The return of serve has long been considered possibly the most under practiced shot in tennis. How often do you see a young player working on this particular shot ?
Most players will be happy to just groove the ground strokes with their practice partner doing exactly the same at the other end. It may just be the key though to being a complete player as opposed to one who just lacks 'that one thing'.
The game has seen many great returners such as Borg , Agassi, Chang and Wilander plus the current Big 4 with all of them possessing an art to simply getting the delivery back. I vividly remember Bjorn Borg at Wimbledon with an amazing style that is not replicated too often now days.
The Swede would let the serve take it's full spin as he sat way back behind the base line then return it as you would a normal ground stroke. I believe that it was perhaps why Borg was so good, he treated every ball he received whether it be a return or rally ball with the same technique, he gave himself time to hit it.
The way the return is hit now days is remarkable to say the least and Andre Agassi took it to another level as he saw the serve quicker than any other player in his era. Watching the Las Vegas showman step inside the base line and belt the Sampras serve back just as hard as it arrived was one of the most amazing things I have witnessed in tennis. He seemed to know where they were going with surprising ease.
The return of serve can either get you back into a 50/50 situation in a game or it will produce an energy conserving game from the server as he dictates play. I believe Federer has once completed a service game in 49 seconds, that's dictating play in any man's language.
I recall once a Davis Cup tie between Germany and the US with Agassi taking on the great Boris Becker or 'Boom Boom' as he was known, for obvious reasons. In practice the Americans actually came up to the service line to belt serves at Agassi to give him a realistic idea of the pace of serve that he was about to receive from the German.
This practice idea on the return may not have been unique but it was one that had merit then and still does now. From memory Agassi lost in 5 after winning the first two but he was around 18 years old at the time and he only got better from that point, especially on the return.
So to the recent Paribas Open in Paris where the Quarter Finals were just a tie break away from having the top 8 seeds play off ( Wawrinka lost 6-7 in the third to Anderson). The return of serve statistics were alarming. Grigor Dimitrov who was seeded 9 won just 8 of 44 service return points or 18 per cent in technical terms. The player who beat him 6-3, 6-3 Andy Murray won 22 of 53 service returns or 42 per cent, that was the difference in the end with 3 breaks to Murray and none to Dimitrov. As flashy as the Bulgarian is he may just have to find a way to get the serve back before he can start to show the World his obvious talent on his ground strokes.
Other match statistics saw Federer win just under 40 per cent of his return points against unseeded Frenchman Lucas Poille who managed just 22 per cent whereas David Ferrer was outstanding. In his match against countryman Fernando Verdasco he returned with amazing ease against a serve that comes down regularly at 200 km. Ferrer in fact won 25 of 39 return points or 64 per cent, that's seeing it with an eye like Agassi.
Even the brilliant returning of Novak Djokovic could not get him to the 50 per cent mark against the big delivery of Frenchman Gael Monfils with just 38 per cent or 23 of 60 points won. Novak still won in straight sets however. So if a player can't regularly break another player what does he do ?
Against a player such as Isner or Karlovic most players are content to get to a tie breaker and chance their luck on either a double fault or a look at a second serve or two. I have never seen two players contest more tie breakers than the above mentioned two. Why these guys don't work more on their returning is a mystery but they are making plenty of $$$ so they obviously have a plan.
As I mentioned in the Federer 'Genius' chapter I am a big fan of the '50/50 ball' return that Roger does so well, the ball that asks the question of his opponent. A ball returned down the middle with depth but lack of pace is almost an insult to a big server. "Is that the best you got buddy" ??
I am sure the Gentleman in Mr Federer would never say that out loud , he may not even think it, but it's what it looks like to the rest of us. Just get it back, life is a whole lot easier on court if you do.......