How Do I Read my Opponent's Serve?

Roy125

Professional
I like to be extremely aggressive with my serve return game. Even with first serves, I try to return the ball deep in the court (and sometimes charge the net). I have trouble reading where the serve is going to go though. With all these different serves out there, I want to know the signs of knowing what kind of serve my opponent is going to hit and where it's going to go.
 

darthpwner

Banned
Try to see if they have tics (giveaways), like where there eyes are when they serve. Also, tosses can usually be dead giveaways unless they disguise it a la Sampras. Kickers they toss behind their head. Slices they toss out to the right (for righties).
 

GetBetterer

Hall of Fame
The direction in which they throw their body. If you notice their body doesn't do a huge rotation in before the serve, then the ball is likely to go down the T.

If the serve takes on a few more milliseconds with more body turn, somewhere either in the middle of the service box, or the corner opposite to the T.
 

RoddickAce

Hall of Fame
Aside from reading visual cues, you can also look for serving patterns or preferences and then adjust your return positioning to provoke your opponent into serving to a certain area.

For example, your opponent loves serving bombs up the T and has a relatively weaker serve out wide. So on pressure points, stand closer to the T. Your opponent will then have to consider whether to play it safe and continue serving up the T, where you are, ready to pounce...or serve out wide with his weaker serve, maybe even missing. However, watch out for counter tactics. When someone stands close to the T on the ad court, I usually hit kickers on my first serve out wide to pull them off the court.
 

LeeD

Bionic Poster
Hard to believe, but.....
They say the server has an advantage.
Can you imagine just what that advantage might be?
I know, so I resign myself to actively react to my opponent's serves.
I know, so I know he has to react to my serve placements, types, spins, and bounces.
 

aceX

Hall of Fame
For starters try to keep in your head where your opponent is placing their serves. If they're going to your backhand on both sides, stand over there a bit more and see if they switch.
 

LeeD

Bionic Poster
I fail the see the need to read the opponent's serve.
You know whether it's first or second, so you mostly know the bounce height.
Prep for that bounce height.
You know you want to topspin the serve back, so hold forehand grip and use the other hand to be ready to switch to correct backhand grip if the ball goes there, which is should most of the time.
Timing...prep for flat serves, you will have time to hit your topspin shots on any other serve.
Since your opponent can accidentally hit long or short, wide or just to one side, you still have to react to the shot.
 

LeeD

Bionic Poster
I"m not saying DON'T try to read the serve, I"m saying it's more important to take care of your own business rather than worrying about what your opponent is trying to do.
Pros get wrong footed all the time trying to return serve.
 
I fail the see the need to read the opponent's serve.
You know whether it's first or second, so you mostly know the bounce height.
Prep for that bounce height.
You know you want to topspin the serve back, so hold forehand grip and use the other hand to be ready to switch to correct backhand grip if the ball goes there, which is should most of the time.
Timing...prep for flat serves, you will have time to hit your topspin shots on any other serve.
Since your opponent can accidentally hit long or short, wide or just to one side, you still have to react to the shot.

This. Good advice Lee.

In addition, there is a more advanced version of the split step that can help you get a quicker first move to the ball and make it look like you know where the ball is going ahead of time.
 

martini1

Hall of Fame
I like to be extremely aggressive with my serve return game. Even with first serves, I try to return the ball deep in the court (and sometimes charge the net). I have trouble reading where the serve is going to go though. With all these different serves out there, I want to know the signs of knowing what kind of serve my opponent is going to hit and where it's going to go.

A mental database of the opponent is needed. After a number of serves you should be able to guess but their body position and shoulders. And also what they prefer to serve when they are in the lead or vice versa.

The ones that I think are impossible to read are the ones that are still learning to control their serve. They miss hit or they wrack the ball hard with little control. They don't even know where the ball is going themselves. You will need very good reading skills to be able to tell that as they strike the ball. But most of these people cannot serve corner to corner as well. For example they can only go wide on the deuce court and cannot do that on the ad court. In that case I would guard the T more on the Ad court.

I am still practicing on reading as soon as they toss the ball. I still think the mental database is my best bet. Concentration is probably the hardest part for me.
 

SystemicAnomaly

Bionic Poster
Gaze studies indicate that elite returner focus on the (racket) shoulder and the upward swing more than anything else. Non-elite returners tend to shift their gaze on various parts much more than elite returners do. If you focus on the shoulder and upward swing, you are more likely to notice difference in the swing path and may consciously or subconsciously pick up on the racket face orientation very close to contact.
 

martini1

Hall of Fame
Gaze studies indicate that elite returner focus on the (racket) shoulder and the upward swing more than anything else. Non-elite returners tend to shift their gaze on various parts much more than elite returners do. If you focus on the shoulder and upward swing, you are more likely to notice difference in the swing path and may consciously or subconsciously pick up on the racket face orientation very close to contact.

Interesting. What is the proper way to read if the ball is going down the T or go wide?
 

heninfan99

Talk Tennis Guru
This.
x10x10
Try to see if they have tics (giveaways), like where there eyes are when they serve. Also, tosses can usually be dead giveaways unless they disguise it a la Sampras. Kickers they toss behind their head. Slices they toss out to the right (for righties).
 

LeeD

Bionic Poster
I"m basically blind on court. By the time the reads enter my peabrain, get some process, get spit down into some muscles, I'm already watching the incoming ball, and less clutter is better than more clutter.
Besides, although I'm a very accurate server, I sometimes change my grip to see if that is working, totally serving somewhere I didn't really intend.
Now I"m 4.0. Imagine the variety with lower level players.
 

martini1

Hall of Fame
Unless he has a tic, look at his contact point and read his racket face as it accelerates to that point.

I find that a little hard to do when facing a hard flat serve, especially when the guy is doing proper pronation. That split second and then the racket face is gone, and the ball is already here.
 
I find that a little hard to do when facing a hard flat serve, especially when the guy is doing proper pronation. That split second and then the racket face is gone, and the ball is already here.

You're right, it's pretty quick. On top of the other advice given in the thread, there is a way to maximize your odds of getting to the ball on time, and it's footwork related. Start on your toes in the ready position. When your opponent accelerates his racket out of the racket drop, initiate your split step. You want to time it so you'll be at the top of the hop when he contacts the ball. By the time you begin to fall back down, he will have hit it, and you should know where it's going. The trick is to land on one foot. If it's going to your forehand, land on the left foot and push off the left foot (this is assuming you're a righty). If it's going to be a backhand, land on and push off the right foot. Also turn your chest sideways in the direction you'll be moving while you're still in the air. This will make you much quicker. Watch Federer. This is a backhand return, so it's right foot first. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Om08ErDcm78
 

SystemicAnomaly

Bionic Poster
Interesting. What is the proper way to read if the ball is going down the T or go wide?

Clues, like swing path and racket face orientation, can often be subtle and may be picked up more on a subconscious level rather than conscious one. If you play against a particular server enough, you may become better at picking up these subtle clues.

Auditory clues are very important as well. Even tho' sound does not travel as fast as light, with tennis court distances, there is almost no difference. However, it takes longer for the brain process visual information that auditory info -- we react to sound much quicker than we react to visual stimulae. A simple reaction time for sound can be 50 ms quicker than a simple RT for visual info. In some cases this will be 20% quicker (or better). We can pick up cues about ball speed and spin before the info to our eyes is registered by the brain.
 

Nostradamus

Bionic Poster
Clues, like swing path and racket face orientation, can often be subtle and may be picked up more on a subconscious level rather than conscious one. If you play against a particular server enough, you may become better at picking up these subtle clues.

Auditory clues are very important as well. Even tho' sound does not travel as fast as light, with tennis court distances, there is almost no difference. However, it takes longer for the brain process visual information that auditory info -- we react to sound much quicker than we react to visual stimulae. A simple reaction time for sound can be 50 ms quicker than a simple RT for visual info. In some cases this will be 20% quicker (or better). We can pick up cues about ball speed and spin before the info to our eyes is registered by the brain.


I think If you are slow amateur this will be pretty tough to do. though this is a great advice for up and coming juniors and college level players
 

Nostradamus

Bionic Poster
The direction in which they throw their body. If you notice their body doesn't do a huge rotation in before the serve, then the ball is likely to go down the T.

If the serve takes on a few more milliseconds with more body turn, somewhere either in the middle of the service box, or the corner opposite to the T.

this is very good advice. but I thought it was opposite though. if you do a huge turn then it will likely go up the middle ??

also is there anyway the body orientation could give away the serve when the server is in middle of the motion with knees bent ?
 

SystemicAnomaly

Bionic Poster
. . Clues, like swing path and racket face orientation, can often be subtle and may be picked up more on a subconscious level rather than conscious one. If you play against a particular server enough, you may become better at picking up these subtle clues.
. . Auditory clues are very important as well. Even tho' sound does not travel as fast as light, with tennis court distances, there is almost no difference. However, it takes longer for the brain process visual information that auditory info -- we react to sound much quicker than we react to visual stimulae. A simple reaction time for sound can be 50 ms quicker than a simple RT for visual info. In some cases this will be 20% quicker (or better). We can pick up cues about ball speed and spin before the info to our eyes is registered by the brain.
I think If you are slow amateur this will be pretty tough to do. though this is a great advice for up and coming juniors and college level players

Which part do you believe is difficult? Auditory clues are not very difficult to identify at all. Very low intermediate players can easily learn it. I even teach it to some of my advanced beginners. I'll often ask them if they can hear the difference between shot that is framed and one that is cleanly hit. Most can.

Then they learn to distinguish between a shot with a distinct "brush" sound and one that is hit with less spin. Once a player becomes aware of these different types of these ball-string sounds, they often can start picking up other variations on their own. They can start identify shots that are hit slower/faster or shots that are hit with various amounts of spin.

As for reading subtle visual clues, this comes with experience. Most intermediate players (3.0/3.5) can start to pick on this if they've been playing long enough. Not as difficult as you might think. Many players will start to pick up many clues on a subconscious level -- they are just not aware of it (by definition).
 

Chotobaka

Hall of Fame
Which part do you believe is difficult? Auditory clues are not very difficult to identify at all. Very low intermediate players can easily learn it. I even teach it to some of my advanced beginners. I'll often ask them if they can hear the difference between shot that is framed and one that is cleanly hit. Most can.

Then they learn to distinguish between a shot with a distinct "brush" sound and one that is hit with less spin. Once a player becomes aware of these different types of these ball-string sounds, they often can start picking up other variations on their own. They can start identify shots that are hit slower/faster or shots that are hit with various amounts of spin.

As for reading subtle visual clues, this comes with experience. Most intermediate players (3.0/3.5) can start to pick on this if they've been playing long enough. Not as difficult as you might think. Many players will start to pick up many clues on a subconscious level -- they are just not aware of it (by definition).

Agreed. Just try to return serve when there is external noise that drowns out the sound of strings on ball. Very difficult.
 

LeeD

Bionic Poster
Even though I discarded the notion as a student, I'm a believer in history.
80% of the time, the server will serve where he did before, so remember where he served each point in a similar situation.
 

Nostradamus

Bionic Poster
Which part do you believe is difficult? Auditory clues are not very difficult to identify at all. Very low intermediate players can easily learn it. I even teach it to some of my advanced beginners. I'll often ask them if they can hear the difference between shot that is framed and one that is cleanly hit. Most can.

Then they learn to distinguish between a shot with a distinct "brush" sound and one that is hit with less spin. Once a player becomes aware of these different types of these ball-string sounds, they often can start picking up other variations on their own. They can start identify shots that are hit slower/faster or shots that are hit with various amounts of spin.

As for reading subtle visual clues, this comes with experience. Most intermediate players (3.0/3.5) can start to pick on this if they've been playing long enough. Not as difficult as you might think. Many players will start to pick up many clues on a subconscious level -- they are just not aware of it (by definition).

Ok, so can you list the Visual cues that amateurs can use for picking up serves again ? yes, I agree you get better at picking this up with experience but it helps a great deal, if you know what to look for specifically to begin with.

Also agree with sound cues on spin. yes that brush up spin sound means More spin is coming at you but doesn't tell you what direction. HEAVY spin could be hit with slice or Topspin kick serve so It could go wide with slice or up the middle with kick serve in Deuce court. OK, so you say read the toss too get the direction of the serve also, sure.
but many good amateurs I find that they can hide the toss or disguise it better at higher levels like 4.5 levels that I play in
 

SystemicAnomaly

Bionic Poster
^ I did not say that gaze studies indicate that elite players cue off the toss. They focus primarily on the hitting shoulder and the upward swing (swing path) of the racket. The gaze of amateur players tend to look at more things than elites do.
 

LeeD

Bionic Poster
K I S S
I can hardly find my correct backhand ROS topspin grip.
Why do I need to compound my problems trying to read my opponent's toss motion?
Plenty of info already... score, bounce height, serve speed, preferences, then I gotta focus within, which is many MORE variables, then I'm supposed to "read" my opponent's serves?
 

SystemicAnomaly

Bionic Poster
^ I did not say that gaze studies indicate that elite players cue off the toss. They focus primarily on the hitting shoulder and the upward swing (swing path) of the racket. The gaze of amateur players tend to look at more things than elites do.

It (gaze control) is not intuitive. Sometimes, less is more. At certain times they look at less. Take a look at gaze of Roger, Rafa or Nalby during all of their forward swing (including much of the follow-thru). Eyes fixed on the CP and the head does not move.

You see the same thing for pro golfers executing a putt. AFTER they've already lined up the putt, they focus on the where the ball lies -- they do not try to follow the ball movement as they swing. Ditto for ML baseball players -- they focus on the expected CP -- their head is still. Looks at the focus of an NBA player shooting a free-throw. Joan Vickers has done extensive studies of the gaze of elites vs amateurs in various sports. She talks about the "Quiet Eye". Other gaze control experts have done more studies on returning tennis serves. They pretty much have made the same observations.
 
Good players have focal (perceptual) pivots that allow them to take in greater amounts of information without the inefficient process of numerous fixations (basically little information is taken in when you move you eyes from one point the the next).

Williams, Ward, Knowles and Smeeton (2002) demonstrated that perceptual training can improve recreational tennis players perceptual speeds up to good club player level. Its just another skill that can be learnt with good practice (which may be accelerated with perceptual training).
 
K I S S
I can hardly find my correct backhand ROS topspin grip.
Why do I need to compound my problems trying to read my opponent's toss motion?
Plenty of info already... score, bounce height, serve speed, preferences, then I gotta focus within, which is many MORE variables, then I'm supposed to "read" my opponent's serves?

I have mixed thoughts on this one. I agree with LeeD in that you don't want to compound racquet grip, reaction time, quality return, other things into trying to read what your opponent is going to do on serve. This applies if your opponent isn't dominating on serve. Sometimes you just need to get into a groove to hit better returns, where "reading" your opponent doesn't really get a lot for you.

Although, if you're opponent has a great serve, shows no pattern, and is able to effectively mix up different types of serves, then reading your opponent can be beneficial.

I think it's well summed up in previous posts, but to gauge what your opponent is doing, read the toss (should give you a clue on flat, kick, slice), read their gaze (could give you a clue directionally - up the T, out wide), but most importantly, look for patterns. If you've only returned 1 out of 27 serves to your backhand, you should have a good idea where your opponent is going to serve it.
 

PhrygianDominant

Hall of Fame
I only recently played my first league match. It was an interesting opportunity to see the wide range of stroke mechanics, athletic ability, and experience; or dearth of any or all of the aforementioned... that combines to create a weekend hacker in a myriad of varieties.

Most of the players had weak serves and were trying to play steady from the baseline. In those cases reading the toss will not get you very far. Most of these guys don't know where their serve is going before they hit it.

I am not sure the op's level, but if it is good enough that his opponents have consistent tosses for different services, then he probably doesn't need much advice. If, on the other hand, his level is closer to mine and he is looking for an edge, then he should probably look elsewhere.

I am aggressive on returns. I usually get a return winner in singles about once every two games. The advantage there is probably psychological. If my opponent is afraid of my return on second serves, then I start to get points in double faults or weaker first serves.

I guess my advice is to practice footwork on ROS and stay focused. In the case that the OP is much stronger than me, please ignore my advice.

My 2cents
 

tennisdad65

Hall of Fame
Lower level players have no clue where their own serve is going.. so as a returner good luck trying to guess :)

Against most club level servers, even if you do not read the serve, you should have enough time to get it back. Especially second serves.

For guys with huge first serves, here is where you try and read the serve. The toss is the first clue. Second is the shoulder direction just before contact.

But if you concentrate too much on reading the toss/shoulder/body, you will take your eyes of the ball and this is much worse.
 

SystemicAnomaly

Bionic Poster
^ Elite players only briefly look at the ball before contact. Late in the serve motion, however, if they focus primarily on the hitting shoulder and upward swing of the racket head, they will undoubtedly see the ball coming off the server's racket. Do not believe that there is any danger that elite players will not see the ball when they need to.
 

LeeD

Bionic Poster
I've been serving into the morning sun for the past year, me lefty. Sun is in the perfect spot to cure all my years of whining about the sun in my eyes.
I seem to have been hitting the ball without looking up at it at all. Low toss, I tossed it, I visualized WHERE I wanted to toss it, I don't even see the ball, blinded by the sun.
Works fine, but if I come to net, I'm still seeing stars and still blinded by the sun.
 

magnut

Hall of Fame
i think it depends a lot on your level. i see a lot of lower level players who want to "be aggressive" on the return when they really need to learn clean moving the feet and clean returning. Closing the face of the racquet and taking huge cuts at the ball is pretty dumb un less you are highly highly skilled with exceptional timing and are able to read serves.

understand as a returner you are in a defensive position as you are in reaction mode. Keep the swings short, move the feet, and get into the point. Going big off return of serves is the same as going for two first serves. its high risk and you dont even make your opponent play. Not a winning strategy for the most part. make them play.

Trying to create pressure and take time away from your opponent when in a defensive position is high risk. You need to create time for yourself to give yourself opportunity to take an offensive position during the point. I have played big servers where defensive lob returns were required to get into points. It was effective. deffinitly better than missing returns all day and just letting my opponent serve.
 
Gaze studies indicate that elite returner focus on the (racket) shoulder and the upward swing more than anything else. Non-elite returners tend to shift their gaze on various parts much more than elite returners do. If you focus on the shoulder and upward swing, you are more likely to notice difference in the swing path and may consciously or subconsciously pick up on the racket face orientation very close to contact.
Trying to resd the shoulder position may ne what I need to try against (the few) opponents that have big serves with a very consistent toss location. There's no time to react, the ball just flies down the t, sliced out wide or directly to the body. I was trying to read the toss but that's opaque and the swing is too fast.
 

LuckyR

Legend
Trying to resd the shoulder position may ne what I need to try against (the few) opponents that have big serves with a very consistent toss location. There's no time to react, the ball just flies down the t, sliced out wide or directly to the body. I was trying to read the toss but that's opaque and the swing is too fast.
At the Club level you'll go far by paying attention to the toss alone.
 

SystemicAnomaly

Bionic Poster
At the Club level you'll go far by paying attention to the toss alone.
Attention to the toss is not unimportant. It provides the returner with cues as to the type of serve to be delivered. But, alone, does not usually tell us serve speed, timing or where the serve will be delivered. The tossing hand can also provide info.

Expert returners will also notice the toss but will give greater weight to serve kinematics — especially, certain body parts and the upward swing. The follow-thru might provide a bit more info.

Right after contact, the pre-bounce flight of the ball provides the primary source of serve info.
 
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SystemicAnomaly

Bionic Poster
Trying to resd the shoulder position may ne what I need to try against (the few) opponents that have big serves with a very consistent toss location. There's no time to react, the ball just flies down the t, sliced out wide or directly to the body. I was trying to read the toss but that's opaque and the swing is too fast.
The arm & racket (swing path & speed), during the upward swing, should provide a lot of info. But as you indicate, it might happen too fast to interpret.

Chest & shoulder (in addition to the arm) might be a bit easier to read.

Interesting that expert returners will fixate on fewer parts/ elements than novice returners. But the expert fixations will normally be longer in duration. The eyes of novice returners tends to dart around more than expert returners. Experts have more of a Quiet Eye gaze strategy
 

LuckyR

Legend
Attention to the toss is not unimportant. It provides the returner with cues as to the type of serve to be delivered. But, alone, does not usually tell us serve speed, timing or where the serve will be delivered. The tossing hand can also provide info.

Expert returners will also notice the toss but will give greater weight to serve kinematics — especially, certain body parts and the upward swing. The follow-thru might provide a bit more info.

Right after contact, the pre-bounce flight of the ball provides the primary source of serve info.
Well, I used the caveat "at the Club level". Pros learn how to hit all the spots with the same toss. That essentially doesn't exist at the Club level. Most players can't or at least won't hit all the spots with the same serve type. Thus knowing the type will essentially give clues as to the placement.
 

SystemicAnomaly

Bionic Poster
Well, I used the caveat "at the Club level". Pros learn how to hit all the spots with the same toss. That essentially doesn't exist at the Club level. Most players can't or at least won't hit all the spots with the same serve type. Thus knowing the type will essentially give clues as to the placement.
Not sure that we are not talking about the same "club level" players.

While the pros can hit different parts of the box with the same toss, they don't hit all types of serves with the same toss.

Many rec/club players can also hit different parts of the box with essentially the same toss. Reading the type of serve they are hitting will often not tell you where, in the box, the serve will go. Servers who vary their toss for different placements, rather than different types of serves, have a very readable tell. Decent club players do not do this.

Not sure of the level of your "club players". Perhaps low intermediate players might vary the toss for different placements but most high intermediate rec players that I had played did not.
 
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LuckyR

Legend
Not sure that we are not talking about the same "club level" players.

While the pros can hit different parts of the box with the same toss, they don't hit all types of serves with the same toss.

Many rec/club players can also hit different parts of the box with essentially the same toss. Reading the type of serve they are hitting will often not tell you where, in the box, the serve will go. Servers who vary their toss for different placements, rather than different types of serves, have a very readable tell. Decent club players do not do this.

Not sure of the level of your "club players". Perhaps low intermediate players might vary the toss for different placements but most high intermediate rec players that I had played did not.

To me "Club level" is: never good enough to play Div 1 tennis. Ex good college players I see are at least 5.0, so lower than that.
 

SystemicAnomaly

Bionic Poster
To me "Club level" is: never good enough to play Div 1 tennis. Ex good college players I see are at least 5.0, so lower than that.
According to this”club level” would be quite a wide range. Starting at 3.0/3.5 on up. Would 2.5 rec players still be “club players”?

Around here (SF Bay Area), D1 players are typically 5.5/6.0 players. The D2 players I’ve played with were above 4.5, usually a 5.0/5.5 level. The D3 teams I sometimes practiced with were usually 4.0-5.0 ntrp.

While I’ve seen 3.5/4.0 players use different tosses for different serve placements, I rarely saw D3 players doing so. Never with the D2 players
 

LuckyR

Legend
According to this”club level” would be quite a wide range. Starting at 3.0/3.5 on up. Would 2.5 rec players still be “club players”?

Around here (SF Bay Area), D1 players are typically 5.5/6.0 players. The D2 players I’ve played with were above 4.5, usually a 5.0/5.5 level. The D3 teams I sometimes practiced with were usually 4.0-5.0 ntrp.

While I’ve seen 3.5/4.0 players use different tosses for different serve placements, I rarely saw D3 players doing so. Never with the D2 players
You're describing college players, I'm talking about ex-college players. But using your numbers we're still pretty close (in level). But my point wasn't that folks who didn't play college tennis can't hit different spots with the same toss, but that they typically don't (because they get into patterns of preference).
 
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