By Larry Hodges, USATT Hall of Famer and Certified National Coach

I am often left in open-mouthed astonishment when watching matches as players will return short backspin serves the same way, with simple long pushes to the opponent’s backhand, over and Over and OVER!!! There is little attempt to vary these returns or do much of anything to mess up the server. And yet they seem surprised that the server is ready for these simple pushes, usually with a big third-ball loop attack. If the opponent serve and pushes, then perhaps pushing the serve back long over and over will work. But that’s mostly at the lower levels. If you want to reach the higher levels, you have to do a bit more with the receive.

If the serve is long, it’s a bit more simple – just loop the serve, forehand or backhand. If you don’t loop, at least play aggressive, since a passive return of a deep serve is easy for the server to attack, since he has more time then off a short serve. (Aggressive usually means a topspin return, i.e. a drive or loop, but it can also be an aggressive push.) The same is true of a short sidespin or topspin serve (which is somewhat rare at the lower levels) – you should flip it.

However, against a short backspin serve, you can’t loop, and flips are a little trickier. But you have more options to mess up the server, if you only use them. So what should you do against a short backspin serve? There are three main possibilities, but with countless variations.

  1. Push long. Do this to the wide backhand or wide forehand, and sometimes at the opponent’s middle (the playing elbow) against a two-winged attacker, so he has to decide between forehand and backhand, and move to do so. Push quick, heavy, low, deep, and wide, with disguised placement. If you do some of this well, but some poorly, your push will be poor; it’s better to do all six decently. (Here’s an article on this.) Experiment with pushing with sidespin, especially a sidespin that breaks away from the opponent on his wide backhand side. A sudden quick push to an opponent’s wide forehand is often a free winner since they get this so rarely.
  2. Push short. This stops the opponent from looping. But don’t just push short; sometimes aim to push short one way, and go the other. Top players finesse their pushes so sometimes they drop them short at the point of the net closest to their contact point, other times at angles to the forehand or backhand. Often the best move is to fake a short push to the opponent’s stronger side against short balls, then go the other way.
  3. Flip. This can be done forehand or backhand. These days more and more players attack short serves with a backhand banana flip, using it even against short serves to the forehand. Focus on consistency and control, and save the flip kills for serves that actually pop up at least slightly, or (at higher levels) where you really read the serve well. Learn to aim one way and go the other way at the last second.

Never forget that your purpose in returning a serve is to mess up your opponent. You don’t do this by being predictable with passive returns; you do this with unpredictable and effective returns.