The first step of the return of serve is to step into the tennis court and hit your split step. You want to begin your return of serve in the ready position, about three feet back from the baseline (however, this exact distance depends a lot on your opponent’s serve): Again, in the ready position your feet are about shoulder width apart, your weight is on the balls of your feet, your knees are bent, and your upper body is relaxed with the tennis racket and your arms out in front of your body.
From the ready position, you want to take one step forward into the tennis court; it doesn’t matter which foot you use to step in. After that one step, you should hit your split step. Because you were moving forward as you hit your split, your momentum will help you to continue moving forward after your split, and that’s what you want.
Although the first step is very simple, what is critical here is the timing of your split step as you begin your service return motion. What you want to be able to do is time the split so that you are just rising off the ground or are already in midair as your opponent makes contact with the tennis ball. You can see me doing this in the video above at about 1:40.
Just like we talked about in the split step video in the footwork section of the site, I’m timing my split step like this for a reason. I want to come down from my split step and have my weight load up my legs so that I can push off explosively toward the tennis ball, and I want to be at my most explosive at the moment I realize where the ball is headed. I won’t know where the ball is going until after it is well off my opponent’s strings, so I don’t to complete my split step too early.
We also can look at pictures of some pros on tour to see how they time the beginning of their service return motion and their split step. In the first picture, Gael Monfils is hitting a 135 mph serve to Marat Safin. The tennis ball is exactly on Monfils’ strings here at the moment of contact, and Safin is just beginning to rise up off the ground during his split step, about three feet behind the baseline. Again, Safin is timing his split step on the return in this way because he wants to be landing and at his most explosive *after* the ball is off Monfils’ strings and he knows where the ball is headed (down the tee in this case).
The final point that I want to make is that the exact timing of when you start your service return motion depends a lot on the service motion of your opponent, and this is where you need to do some detective work before the match starts. If your opponent has a very fast windup and service motion, like Andy Roddick, you need to start your service return motion sooner. If you’re playing someone like Roger Federer (you’re going to lose, heh), who has a longer service motion than Roddick, you’ll need to wait slightly longer to begin your service return motion. The key to timing it is that it all comes back to hitting your split step and being in midair at the exact moment your opponent makes contact. During the warm-up time before your match, take a few serves from your opponent and look at his motion. Is it slow or fast? Shadow the timing of your split step against your opponent during warm-ups so you don’t miss a beat once the match starts.