It’s more than just starting a rally
The serve and return of serve are often treated like a squash ceremony or tradition, which is simply there to start the rally and get to the good stuff. Both shots are criminally under-practised and yet, with a strong serve or return, you can seize control of the rally and dominate the remainder of it, or even earn an opportunity to win the rally immediately. Of course, it could be you who is dominated and who loses the rally within two or three shots if your serve or return is weak, or your opponent’s is strong.
The serve and return is the first tactical phase of the game (excluding the knock up which also can have tactical importance), as well as one of its most important. If you come on top, you’ll be in a commanding position. Lose it and you may never get into the rally, meaning any great shots or play you’ve developed will count for very little.
The first thing is to remember how important the serve can be. Everyone has played a player with horribly awkward serves, which break up the game and make rallies very disjointed, but which earn the server dozens of easy points when either the return of serve is out or horribly weak. Most of us will also remember – or if you are fairly new to the game, you will still be experiencing it – the advantage that having a good serve gives someone when you first start playing squash. The same is often true of very young junior players who struggle to deal with high lob serves. Despite these experiences, most club players and adult players just pick up the ball and serve it without a moment’s thought.
Remember the power of a strong serve!
The serve and return battle is all about who is going to control the T-Position in the opening stages of the rally (provided the rally makes it through these two shots of course). If you get the correct width and depth on your serve, you will be able to the take the T-Position, as your serve will either give you the time to take the T-Position, or prevent your opponent from volleying early and therefore allow you to take it. From there, you are in the middle of the court and you have all of the advantages that that brings. The same is true of your return; if you move your opponent away from the T-Position by accurately hitting the ball into one of the four corners, you can take control of the T from the beginning of the rally onwards. Conversely, if it is you who loses the T-Position as the server or returner, it will be your opponent who has that great early advantage.
Building the rally from the first shot
If you have a weak serve and return, you might have to work really hard just to get back into the rally, which is wasted energy you could have used for attacking or energy you may need in the latter stages of the game or match. You might even be a stronger player than your opponent, but if you can’t return or serve to a high enough level, you might not even get far enough into the rally, or in a strong enough position in the rally, to show it.
In order to hit a serve which will help you get in a strong position, you need to be hitting a serve that will help you secure the T-Position. In order to get the T-Position, you need to focus predominantly on the width of your serve. Height is of course also a major factor, as a high lob serve can give you the time to get the T and prevent your opponent from volleying the ball comfortably, but you can play a hard, low serve or a high serve and prevent your opponent from capturing the T-Position so long as you get the right width.
It also helps to play a backhand serve from your forehand side of the court, as when you play backhand serve from this side the ball will stay closer to the side wall as it rebounds off the wall. It will also allow you to watch exactly what is happening and move to the T-Position a little quicker.
To achieve sufficient width, you are generally aiming to hit the side wall behind the serve box with your serve, as this will make it difficult for your opponent to attack or volley the ball early. It will also make it difficult for them to let the ball bounce, as it will drop right in the back corner after hitting the side wall. This will give you the time to position yourself on the T as your opponent goes to return, but will also make it more difficult for them to play a return that will move you away from the T.
The exact area of the front wall you need to hit to achieve this varies depending on the temperature, the ball, whether you are hitting a backhand or forehand serve, the way you strike the ball e.g. pace and spin etc. Generally speaking though, it should be slightly to the left of centre when serving to the left side of the court and slightly to the right of centre when serving to the right side. It might take a few serves to get the exact area right, but typically you don’t want to hit the ball far away from the centre of the front wall.
Whilst you want to hit the side wall behind the serve box with the majority of your serves, it’s important to vary your serve from time to time. You could do this by playing a body serve away from the side wall, or by rotating between lob serves and smash serves, in order to prevent your opponent building up a rhythm and thereby being able to return your serves into the corners.
The return of serve
Generally, you should aim to hit your returns of serve into the four major corners of the court, with the majority seeking out the two back corners.
The straight volley length is undoubtedly the most efficient return of serve, as when played well it puts your opponent into the back corner and behind you, allowing you to move to the T, and making it difficult for them to attack if the ball is tight to the side wall. This long volley doesn’t have to be hit hard or with real attacking verve either. In my opinion, the straight volley lob is one of the best returns you can play, as you can use it against difficult lob serves and it gives you plenty of time to get the T-Position, whilst preventing your opponent from attacking and even giving them a bit of a headache when the ball drops in the back corner with very little pace on it.
The straight volley length is better for me than a cross-court length, as the cross-court will pass the middle of the court even if played very accurately, giving a well placed opponent an opening to counter-volley. It should of course be used though from time to time to try and catch your opponent out.
Playing short is definitely something you should do on occasion to keep your opponent in the dark about what you will do next, but do play short returns sparingly for best results.
Using longer short shots or mid-court shots like kills or stuns can be very risky on the return of serve, as they aren’t moving your opponent away from the T-Position as much as shots into the four corners. I would therefore recommend you use them as return of serves very rarely.
Also check out our many posts on different topics relating to serve and return below: