Stand In or Out against the Big Server?
As your skills begin to expand, you should also find yourself playing against partners with advanced tennis skills as well. Basically I've always told my kids to seek out players how are at a higher level if they are willing to hit with you. Don't get upset if you find many will not be interested in hitting with players much lower than themselves. Normally a player want to play someone who is as close to their level as possible which keeps them in condition but there are plenty of players out there (like myself) who will hit with anyone on any level.
So when you find yourself suddenly hitting comfortably at a 4.0 or above level, you will also discover your opponents' having bigger and more consistent serves. What's the best way to handle an opponent with a big serve? Conventional thinking is to allow yourself time to adjust by standing back at least one full step behind the baseline. I will try to be as brief as possible on this topic.
There was a time I too applied that concept as a returner that was until I began to watch Andre Agassi. I noticed Agassi stood inside the baseline no matter how huge the serve was because Andre loved to hit on the rise flatten his return, which meant all Andre did was use the pace of the ball and basically bunt it back into play. I'll explain this more but I'd also like to point out that you can still have control over the ball regardless of how fast it was coming in.
Terminologies to Remember
Rally - The act of a tennis ball in play by two or more opponents until the ball is dead by either a winning shot or an error.
Volley - the ball in play however not touching the court's surface.
So what do you need in order to accomplish this?
1. Good Hand & Eye Coordination. How do you increase your hand / eye coordination if that's not a strong part of your game? One of the best ways you can do this for yourself is hit against the wall.
Try standing approx.10 feet (3.05 meters) from the wall then hit the ball but keep it from hitting the ground. You can use a backhand or forehand slice to keep it under control but don't allow the ball to touch the court's surface. As you gain control over the ball, increase the velocity of your hits making the ball's return faster. Also Net Volley practice is very helpful for enhancing your hand/eye coordination. You will always hear someone tell you to keep your eyes on the ball or play the ball not the person. This is monumentally important in the game of Tennis.
Old timer Ernie use to tell me, when you're totally focused on the game, no sounds or sights will distract you from your mission. All you see and hear is that yellow ball. When the World goes away and all that's left behind is the yellow ball, you are becoming a Tennis Player.
Hitting on the Rise simply means after the ball has made contact with the court, bounces upward and reaches its' apex, that is when you should make your contact. It is impossible to do this when you're standing behind the baseline. Standing behind the baseline gives up too much real estate and allows your opponent to charge in if you happen to be playing a Serve & Volleyer.
Standing inside the baseline, making contact with the ball at its' apex with little to no back swing but following through with your racquet, produces a very credible return for your opponent to deal with. Within a rally, if you're more comfortable hitting heavy top spin, do what feels comfortable to you but the return of serve is what keeps you in the point and the best way to keep yourself in the point or possible find yourself hitting return winners, is learning to stand inside the baseline and striking the ball on the rise, flattening out the ball by eliminating your back-swing but maintaining your follow through. The ball will return from high to low producing very little bounce and if you again happen to be playing against a Serve & Volleyer, you will find yourself taking the net away from your opponent because your returns will be at their feet causing them have to volley up instead of out.
I prefer the *Eastern grip the for this style of service return. Some may tell you the Continental grip is best but if you try both grips, you'll soon discover the Eastern is the way to go for a quicker more penetrating delivery when you need to basically punch the return back across the net. Also it's the easiest for rotating to whatever your favorite grip style is for your normal ground game. Mine happens to be extreme Western. I adopted that style many years ago and haven't changed. Keep in mind, the Eastern & Continental Grips produce little to no top spin therefore your margin of error is minimal. In order to avoid hitting the net on your return, it's important to make contact in front of your body slightly. If you're right handed, the point of contact should be perpendicular to the toes of your left foot which should be slightly in front of your body leaning your weight forward. On the backhand side depending on whether you are using a one handed or two handed backhand, you must apply the same principle by eliminating the back swing and making contact slightly in front of your body.
To summarize, you must remember that hitting a flat ball has little margin for error like you get with top spin which generate brings the ball from low to high due to itsí spinning rotation.
When you stand inside the baseline, the heals of your shoes should be just inside the line. Try to avoid pulling back your racquet but instead simply bunt the ball back into play.
Meet the ball in front of your body
Follow through with your racquet head as normal
Use an Eastern Grip for the return of serve that you can switch from after youíve gotten the ball in play.