There are two classic choke shots in tennis: the serve and the return of serve. Failing to return serve is the receiver's equivalent of a double-fault; you lose the point before it even begins.
The simple truth hurts: If you cannot return your opponent's serve, you can't win. That's what happened to world champion Bjorn Borg when he ran into Roscoe Tanner's fireballing display at Flushing Meadow a few weeks ago.
Like a great serve, however, an outstanding service return can become the most threatening weapon in your tennis arsenal. Just ask Jimmy Connors, whose return is in fact better than his serve.
Most players are willing to go out and practice a basketful of serves once in a while. They all practice a few serves during a warm-up. But how many will give their return of serve the same attention? You neglect this shot at your own peril.
The first problem is overcoming the inevitable pressure not to blow the shot, since you know in advance that it's probably the hardest shot your opponent will hit during the point. This is why it's important to gather your concentration and focus on the ball before the point begins.
Glue your eyes on the little piece of yellow fur while it's still in your opponent's hand; let your head rise with it as he tosses it into the air; let your body react as if on a string attached to the ball when he finally hits it. With this kind of focus, none of your opponent's body movement will distract you.
Probably the single most important thing in returning serve is hitting the ball deep (except in doubles, where the trick is to keep it short and low). To achieve a deep return, your body wieght must always be moving forward. After a missed return, look at your feet to see if you moved up or back on the play.
If you're facing a player who hits a hard cannonball on first serve, you will do well to stand back a bit farther from the baseline. It also helps to shorten your backswing and block the ball back. You'll be amazed at how many balls that you used to pluck from the back fence are now well on their way to your opponent's baseline.
On second delivery, you have to watch for spins (and an occasional power-puff). Focus on the service toss. A right-hander who tosses to his lfet and behind him will serve an American twist; the ball will veer crazily to your left after the bounce. If you spot this toss, begin moving forward and to your left in time to intercept the ball before it has a chance to bounce over your head.
If you're having a bad day returning serve (and can't blame it on the cracked cement or bad lighting), start experimenting. Try standing 10 or even 15 feet behind the baseline. Try lobbing the return. Try sneaking up to the service line when the server tosses up the ball. Try anything just don't blow the service return! Think of it as a triple fault.
Q. I can handle most returns, but I have trouble getting into the point after that.
A. Many players stand there happily watching their returns sail over the net and forget to reposition themselves at the center of the court for the next ball.
Q. Why do the pros seem to move their feet and jump around while awaiting the serve?
A. To get the body in motion and establish rhythm before the ball is already coming at them.
Q. I am so mesmerized by a hard server that I sometimes just stand there while he aces me.
A. Make up your mind to commit one way or the other and start moving just as he hits the ball.
Q. My opponent always serves to my weak backhand. How can I force him to change occasionally?
A. Challenge him by moving way over to your backhand side before the toss; see if he shoots for the open forehand side.