One of the most famous shots in United States Open history was a return of serve in the 2011 semifinals between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic.
After rallying from two sets down to force a fifth set, Djokovic trailed 5-3 and faced two match points when he smacked Federer’s serve back with a sharply angled cross-court forehand winner. Federer was stunned, the crowd erupted, and Djokovic rode the momentum of that shot to victory.
Djokovic is often acknowledged as the game’s best service returner, but it’s for an approach that’s usually the opposite of that singular shot.
“Eighty percent of the time Djokovic takes the ball early and hits it hard down the middle,” said Craig Kardon, who has coached Martina Navratilova, Lindsay Davenport and Coco Vandeweghe, and also is coach of the Philadelphia Freedoms in World TeamTennis.
Hitting the ball right to your opponent may seem counterintuitive, but many in the game said it was underused and could be the most effective service return.
On a first serve, if you are not perfectly balanced it’s difficult to hit accurately into the corners, said Iga Swiatek, ranked 49th on the women’s tour. Against the best servers, she said, “you don’t have time to think about direction, and the middle is the safest option.”
Safe doesn’t mean weak. Navratilova, who won the Open four times, said modern rackets made it easier for players to take a full swing and drive the ball deep.
“And it’s easier to take a real swing at a ball when you know you have a giant target,” he said.
Brad Gilbert, an ESPN analyst, said the return down the middle was the game’s most underutilized shot. A player returning every first serve down the middle would have a fighting chance to gain an edge or at least get to neutral to start the point, he said, “and that’s a good place to be.”
On second serves, attacking down the middle can also be more effective then aiming for corners, Gilbert said.
Paul Annacone, a Tennis Channel analyst, said going for a corner or a short angle either lead to misses or, if the shot was too cautious, it gave the server an angle and an open court.
“If you don’t hit a perfect return going for the angle, then it becomes a track meet in lateral tennis, and the server usually has the advantage,” he said.
The deep middle return is so effective, Navratilova said, because the server is still off balance — hit it deep enough and they have to backpedal — and it is difficult for them to hit their first shot with pace or depth. “It’s gold,” she said.
Annacone said the middle return reduced reaction time for the server and also gave the player less space to hit a sharply angled shot of their own.
The shot is least useful on red clay where servers get extra time to recover, Navratilova said.
It’s most dangerous on the grass at Wimbledon, where the ball skids and the grass gets patchy, producing unusual bounces and poor footing. (Federer used this return to great effect during July’s Wimbledon quarterfinals against Kei Nishikori.) Annacone said that while the hard courts at the U.S. Open lacked those benefits, they were fast enough to make the deep middle return a genuine weapon.
On the men’s side, the shot is particularly effective against the players who are 6-foot-5 or taller.
“Players with long limbs find it harder to get out of the way and need more time to get their bodies organized after the serve,” Navratilova said.
Querrey, who is 6-foot-6, said when defending against these returns he focused on using his hands, sending the ball back down the middle, low and with pace.
The strategy of hitting serves into an opponent’s body prompts a bit more debate. In the Wimbledon finals, Simona Halep and Djokovic, who won the singles titles, relied on this strategy far more than their finals opponents Serena Williams and Federer. .
But Gilbert argued that at the top of the pro game, players were better off going for winners or aces either up the middle or out wide.
“It’s not so easy to go boom and hit right into the body, and if you miss the spot you can be beat,” he said, adding that he probably hit just two body serves in his whole career “and both were by accident.”
He said that for earlier players like John McEnroe, Patrick Rafter and Stefan Edberg who used the serve-and-volley, it was a smart choice.
Annacone, who as a coach, encouraged Pete Sampras to occasionally mix in some body serves to his booming shots to the corners.
“If you are facing a great returner why wouldn’t you want to make him or her protect three targets instead of two,” Annacone said, especially because taller, more agile players and better rackets often make it harder to earn aces or service winners. “If you just sprinkle a handful of body serves in early in the set, it has a cumulative message and then at 5-5 it will be easier to hit aces to the other spots.”
He said that, like returns down the middle, body-shot serves were especially effective against taller players. “They can’t get out of the way and balanced before hitting the shot as easily.”
Navratilova has long felt that players should use the body serve more, either with a hard flat serve, or a high-percentage slice serve.
“If you can make a player like Serena step away from the ball when she wants to step into it, then she can’t take her full cut, and it’s a very effective play,” Navratilova said, adding that there are obvious exceptions — it would be much less worthwhile against a player like Rafael Nadal, who frequently stands several miles behind the baseline, making it almost impossible to handcuff him.
“Most guys use it maybe twice a match and women a few more times, but they should be using it 20 times a match,” she said. “It’s a lost art. ”