It’s All About the Split-Step on The Return of Serve

split stepTo this day nobody has explained the return of serve better than when Nick Bollettieri said “Well, if a guy hits a ball 120 -135 mph, it is going to be a very hard serve for anybody to return. I think that probably the most effective way to handle a big, flat 130 mph serve is to simply say, Our Father, who art in Heaven, hallowed be thy name, and take your chances.” Not only do I personally find this hilarious, I also believe there is some truth to what Nick is saying. If you’re human, it is impossible to cover the entire tennis court, especially on the return of serve. If you think you should get to every single ball, you are only putting unneccesary mental stess on yourself. However, there are ways to cover the court well, and maximize your chances of getting to the ball while at the same time, accurately getting the ball to where you want it to go.

A short time back, Avilés, C., Benguigui, N., Beaudoin, E., & Godard, F. (2002). conducted research on the effects of the split step on the return. It was proven that not only does the split step get you to the ball faster than when you do not split, but also that experienced players adjust their feet before they land in order to explode to the ball effectively. The most interesting thing that I took away from this was the fact that players did not land on both feet simultaneously. Pictures where taken of the feet of the returner every 4 milliseconds. The picture below illustrates the players left foot touching the ground 32 milliseconds before his right foot in order to move towards his right. Between all five participants, players had a combined average of landing on the opposite foot (of the direction they were going) 68% of the time. Nick Saviano (2000) stated that “top level players unconsciously produce functional behavior to adapt to demanding strokes in different game situations. Saviano states that top level players are able to regulate the landing phase of the split-step, instead of landing with both feet simultaneously, they touch the ground first with the foot that is further away from the direction of the ball, so as to start the stroke with an explosive movement towards that side.”


1. How you lift off on the return will have an impact on how well you get to the ball.
2. How you land off your split step will impact how well you are able to get to a ball.
3. How fast you react after landing will affect your success in retrieving the ball.
4. This is “reactive and adaptive” as opposed to anticipation.
5. Perfecting your split step is crucial to having not only a good return of serve, but also retrieving all shots landing on your side of the court.

– Carlos Bermudez Tennis

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