The return of serve in tennis can sometimes seem like nothing more than desperation. With servers hitting first and second serves better than ever, just getting them back is occasionally a struggle.
Turning returns into a weapon can be very valuable for tennis players. It is no surprise that tennis history’s best returners all reached the top 10 in the rankings. Who are the best of the best? It starts with these seven, who are all nightmares to go up against when reading serves well.
1. Novak Djokovic
Throughout his career, Novak Djokovic has been one of the most consistent players in tennis history. Why has he been able to have so much success? Ask experts, and it comes down to his ability to return serves better than anyone else in the game’s history. His flexibility, his ability to read serves off of the racquet, and so much more contribute to his overall skill.
As he continues to age, perhaps his returning ability will dwindle a bit. However, he is always putting pressure on the server because of his ability to turn defense and offense with just one outstanding shot.
He hits rockets for winners on both sides, and his placement with shots is almost always deep and in the corners. There has not been a better overall returner in the game
2. Andy Murray
The best players in tennis history have all hated playing Andy Murray, and that comes down to one of his best skills as a returner. He is an above-average player as far as size is concerned, and his long wingspan allows him to get to balls that others struggle to reach. Murray also has consistently on both wings, so a player can’t pick on a particular side to get the best of him.
His best returning days might be behind him now, but he can still read servers extremely well. During his prime, his first shot off the return set up a grinding rally that he could slowly but surely take complete control of. Very few did it better, and some would argue that he was slightly ahead of Djokovic early in their careers.
3. Andre Agassi
What made Andre Agassi such an intimidating force as a returner in tennis was where he positioned himself. Not only was he able to hit the ball extremely hard, but he played right at or even inside the baseline so often.
Look around this list, and he is the oldest one to make it. He was the first guy to really turn the return of serve into a serious weapon. He deserves a lot of credit for working on this game and counteracting some of the big servers starting to emerge. He did not have the same physical gifts as some of the other players on tour, but his work ethic and studying of the game allowed him to read servers very well and gain an edge.
To this day, coaches use a lot of his techniques to teach the next generation. He had a very modern type of game for someone who has been retired for a while now. His return of serve might no longer be the best of the best, but he was the original to play this new style.
4. David Ferrer
David Ferrer was considered a bit of a counter puncher during his career, but his return of serve had plenty of power behind it. It was a way to counteract some of the big hitters, as he struggled at times to go up against much taller players.
Ferrer would probably be higher on his list if he had a longer wingspan. That was about the only weakness that held him back, as he could not get to some of the balls that some of these taller guys can. His compact, quick strokes allowed him to hit the ball hard off of returns, even with the first serve.
Many believe that he overachieved during his career, and this is how he pulled it off. He was a very cerebral player, hitting his returns to his opponent’s weak areas of their game.
5. Rafael Nadal
Watch Rafael Nadal play against a big server, and there might be a chance that he is completely off the screen. He is notorious for standing way back from the baseline, but it works for him as he is able to chase everything down. This makes him an excellent returner, as it is challenging to ace him in any situation.
His return approach is much different from most players on this list, but he makes up for it with speed and a lot of heavy topspin deep into the court. Players have minimal opportunity to move up off of his return, and that leaves them unable to take full advantage and control of the point from the beginning.
6. Kei Nishikori
Injuries have slowed down Kei Nishikori over the last few years, but he burst onto the scene of tennis as one of the best returners in the game. It was a way to fight against some of the taller players in tennis, and it allowed him to become a top-five player in the world.
He has yet to win a Grand Slam, and it is not looking particularly promising that he will, but he is always dangerous against big servers trying to blow him off the court.
Nishikori can be compared in a lot of ways to a slightly less talented David Ferrer. His shots might not be quite as crisp as the guy above, but he plays a similar style when returning serve. He always puts himself in a position to compete because of his return, but it has been holding serve himself that has led to some unpredictable results as of late.
7. Lleyton Hewitt
If there is any guy who has shown that he can mimic Andre Agassi’s style, Lleyton Hewitt certainly fits that mold. He came a few years after Agassi, and with a similar build, he knew that he needed to borrow a lot of his game.
Hewitt served and returned very well to win his only Grand Slam, and he did reach number one in the world as well. He was able to stay very competitive for years because of his return to serve, always threatening to break.
Hewitt was also one of the most intense competitors, which certainly helps when undersized and fighting to stay in some points as a returner. He backed up his returns by turning it into offense at times, which gave him a huge edge right from the beginning.