Many players have only a few receives off any given serve. This means they may be comfortable against those serves, but they aren't really doing anything to "mess up the server." How do you mess up the server? There are three ways.
- You can attack the serve. But that means going for relatively high-risk shots, and the advantage of the attack is often offset by the misses. Plus, if you attack every serve, you become predictable, and so the server is ready for it.
- You can neutralize the serve and get into a neutral rally. There are many ways of doing this, such as a short push, a well-executed deep push, or a well-placed medium attack. These are great options, but also become predictable.
- You can vary your receive so the server has no idea what you are going to do next.
This last one is the hardest for most players to execute as it means having numerous ways of returning any given serve. In many cases you only need a few options. But there are many times where having more options will pay off - plus, if you have many options, you are more likely to have the specific options that the server will have trouble with.
I'm going to go over an exercise I often demonstrate in clinics. I get a volunteer to serve short backspin to my forehand. I have him do this over and over, and each time I give a different receive. Here's a short list of some of the possibilities - and yet many players rely almost exclusively on one or two of these. You don't need to do all of these, but you should be able to do nearly all of them, and then pick and choose which ones are the most effective options against a given opponent - and then "cycle" through those options so the server never knows what's coming next. The following is just for receiving short backspin serves to the forehand; you should work out on your own the options on other serves. In general, you should look to have more options against short serves, and be aggressive against long serves. (We'll assume the volunteer is a righty.)
- Quick push to forehand.
- Quick push to middle (opponent's elbow - when you go there you want to be quick).
- Quick push down line to backhand.
- Aim to wide forehand then quick push to backhand.
- Aim to wide backhand then quick push to forehand.
- Extremely heavy push to wide forehand.
- Extremely heavy push to wide backhand.
- Aim to wide forehand then sidespin push to wide backhand (ball breaking to right).
- Aim to wide backhand then sidespin push to wide forehand (ball breaking to left).
- Aim to wide forehand then push short to backhand.
- Aim to wide backhand then push short to backhand.
- Aggressive topspin flip to wide forehand.
- Aggressive topspin flip to middle (opponent's elbow).
- Aggressive topspin flip down line to backhand.
- Aim to wide forehand then flip to wide backhand.
- Aim to wide forehand then flip to middle (opponent's elbow).
- Aim to wide backhand then flip to wide forehand.
- Aim to wide backhand then flip to middle (opponent's elbow).
- Flat but quick flip to wide forehand.
- Flat but quick flip to middle (opponent's elbow).
- Flat but quick flip to backhand.
- Fake a push but at the last second flip - this gives you about ten more possibilities.
- Step to right and flip with backhand - and suddenly you have lots of new possibilities as you can aim one way, go another, and go after the backhand, middle, or forehand.
- When pushing, vary the contact point to throw off opponent's timing, sometimes taking the ball quick off the bounce, sometimes at the top of the bounce, and other times taking it later, which surprisingly throws many opponent's off.
- No-spin pushes!
Are you starting to see the possibilities? You don't need to learn all of these; pick the ones you like, and practice them until they are weapons in your arsenal, ready to pull out as needed to "mess up the server."