 90+ MPH first serves. I get overpowered by these serves because I'm late to split and/or be ready to return. Can you speak to the timing of the split set to include which leg to use to take the initial step forward.. I'm right handed. I noticed that you stepped forward with your right leg even though you are left handed. Does it make any difference? Can you help me to catch up to the fast pace serve when I'm employing the split step in my return.

  16. John McCallum February 27, 2014 at 9:56 pm - Reply

    I am forwarding your current emails to various tennis playing friends of mine ….we are all over 50 yrs old and I have improved my game since watching Florian and your utube clips …thankyou so much.

  17. Frank February 27, 2014 at 1:53 pm - Reply

    No doubt, I'm a slow learner, but I listened to several coaches emphasize the value of the split step without ever recognizing that the purpose of the slit step is to achieve "balance" in preparation to react to the ball return. For dummies like me, emphasis on the term "balance" would be much more easily understood than "split step."

    I think many coaches assume the player understands the need for "balance" on the court and that the "split step" is a technique to provide "balance." I had to learn the value of "balance" by watching good players and recognizing for myself the value of "balance" in preparation for a return. Prior to that, I felt that anticipation was more important until I realized I was missing many shots because my opponent could recognize and capitalize on my lack of balance. That simple recognition made a big improvement to my game.

  18. gerry govin February 27, 2014 at 1:46 pm - Reply

    I love your lessons!!! Thank you so much. Gerry

  19. Patrick February 27, 2014 at 12:45 pm - Reply

    excellent but then all your material and their presentation is the best in the business. Thanks for your commitment.

    PS one shortcoming. lack of humor with the math problem. a X two = 14, also it doesn't like seven X two = 14. please explain LOL

  20. david February 27, 2014 at 10:50 am - Reply

    Hi Ian,

    When receiver stands way back 10 feet or more the server sees the position and serves a little slice just over the net that would be very difficult to reach as well as going off the court. I never understand why the receiver stands so far back and leaves himself so vulnerable to a short angled drop slice serve. Please explain.

    On the club level the opponents serve is almost always to same. First serve hard but not difficult to return or second serve soft and a sitter. Why not position yourself in the best position for a return up closer to the service box and concentrate on which side the serve is coming in order to get the racket back in plenty of time to return forcefully?

    Also, the holding of the racket position awaiting the serve depends on how fast and difficult the serve is coming. If waiting at waist height, the time it takes it get the head back and under the ball with enough stroke is much more difficult than having the wrists down and the racket head down at the knees and ankles which lessens the time it takes to prepare to hit the serve?

    The split step gets you moving forward but it also adds to the body positioning movement problem when the most important thing at the moment is having the racket in the right position for the return with as much body rotation as needed to hit a forceful return, except for the little drop shot or extreme angled return taking the server off the court.

    Your thoughts?

    • Ian Westermann February 27, 2014 at 11:09 am - Reply

      Great questions, David. In the video I mentioned that standing way back was best suited for trying to return a huge serve. There's no doubt that starting 15 feet behind the baseline against a weak server (or weak second serve) would make no sense.

      I think the racquet head should be held up. That honestly isn't something I've given a lot of thought to but it's definitely my instinct (can't say I've ever seen any pro or high level player waiting for a serve with the racquet head down).

      As for the your last paragraph, it's important to remember that the racquet is attached to the body 😉 The racquet can't get into position unless the body does first. The split step doesn't add to a "body positioning problem", standing flat footed and having no physical "activation" when the serve is hit does. I hardly ever see a club player move "too much". I see flat footed players with poor reaction time and footwork constantly. That's why I believe the split step is so important.

    • Bob Greenbaum March 1, 2014 at 10:12 am - Reply

      Great thoughts. I have tried lots of approaches
      Crouch from a still position
      Walk in as the server tosses
      Move the racquet right or left
      Hold my non-hitting hand high on the throat
      "Dare" my opponent by moving to a new location in the box.

      Most of this depends on your opponents serving ability.
      Good luck trying to figure them out.

  21. Hy February 27, 2014 at 10:45 am - Reply

    You often comment about the need to be loose in order to get the best racket acceleration. You also state that in order to achieve the necessary flexibility you should not have a "death grip" on the handle. However, when I loosen my grip, my racquet head often will twist in my hand and I will miss hit the ball. How do you know how hard you should squeeze the grip? I can't seem to get the right balance.

    • Ian Westermann February 27, 2014 at 11:11 am - Reply

      NO! This is such a common misconception! I need to do a video on it (adding it to my list). Keeping a loose grip does NOT cause mishits. Mishitting a ball is from not lining up the middle of the racquet with the ball. If the ball hits the edge of the frame then yes, it will twist in your hand. The correct fix for that problem is NOT to have a tight grip, but to focus more on the incoming ball and create better quality contact. Gripping tighter doesn't fix the problem, it's just a bandaid.

  22. Ed B February 27, 2014 at 10:37 am - Reply

    Hi Ian

    Great video, thanks for posting it. I already do this and ROS is one of the stronger parts of my game. I am very much part of the step in school of thought: it gets your weight moving forward and hence you don't have to take much of a backswing and still get good power.

    One question for those of us who step into the serve: does it matter which leg leads? I notice that you (a lefty like me) start with your right leg forward of your left leg, and then step in with your right leg to the split. I start like you, with my right leg forward, but instead my first move is to swing my left leg and take a big step in with the left leg. Does this matter, or is it just a style thing?

    • Ian Westermann February 27, 2014 at 11:14 am - Reply

      I'd say that it isn't crucial either way, Ed. Yes, I always lead with my right foot, which is my dominant foot/leg. I don't have any stats on this but I'd be willing to bet most pro players do it that way.

  23. PJ February 27, 2014 at 10:32 am - Reply

    I've seen some players on their return of serve take that step forward on an angle prior to their split step… It seems to me as if they are often trying to be ready to cut off an angle coming from a particular serve. They might also not want to give away the fact that they are seeking to cover a particular serve so they move while the server's toss is in the air. I have tried this but like feel it throws off my balance at a critical moment. Have you seen or tried this tactic and what do you think of it?

    (Stepping forward in a straight direction prior to the split step, like Andy Murray, does not affect my balance negatively. It took time to get used to but I find it a useful move, especially on high kick serves out wide.

    • Ian Westermann February 27, 2014 at 11:14 am - Reply

      I would definitely recommend stepping forward in a neutral direction, PJ!

  24. handler February 27, 2014 at 9:43 am - Reply

    When do you move forward in relation to the server's motion?

    • Ian Westermann February 27, 2014 at 10:09 am - Reply

      That depends on how much movement you have to do. The longer of a forward movement you have (steps) the sooner before contact you need to begin. It's all about timing the "touch down" of your split step with contact of the serve. Check out my split step series for more details: https://www.essentialtennis.com/video/footwork/tennis-footwork-split-step-lesson-1-of-3/1749/

  25. Mary Lynch February 27, 2014 at 9:26 am - Reply

    I really enjoyed this instruction on the return of serve–was not aware of using the split step. Thanks!

  26. Daniel February 27, 2014 at 9:11 am - Reply

    Ian, Thanks much for the reminder on how important the split step is, including the return of serve. It is not a habit with me yet, but am determined to do it. Thanks. Also, what do you think about a 5-minute lesson on the nuances of the abbreviated strokes of the return? First serve, especially. Regards, Dan H, Arizona

  27. Tanya Starratt February 27, 2014 at 8:02 am - Reply

    Great, enjoyable lessons ! Information you give is so valuable. Footwork is key but as I get older the footwork is a bit more difficult. When I do the split step there is a huge difference and it makes everything else easier!
    Thanks so much,

  28. Terry February 27, 2014 at 7:55 am - Reply

    really useful concise reminder about the split – I shall use it with my student on Saturday. Thanks Terry

  29. George February 27, 2014 at 7:41 am - Reply

    Good info Ian,

    I believe your tip will be more complete if you also discuss the timing of the split step; i.e. when to start, so that you land on the court your're ready and in synch with the delivery of the ball coming from your opponent.

    In my mind a wrongly timed split step could potentially be as ineffective as not doing a split step at all, so perhaps it would be beneficial to comment on that aspect also

    • Ian Westermann February 27, 2014 at 10:10 am - Reply

      I completely agree, George. That's why I included a link to my three part video series on the split step at the end of today's video! https://www.essentialtennis.com/video/footwork/tennis-footwork-split-step-lesson-1-of-3/1749/

  30. Stacey E. February 27, 2014 at 7:40 am - Reply

    My coach is always yelling "split" at us 🙂
    It definitely makes sure you're ready to move into your shot and gets the feet moving so they're in the right place to actually make the shot. I'm going to give the step into the split a try as I think that might feel more natural for me so thanks for the tip.

  31. Bob C. February 27, 2014 at 7:18 am - Reply

    Another great instructional video. I was especially glad you pointed out that few recreational players do the split step. In fact, most–even some very good ones–don't split before ground strokes or volleys; in fact, a large number don't even know what a split step is.

    But for every stroke you ever hit in tennis (except the serve), if you don't do a split step, you can't even do your stroke properly. And you cheat yourself out of that small part of a second that makes such a big difference. Footwork is where it all begins.

    If I were a coach, I wouldn't even teach stroke technique to students who weren't interested in building a foundation of good footwork.

    • Ian Westermann February 27, 2014 at 10:11 am - Reply

      Yup, unfortunately the reality is very few club players do this. Hopefully more after today's video 🙂