Racquetball Serve Return Strategy
During a serve the server is in ideal position in the center court. She is in total control and is on offensive. So the main racquetball serve return strategy should be centered on negating the server’s advantage and regaining the strategic control of the center court.
Mechanics of Serve Return
Position yourself in the middle of the court and about 3 feet away from the back wall. Stand with your feet a bit more than shoulder-width apart. Your knees should be slightly bent and your weight kept on the balls of your feet. Your body should also be slightly flexed at the waist, but not bent too much since that will make it harder for you to breathe. You will need to stand up before you move, so you’ll just be wasting precious time. Your wrist holding the racquet should be about waist high and elbows close to your body. Since backhand is generally weaker for most players, you can expect majority of the serves to be to your backhand. So you can prepare for this by holding the racquet using the backhand grip.
Footwork for Drive Serve Returns
A body already in motion is easier to keep in motion. So while waiting for the serve, try to bounce or shuffle slightly. A lot of players tend to do a little hop as soon as the ball is in motion, which also serves the same purpose. The position you want to end up to be able to return a serve properly is to have your chest facing a side wall. This is called a closed position and you square against a side wall to achieve it. As soon as you detect which side the ball is served, you start to pivot both feet and turn your body in that direction. Then using the foot that’s further away from the side wall you are turning towards, you make a long cross-over stride. This should put you into the closed position and allow you to use proper body mechanics to return the serve. However, sometimes the serve is hit deep into the corner and it is not possible for you to reach it after only making the cross-over stride. In those instances you should instead make a small step out with the foot that’s closest to the side wall your are moving toward and then make a long cross-over stride. That sequence of movements, although slower, will allow you to cover more of the court and enable you to return serves you wouldn’t be able to get to otherwise.
In the following video Ben Croft demonstrates proper footwork and how to square off against the side wall:
Serve Return Strategy
As mentioned before, the main objective when returning a serve is to move your opponent out of central court to the back, so you can take control of the center. The two best shots to accomplish that objective are ceiling shots and passing shots. If the serve is executed well, ceiling shot should be your first choice as it allows for the greatest margin of error and should achieve one of your main objectives, which is pulling the serving player into the backcourt. However, any time that the server allows you the opportunity to return the ball more aggressively, you should take it. Down-the-line passes or wide-angle passes would be some examples of more aggressive returns that would both get the server out of center court and put her on the defensive. Kill shots shouldn’t be attempted as a matter of course, unless the serve was executed really poorly and you have a great setup that is just too good to pass up. Since your opponent is in front center court, while you are in the back, he is in great position to get to most of your pinches or splats. So those shots are very low percentage shots that you really need to guard yourself from attempting to hit too often, as would probably be your natural inclination. That being said, it is always a good idea to keep your opponent guessing and you should try not to stick to the same returns all the time. So if the opportunity presents itself, kill shots should definitely be attempted, if nothing else for psychological reasons to keep your opponent in check.
Lob Serve Returns
When expecting a lob serve (such as on the second serve attempt by your opponent), you can move up a few feet toward center court. A good strategy when returning lob serves is to attack them aggressively as soon as the ball hits the floor or passes the receiving line. This is called short-hopping the ball. You have to be really careful when doing that so you do not encroach into the safety zone, as that leads to an automatic point to your opponent. Short-hopping is particularly effective against High Lob serves and you should go for passings shots most of the time to get your opponent out of center court and put them on defensive. This is the most difficult of lob serve returns to execute properly. An easier return to attempt is to mid-hop the ball when it rises about a foot after hitting the floor. Just like with short-hop, you should go for the passing shots majority of the time. These shots can also be performed while the ball is still in the air before hitting the floor, as long as it is already passed the receiving line. If the ball hits the floor very close to center court and flies high into the air above your head, the most sensible choice is to hit a ceiling shot. However, if the lob serve was executed with too much power and you can tell it will come off the back wall pretty high up and provide you with a setup, you might want to wait for it to do just that so you can take a more aggressive approach and go for a passing shot or maybe even a kill shot. Here’s another helpful video where Ben Croft explains how to aggressively attack lob serves:
Observing the Server
Unless you are playing a pro who has perfect technique and also mastered the art of deception, chances are good your opponent provides you with many tells for what kind of serve is about to be hit. So it’s very useful to train your mind to pay attention to these sometimes very subtle changes in footwork or how the ball is tossed. Noticing such clues can enable you to react a few milliseconds faster which might mean the difference between returning the serve well or losing the rally. Just like the server can use deception techniques to mask the serve, you, as the receiver, can also use various techniques to force a particular serve. Let’s say the server is mostly sticking with hard drive serves to your backhand. When she glances at you to check before the serve, you can slightly shuffle closer to the backhand side to indicate you are preparing to receive the serve there. When she turns the head back toward the front wall right before the serve, you shuffle back to the middle of the court. And that little dance might force your opponent to serve to your forehand. Of course, if done often enough, the server will invariably catch on to such tactics and can try to use that to her advantage. These mind games is an important part of a sport like racquetball and a large reason for what makes it so fun to play. In summary, to correctly execute serve returns in racquetball, you should use proper footwork to return drive serves, favor ceiling and passing shots over the kills, but do vary your return shots to keep the opponent guessing, aggressively attack lob serves, and try to move to center court as soon as possible after you return the serve to put yourself in the ideal position to continue the rally.