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Alex Robertson
By Alex Robertson on May 10, 2023

Get the Edge in Your Return Game

I want to talk about the return of serve, as I think it's quite a neglected area of the game that could help a lot of players step up their tactics to the next level.

Many players treat the return of serve as a passive shot that's sole purpose is to get the rally going. However, depending on the quality of your opponent's serve, it can be used to give yourself the upper hand from the very start of the rally.

Alternatively, it can put your opponent at a huge advantage if you don't play your return with purpose and thought, let's dive in...

Given the multitude of angles, paces, and levels of accuracy that a serve can come towards you, many of the tips in this week's newsletter are situation specific, but I'll try to include specific examples where possible to keep things clear.

Essentially, you have four options of where you hit the ball. You can return straight and deep, crosscourt and deep, to the front and straight, or to the front and crosscourt.

Determining where you should play the ball can be tricky and there are a bunch of factors to consider including your opponent's positioning, what stage the match is at, how tired you are, how tired you think your opponent is, how hot or cold the court is, and what your opponent's strengths and weaknesses are.

I think the most appropriate way to approach the return of serve is from a percentages perspective, so to keep things simple, I'll be going through each of your four options, what percentage of the time you should take it into that area, and will explain the pros and cons of each.

I'll also finish by covering another of the most important decisions you need to make when returning the serve, and that's whether to volley or not...

Returning Straight and Deep

The straight drive is the most common return shot in squash, and for a good reason.

When executed well it can give you the upper hand right from the start of the rally.

But what does it mean to execute this shot well? Well, tightness is the key. Of course, it's important to aim for the first bounce to land in your target just behind the back of the service box, but, if it's not tight enough, it's the perfect opportunity for your opponent to volley.

If you think about where your opponent is moving from after they serve, they will be automatically stepping across to the T and they only need another couple of steps in that direction (along with their momentum) to try to pick off your straight drive with that volley.

But, if you do manage to get it nice and tight, your opponent will instead have to move into the back corner, allowing you to get them straight of the T and gain control of it yourself, putting pressure on the other player right from the start of the rally.

Generally speaking, going straight is safer than going crosscourt at any point in the rally, because, if your opponent serves and you hit it crosscourt without getting enough width on the ball, they don't even have to move to be able to volley your shot and put you on the back foot.

For that reason, I'd say that you should be playing a straight drive as your return of serve around 70-80% of the time.

It does take some skill and accuracy to consistently get this shot tight, so if this is something you want to improve on, make sure to focus your efforts on it during friendly matches.

There is always the risk of hitting a loose drive that maybe clips the side wall before the front wall and comes out towards the T, which is exactly where your opponent will be.

Just make sure to focus all your energy on keeping your drive as close to the side wall as possible.

Remember, you don't have to hit the ball hard to make it effective. A well-placed and controlled shot can be just as effective. You don't need to rush anything since the rally has just started.

Returning Crosscourt and Deep

While the straight drive off of the serve is, in my opinion, the go-to return shot, mixing things up with a crosscourt drive can keep your opponent off-balance and guessing.

It's important to note that you should play a crosscourt drive around 10-20% of the time off of the serve (again in my opinion) over the course of a match.

If played a lower percentage of the time, the crosscourt can catch your opponent off guard if they begin to only expect the straight drive, and if executed well, it can give you a significant advantage early in the rally.

Again, if you think about where your opponent is moving from, a cross court will be going straight back towards that service box so they will barely have to move at all to try to volley it.

This means that it's also a riskier shot to play, as it gives your opponent the opportunity to intercept the ball and take control of the T. Therefore, it's crucial to hit the crosscourt drive with good width and precision to avoid giving your opponent an easy opportunity.

Ideally, your cross court will make contact with the front wall around the middle and then make contact with the side wall around the service box area, as this is where your opponent will be aiming to volley it from and, if the ball is against the side wall it'll be very hard to volley.

The cross court is at its most effective when it goes past your opponent, so, for this reason, I'd advise experimenting a little with pace.

I would actually advise adding a decent amount of pace if possible too. As, if you're looking to get the ball past them, they may struggle to react quickly to a hard-hit ball, even if it's a little less accurate.

Otherwise, you could try using a little height instead, as it'll give you a bit more time to get to the T and shots that are quite high up in the air are harder for your opponent to volley accurately too.

One other thing I would say is that many players go for the cross court off of the serve more often than the straight drive as it's usually a little easier to hit accurately given the angle that a serve comes towards you.

If you're struggling to hit the straight drive tight, perhaps you would benefit from increasing the percentage of cross court drives to fit your own abilities... just something to bear in mind!

Anyway, to sum up, if you're going cross court off of the serve, you should be making every effort to get the ball past your opponent. If they do manage to volley it, chances are, you're going to have to scramble for the next shot (or shots).

If you do manage to get the ball past them, you have access to the T and they will be in the back corner, hopefully keeping them on the back foot for at least the next few shots.


Photo credit: Steve Cubbins

Returning Straight and Short

Now we head into even more risky territory with taking the ball in straight and short to the front of the court off of the serve with a drop shot.

It can be a tempting shot to go for in the later stages of a match perhaps if you're feeling a little tired, but be warned, this is possibly the worst time to try it, as often, your shot accuracy decreases as you get more fatigued.

If you're going to go for it, I'd advise only playing a straight drop off of the serve a maximum of 5% of the time. And I'd also recommend doing it slightly more in the earlier stages of the match when you're feeling more confident and fresh.

If you throw one in in the first or second game and it catches your opponent off guard, you may not win an easy point off it, but, all of a sudden, your opponent will begin having to cover that shot every single time they serve.

This will make your other options for returning the serve even more effective. Your opponent will not just be expecting the straight drive or cross court drive every time anymore so they will have to get straight to the T (and fast) after every serve to cover the straight drop too.

Of course, the straight drop off the serve is also a risky one, as it requires a high level of accuracy and can easily result in a weak shot that gives your opponent an easy opportunity to take control of the rally.

This shot requires a higher level of skill and experience, so it's important to be realistic about your abilities and avoid taking unnecessary risks.

Make sure to try it out in training to get a feel for it and then you can take it into your game in friendly matches. Do this before you bring it into your game in competitive tournaments or team matches, otherwise you risk sacrificing points!

The toughest part of this shot is taking the pace off of the ball, especially if your opponent serves quite hard. Adding some slice and cut is pretty essential and it helps the ball stick to the side wall.

Similar to the straight drive off the serve, you want to aim to get the straight drop short and tight. Given the angle you will be playing it at, you don't want to aim for a nick as if you miss it, it'll bounce right out towards the middle of the court towards your opponent who will be ready to pounce on it!

To sum up, if you're going for the straight drop off of the serve, you shouldn't be thinking that you're going to get an easy point, as you have to be very accurate to do so and, if your opponent gets it, you may be in the wrong mindset to carry on the rest of the rally.

Instead, you should be trying to catch your opponent off guard and make them have to scramble and put in some serious effort to get to the ball, putting yourself in control of the rally.

Returning Crosscourt and Short

I'll keep this section short since many of the pros, cons, and contexts for returning the ball with a cross court short shot are the same as doing so straight and short.

There are a few small differences with regards to your target, however, the message still stands that you should only go for this a maximum of 5% of the time off of the serve.

The message also still stands that it's a very risky one to go for, so with that in mind I'd also advise utilising it more in the early stages of the match when you're fresh and confident in your shots.

I must admit, I'm probably guilty of going for this shot a little too often, however, when I'm feeling confident and it comes off as a winner, it can be a real crowd pleaser and helps me get pumped up for the following points!

Again, it takes some real accuracy and skill to play the cross court kill somewhat consistently, so if this shot isn't quite in your arsenal yet, I'd make sure to try to practice it from a bunch of different angles to gain confidence before you incorporate it into a real match scenario.

The main difference between taking it straight and short off of the serve versus taking it short and crosscourt is that, with the crosscourt, you pretty much have to aim for the nick.

The ideal cross court short should will be more like a kill/crash nick when executed well. It needs to land low just above the tin on the front wall and then land side wall first before hitting the floor, but the closer to the nick (the corner where the floor meets the wall), the better!

If your shot hits the wall then the floor first instead of the side wall first, the ball will bounce up and give your opponent a very big opportunity to finish the rally just after it begins, so keep that in mind if you're going to go for this shot!

You also need to chop it in with a bit of pace, it doesn't have to be too hard (although it can be), but if you do it super soft, it's a much harder shot to control and your opponent will also have more time to get there and capitalise on it.

The aim of this shot should be for it to be a winner, however, even if it's not, as long as it's low and hits that side wall first, your opponent is going to have to do some work to pick it up.

Especially since their momentum will be taking them towards the T from the service box, they will then have to suddenly change direction to react to your crosscourt winner.

To sum up, the cross court short shot off of the serve is a risky one to go for, so make sure to make it count if you do play it. The rewards can be pretty great, however, if you play it more sparingly when your opponent is suspecting it the least, then that's when it'll have the greatest effect.

Nicole Bunyan

Should I Volley it or Leave it?

I guess this one could be seen as quite an obvious one, but it's surprising how often players leave balls that they should be volleying. And it's also surprising how many players also try to volley serves when they perhaps didn't need to.

Again, it's all about context and depends on the pace and angle of your opponent's serve.

If it's loose and ready for the volley, then there's absolutely no reason to leave it. This gives you the opportunity to take some time away from your opponent and still play an accurate shot yourself by taking it early.

However, if their serve is coming at you fast, or it's very high and going to bounce off of the back wall first, then perhaps your best option would be to leave it to bounce first and take your time to execute a very accurate shot after this.

If their serve is very accurate and tight to the wall when you want to volley it, then you need to make some split second decisions based on how easy you think it'll be to dig out the back corner if you let it bounce versus how inaccurate your volley will be if you scrape it off the side wall.

You can mitigate against this slightly by moving a little further forward or further back to take the ball before or after it makes contact with the side wall, but, unfortunately, some serves are just really good!

Getting the hang of this just comes with time and you will learn to trust your judgement.

Bonus Shot: Going Mid-Court off of the serve

I decided to add this in at the end as I rarely play it myself, but it can be a very effective one if executed well, and that's the mid-court kill shot off of the serve.

This is easiest to play if your opponent's serve is medium pace and loose from the side wall.

The target is to hit it very hard and very low (just above the tin) so the first bounce is in front of the T line and the second bounce is in or around the service box.

This is also a pretty high risk shot because, if you hit it loose and/or too hard or high on the front wall, you risk giving away a stroke, or, at the very least, your opponent will be able to take their space and pin you in the back corner while they take their shot.

With that said, if you execute it well so it stays low and tight to the side wall, your opponent will have to scramble to get it, plus, they will have quite a limited number of shots that they can play in return due to their own positioning.

I believe my coach used to call this a 'stun shot', but I'm no expert in playing it so I'm not going to try and coin a new word for it myself!

Again, similar to taking it into the front corners off of the serve, I would advise not playing this shot too much as once your opponent begins to expect it, they will get on it very early and put the pressure back on you.

So, there you have it, a short guide to returning the serve, hopefully this is been a somewhat helpful newsletter and, as always, it's helped me think more about my own game while writing it, win win!

This article was taken from our On The 'T' Newsletter, if you're interested in receiving more content like this, please feel free to sign up using the subscribe section located at the bottom left of this page (or underneath the article if you're on mobile), thanks!

Published by Alex Robertson May 10, 2023
Alex Robertson