The Aggresive Return of Serve in Doubles
lieber mit einem Weltmeister als immer nur wie ein Weltmeister trainieren
All of us know that "hitting down" on the shuttle is the way to win in doubles. But do you apply this principle on the return of serve? Since you know the serve has to be lifted, there is no excuse for not aggressively returning serve so that your side has the offense. It is easy making points against opponents who lift the service, and likewise it is difficult playing against those who are always near the net and forcing us to hit up. In fact, remembering to "hit down" is simplistic; one should conceptualize and execute shots that force the other side to hit up, even when forced to hit up yourself. This little paradigm shift, from "hitting down" to "make them hit up," is the key to winning doubles and the key to effective returns of serve. Before the serve As you get set to receive serve, first note where each member of the serving team is standing. Their position and stance influence the next step, which is your decision on where to return the shuttle from each corner of your service box. Receiving serve prepared this way decreases your indecision and surprise should you be flicked; visualize what you are going to do. There are nine returns of serve to choose from.
Net shot down the line in the alley
Net shot to the middle in front of server
Net shot cross court in the alley
Half court down the line in the alley
Half court through the server's body
Half court cross court
Flat drive behind server partner down the line in the alley
Flat push to server partner's chest or face
Flat drive cross court
In general, establish your down-the-line and down-the-middle returns of serve before doing a cross court shot, which is only effective if the serving team is not expecting it. Cross courting while your side is up and back (as it should be when receiving or serving) is very risky since it exposes and surprises your own partner and gives the opponents a bona fide opening, as opposed to the illusory open space you think you are attacking when cross courting. Also in general, the half court to the alleys is the most difficult shot for the serving team to handle: this return is the one to develop.
Your goal here is not to win the rally outright with your return, but to hit a shot that makes the serving team lift to the back. Once you have done that, your job as a receiver is done, and the rest is up to your partner, who should be behind you and smashing. As the receiver, you can only do your job by maintaining control of the net, in other words, by remaining there and preventing the serving team from executing a net shot. Remember, they are trying to do the same thing as you are, namely, make you lift. Players who return serve and then hang back away from the net anticipating a clear over their heads are not playing doubles, but singles.
The serving team's position may provide openings just wide enough so that by the time one of them strikes the shuttle it must be lifted. If the server stands even 8 inches back from the short service line, or the same distance wide of the central service line, he or she is vulnerable to a net return away. If the server correctly stands right on the T, try a half court past him. The server partner should be standing at a point where he is in racket reach of the shuttle's trajectory from the receiver's T to his own back corners. Standing too deep, the server partner is vulnerable both to a half court return and drive returns to the back court. Standing off and wide of the central service line the server partner is vulnerable to any shot away, and to any shot at all if the receiver incorporates racket head fakes in his return.
The serving team members' physique and waiting stance also may influence your choice of return. I like to push the bird close to or into a big or tall server's body, so that the partner is screened; likewise I hit shots away from a short person. If anyone stands with a foot forward, I test a return that tries to make him move the leading foot back or force a complete swivel of the shoulders; theoretically he has to take more time to set up, especially if the racket foot is forward.
The next step in getting set to return serve is to adopt your receiving position. You want to be close enough to the net so that in one short stride your outstretched racket head can hit the tape, yet deep enough so that you can reach high serves by taking two steps back and jumping back from your second (racket foot) step. You should be able to reach a short serve to the T on your forehand without moving, and intercept a wide serve to your forehand with one step forward. Your racket head should be up above tape level.
Once you are set and waiting for the service, void your mind and focus on the server's stroke. I try not to second guess the server's intention because it results in a pattern of hard rushes and defensive lifts. I am aiming for a consistent return of serve that puts pressure on the serving team to lift every time. Instead, study the service for small deviations that may signal a short serve or flick. Never shift your weight forward or back until the shuttle has left the racket.
During the service and its return
The instant you know whether the serve is short or long, the return starts with an explosive leap with your racket foot swinging forward (if the service is short) or a strong push back off your front (non racket foot). On the short service, you want to intercept the shuttle within a foot of the net, before it falls too much. You can still make an effective return even if the shuttle is halfway down the net and halfway to your service court from the net, but this can only be a half court. Flat drives or hard pushes are only effective if the bird is met near tape level; net returns are good if the bird is met near the net. The key here is to launch yourself forward as soon as you recognize the serve is short; your body movement alone freezes the serving team back on their heels, keeps them guessing and gives them no time to react to the return. Try to stay upright, because if the serving team gets your return back anywhere close to you, you won't be able to finish it off if you are still peeling your chin off the net.
Tall receivers can get away with a slide step forward with the non racket foot, but shorter receivers and those who stand off the short service line should remember that the shoulders and racket head do not go as far forward with the slide step than as they do with the racket foot leap.
On returning a high serve, the receiver's partner has to cover almost all the court like singles should the receiver smash, since the receiver will be so much off balance. In general, the quicker the high serve, the slower the return could be; remember all you want to do in hitting the half smash or slow drop is to make them lift up. Once they do, and you have recovered from your off balance leap back, you can hit down hard.
Build racket head and body fakes into your return of serve. Essentially try to make the opponents think you are going to hit in one direction, then hit somewhere else. You can do a simple racket head fake by showing and holding the racket face up in front of you, as if you are going to do a net shot, and then flick, slice, or dab at the bird at the last second. Another style is to swing the racket head sideways to the bird, as if you rubbing wax off; similarly, by keeping the racket head up and back and slicing down through the bird you can hit a net shot or a drive. Both types of racket head fakes force the opponents to stop anticipating and wait for your shot. It is much less tiring and mentally easier to play against people who are predictable in terms of shot selection and shot execution.
After the return
Once you hit your return of serve, keep a mental note of how successful you were in getting the serving team to lift. Did the server cut off your half court and push the bird directly behind you? Next time drop the serve to the net. If you rush every time, the server can only prepare for, and cut off, one kind of return: either a half court return or a net return, but never both. Did the server partner reach your half court early enough to drive it through you down the alley? Next time fake straight and drive cross court to the back. The point here is to be attuned to the adjustments the serving team makes to return your return. Vary your returns anyway, since all returns become more effective if the serving team cannot anticipate what is coming.
Most of us think "attacking the serve" means to rush hard and return the serve hard. This is not so. You want to jump quickly forward, but also you want to control your momentum since you might be able to put the next shot away. A hard hit return of serve is fine if you meet the serve above the tape, but once the bird has fallen slightly, any hard hit return to the back court, to remain in, has to be up around shoulder height of the server partner. As the receiver, you may notice that the shuttle will come back to your side just as hard as you hit it. Furthermore, you won't know whether to stay at net in your offense position, or back off to defend your half of the court, since you may realize with the high bird the server partner may smash or drop. In short, returns that attack the back court are not as effective in making the other side lift. Get out of this pattern, and instead concentrate on moving as soon as the shuttle is struck. Once you get to the serve early, your softer returns will become much more effective. Again, above all remember the half court return of serve is the most difficult for the serving team to handle. All it takes is practice!