At Citi Open, a tennis amateur gets up-close view of the challenge of returning serve

Professional tennis players describe the delicate art of crafting the perfect, powerful serve. (Chelsea E. Janes and Sandi Moynihan/The Washington Post)

My first thought at staring down a serve from a tennis professional: “It’s not that bad.” I saw it coming the whole way — even watched it as it whooshed by my unorthodox two-hand backhand flail.

By the time 6-foot-4 Dominic Inglot started blasting serves toward my forehand, I’d seen enough to know exactly where they would bounce. I could shift and make contact. But contact was all it was — racket on ball doesn’t equate to ball in court.

And of course, tennis isn’t baseball: a foul ball counts as a point for the other team; a weak mishit a setup for an even more explosive redirect. That was the lesson from an afternoon spent on a practice court at William H.G. FitzGerald Tennis Center with Inglot and his doubles partner Treat Huey, who took time out from competing at the Citi Open.

Next up from Inglot: body serves, which are exactly what they sound like — serves blasted directly at the opponent’s body.

“Just tap it,” said Inglot and Huey, who were also former teammates at the University of Virginia.

Sure, no problem. With a ball bearing down at 140 mph, “just tapping it” was more realistic than fleeing in time anyway.

So a few of those serves ran into my racket, too, some squibbling harmlessly to the side, others redirecting themselves vertically and landing seconds later in a nearby court to my great satisfaction and some fist pumps from Inglot. Making contact was an improbable victory.

To say I’m not a pro, either in conditioning or natural athletic ability, would be an understatement on par with saying Inglot’s serve is fast. While I’d been told where the serves were headed — backhand, forehand, at me — pros in a competitive match are experts in deception. Players with legendary serves, like Andy Roddick, hit a variety of serves from the same contact point, making it impossible for opponents to use the height of his racket to pick up some hint as to where the ball may be going.

Even when tipped off, returners of high-throttle first serves can’t blink or the point will be lost. The to-do list of split-second tasks needed to properly return serve — see the ball, see where it’s going, get enough of it to return it inbounds, hit it to a place that won’t leave you vulnerable to a devastating return — can’t all get done in time all of the time.

How much time is it? “The ball starts a bit in front of the baseline, and slows down through the air, so let’s say 0.34 seconds” from contact with the server’s racket until the ball’s first bounce, said Rod Cross, a former professor of physics at the University of Sydney and co-author of the book “Technical Tennis.”

“The ball crosses the other baseline after about 0.40 seconds. The returner takes between 0.1 and 0.2 seconds to react to what is happening, so he doesn’t start moving until the ball is near the net. . . . By then, it is often too late.”

It’s not just the power serves that you have to watch out for. Inglot proposed I field a few serves from the left-handed Huey, who was also his teammate at Virginia.

“Now this I can do,” I think, wondering why Inglot and a coach nearby are smiling as if they know something I don’t.

Then Huey serves. It looks straightforward enough, comes right at my backhand . . . then jumps. Leaps, actually, above my shoulder to where it’s nearly impossible to knock down, let alone control.

It’s called a kick serve, given with wicked topspin so the ball hits the court, picks up speed and elevates, making an opponent’s return uncomfortable. Kick serves are the second-serve solution of choice among high-level players, a way to prevent an opponent from fielding a return exactly where he or she hopes.

But now I’m ready for that jump. I take a few steps back and Huey serves again. This one’s curling toward my backhand, too. It’s coming quickly, but I’ve got it lined up.

And then I don’t. All of a sudden, the ball has changed directions entirely, slicing off to my forehand side.

A knuckler of a serve with a laughable amount of spin, all from a lefty. Serves like these — slower but nearly impossible to target — are one way less powerful players like such as Huey make their living from the baseline.

But I can adjust, and a few serves and tips on positioning later I’m predicting the hop. Then Huey smashes one right at me. A change of pace and angle, not just location. I’m a goner.

Actually, I was a goner the whole time: Even when I cheated the system enough to make contact, the results never actually resembled a return.

If you ever watched a tennis match and wondered if a lack of hustle or heart was to blame for a player pulling up on a serve that seemed within reach, it was more likely one of those serves for which the to-do list outlasted the reaction time. Perhaps the returner leaned the wrong way; guessed kick serve but got a knuckler; expected wide but got body.

And the next time you wonder how players with gargantuan serves don’t win every match, remember that they only get to ride that serve half the time. It’s the other half that complicates things, particularly for big-bodied players who have to organize a sprawling frame for a return in the same time span given their smaller, quicker counterparts.

Neither Huey nor Inglot is a men’s singles star, though they teamed up to win the 2012 Citi Open doubles title and have a berth in the finals this year. They say their serves — Inglot’s full-throttle, right-handed blast and Huey’s crafty southpaw junk pitch — complement each other perfectly, keeping opponents guessing as they try to adjust to the differences in angle, speed and spin.

But even so, the good-natured pair isn’t totally invincible. After all, it’s the return game that can get tricky.

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