Squash Serve Return – The Essential Guide


The return of serve is a crucial shot in squash, and learning to play your returns with consistency will really take your game to the next level.

How do you return the serve in squash? To return the serve in squash try to hit the ball back down the line with good length so that your shots hit the backwall near the corner. Give yourself plenty of room away from the ball, keep your shoulders facing the sidewall and have your racket well up before contact.

This is one shot that it really does pay to get right. Good returns will keep the pressure on your opponent throughout a game. I have reseached numerous sources and tried to come up with the best resource on the web to help you out in improving your returns of serve.

The Importance Of The Return

There is no easier way to lose any of the pressure your opponent may be feeling in a match than having a poor return of serve. Often if a player finds that one of their serves can’t be returned to a reasonable standard by the other player, they may win many points in a row in almost no time.

Often older players are great at exploiting weak returners, with their sneaky lob serves, or power smashes. If all you can do is prod it back down the middle, or, even worse, miss the ball altogether, then you have no chance in the match however good the rest of your shots are.

The return of serve is the second shot of any rally, and can often dictate how that rally can go. A good tight return can give you the upper hand from the off, with good postion on the T, and your opponent stuck in the back corner.

A poor return, however, can quickly lead to you finding yourself out of position, behind your opponent, or frantically running after a kill or drop.

So it’s a important shot!

But how do you play a great one?

Volley

In an ideal world every single return of serve that you play would be a volley.

There are many reasons for this.

A volley helps you take the ball early before your opponent is properly established on the T. This is especially true if the server has hit a powerful serve. If you can volley a smash serve then there is no way the server can be balanced and ready for their next shot.

Volleying the ball also means you have less of a distance to go before you get back to the T. Volleys will normally be happening somewhere just behind the service line. It is only a couple of paces back to the T from here. It is much further back to the T from the back corner if you let the serve bounce.

Using a volley also helps you use the pace already on the ball. No extra forcce is required. Just deflect the ball where you want it to go.

More of a backswing is required if you let the ball bounce first, as it will have already lost quite a lot of it’s momentum.

Playing volleys also gives you more options. If you let the ball bounce it is very difficult to play drops or attacking boasts. You are behind your opponent and your shot has a much longer way to get to the front wall.

The opposite is true of volleys. You are about level with your opponent, not behind. You are also closer to the front wall.

Therefore volleys allow you to play drop shots, attacking boasts, and even hard-hit cross courts.

When Can’t You Volley?

Of course, the volley is the ideal but it is not always possible. Reasons it may not be possible to volley the return include:

  • Your opponent has played a body serve and you are not in a good position to volley it
  • Your opponent plays a drive serve that hits the side wall really low down in front of you
  • The server plays a lob serve that is simply too high to hit back using a volley
  • The serve is too tight to the wall
  • The serve is really poor, and is going to bounce back out in the middle of the court where you will be able to kill it
  • The serve is going to be bouncing to the other side of the court, and you will ask for a let
  • You do not trust your volley on one side, or you are still developing the shot

High Racket

One of the key secrets of good returns is keeping the racket high in preparation to the shot.

It is usually a good idea just to start with the racket high up as your opponent is serving. This early preparation gives you one less thing to do as you move to meet the ball.

Good racket preparation is also great for not hitting the ball too hard. Just push it through the ball from the position it is in to start with.

Giving Yourself Space – The Problems

This is one of the main problems that lots of beginners experience when trying to master the return of serve.

Giving yourself the right amount of space can go wrong in a number of ways, with the main ones being:

  • You give yourself too much space and have a dive towards the ball at the last moment
  • You don’t give yourself enough room. This is by far the most common mistake. Players try to hit the ball too close to their bodies, and end up only being able to jab it, rather than playing a smooth swing through the ball
  • You start too close to the side wall and have to move back slightly to play volleys next to the wall
  • You start too far back in the back box and so struggle to hit the ball on the volley before it has bounced.

Giving Yourself Space – The Solutions

Ideally you want to strike the ball with your arm extended and the wrist cocked with racket at an angle to your arm. There are several thing that can help you achieve that:

  • Stand in the correct place to receive the serve. This is well away from either the side or the back wall, a little away from the corner of the service box
  • Move your feet quickly into position
  • If you’re out of position, don’t attempt a volley
  • Practise staying well away from the ball when striking it

Hit Straight

Of course variety is very important in squash, and you want to mix up what you are doing as much as possible to keep your opponent guessing.

However, the simplest return is definitely the one that goes straight back down the line. This is the most effective for a number of reasons:

  • It gets your opponent into the back corner if played well
  • It is the shot that you can play the least accurately but that will still usually land you with less problems than others
  • Cross-courts can often be volleyed or killed
  • It gets you back to the T before your opponent plays their shot
  • You do not need to put any power into the shot. Just think about accuracy
  • An extremely tight shot will cause your opponent problems, or may even be an outright winner

As I said, you don’t want to just rely on these straight shots for every single return, but they are the best way to go for at least 70 per cent of returns, and also a good shot to play when there is pressure on, or a close end to a game.

Use Quick Footwork

To get into a great position to play to the return, you need reasonably quick footwork to get you there.

Usually one or two steps will be enough in a certain direction. It makes sense to move to the correct spot as soon as you can and wait for the ball with your head reasonably still.

Often a move forward may help you volley the ball, or backwards and sideways for a lob serve.

Don’t be tempted to lean your body into position without your feet. Get those feet moving!

Rotate Your Shoulders Towards The Side Wall

It makes sense to be as side on as possible during the shot.

You will start with your body facing the server as the you wait to receive the ball. Then, as the ball is played, rotate your body around to face the sidewall.

At the moment of impact your shoulders will normally be more or less facing the sidewall directly. This makes it much easier to your racket with a sideways motion from one side of your body to follow through across the other side.

Squash is a sideways sport at the moment of impact, and the return of serve is no different. Stay sideways and you have a much greater chance of getting the ball down the sidewall.

Use Your Other Arm To Counterblance On The Backhand

The hand you don’t hold the racket with is important for the return of serve. It acts as a counterbalance, particuarly on the backhand side.

You arms will cross each other in a scissors motion, the racket moving towards the ball, your other hand moving away from it.

This helps in the following ways:

  • It keeps you balanced
  • It can help you to shift your momentum back towards the T

Watch The Ball

This is one of the golden adages of every squash shot, but it is definitely super-true for returns!

Watch the ball from the moment you get into a waiting position.

If your opponent bounces the ball a couple of times, then watch it bounce. Then watch their shot, thinking about the power they put into it and the height.

Then watch the ball all the way onto the strings!

Keep the ball in your vision as you move back to the T.

How To Return A Lob Serve

For beginners, the return of a good lob serve is often the hardest type of serve to deal with.

There are some things to definitely avoid:

  • Never try to run around the lob and smash it with your forehand. That will leave you a long way out of position, and you can also get quite stuck up against the sidewall and not be able to play the shot properly.
  • Don’t try to hit it back too hard
  • Don’t let it land and die in the back corner. You never want to be aceed in squash!

The best way to deal with lobs is try to get into a good postion early, with racket back, and try to deflect them back down the line.

Pu sh them back to a high point up on the front wall, about a foot away from the sidewall.

It is usually not a good idea to attempt cross courts to lob serves, as it can be difficult to get enough poiwer into the volley.

Sometimes drop shots are possible as a variation to this type of serve.

How To Return a Smash Serve

The smash serve is not used much in the professional game. This serve is baasically hit as hard as possible, usually to a point low down on the sidewall. It bounces up to hit the back wall.

It is not used much by pros because:

  • It does not end up being tight to the wall
  • If it is volleyed then the server is out of position, as they do not have enough time to get to the T
  • It bounces out towards the middle and so is susceptible to kills, attacking boasts and other shots
  • If it comes out too close to the middle then it can stop the server from getting onto the T

However, that’s enough about the pro game. The amateur game is very different.

Some players use a smash serve as their stock serve. Against beginners it can work really well for the following reasons:

  • It can intimidate with its power
  • If can rush you for time
  • If you don’t have good racket preparation, you are unlikely to be able to get this sort of serve back
  • It exploits poor and slow footwork

So, then, the keys to responding to this kind of serve are the following:

  • Keep your racket up
  • Move quickly into poistion
  • Don’t be intimidated
  • If you can volley then do so. This will give you the upper hand in the rally as your opponent will be out of position.
  • Otherwise wait for the bal to bounce out into the middle of the court. You can then attempt a kill, drop, attacking boast, or just play it to length
  • Ask for a let if the ball is bouncing near your opponents side
  • Stay well awayfrom the sidewall

How To Return A Body Serve

A body serve is usually used as as a surprise serve. It is aimed directly at your body by the server.

The idea is that it is very hard to volley, as you do not have enough room to swing your arms. It is also hoping to get some kind of rushed response as you were waiting for a lob serve or similar.

The standard way to play a body serve is firstly to get out of its way. You do not want the ball to hit you, as this automatically loses the point.

Also, you don’t want to move too much out of the way, as this could cause a problem when you try to hit the shot.

The best way is try to weave out of the path of the ball, and then wait for it to hit the back wall. It will normally bounce quite a bit of the back as body serves are hit with power.

Simply move to where the ball will bounce to, wait for it, and play a length shot down the line.

Return A Backhand Serve

Backhand serves are another very common type of serve, probably the second most common after the lob serve.

They are only played towards the left hand side of the court (by right handers). You use a backhand to strike the serve, which makes the angle straighter and so closer to the sidewall.

All the normal principles apply when facing this type of serve.

Watch the ball, rotate your shoulders towards the sidewall, and try to volley the ball.

If the ball is super tight to the sidewall you might want to let it hit the backwall first. Otherwise, just go ahead and volley.

Vary Your Returns

Variety is a huge thing in squash, and the return is no different.

Although it is best to play probably at least 70% of returns back down the line, you do not want to only do this strategy. Possibly the only time you would do this is if you had no other shots you were confident in, and you just wanted to play safe.

Otherwise a little bit of variation is required, even if it is just playing down the line with different amount of height or power.

If possible though, throw in a few different returns as well. Here are the ones that will work best if used occasionally…

Other Types Of Returns

The Drop Volley

This is great against less mobile players, but even pros play these returns a lot.

Using a similar stance and backwing to your normal return, you strike a drop shot to hit the front wall just above the tin as tight to the sidewall as possible. It usually works better to play this shot straight rather than cross-court, as it is easier to get it close to the wall, and also down the line will be a closer shot.

The Attacking Boast

With this shot you angle your racket towards the sidewall, and strike the ball towards that wall. You are aiming for it to hit the front wall, before bouncing near the opposite side wall.

The perfect attacking boast would have its second boune in the sidewall nick.

The Defensive Boast

This shot is only really used as a last resort. It is normally because you have got stuck in the back corner, and have no option but to try to dig it out with a boast.

Do not play this shot for any other reason!

If you are forced to play this, if you use a bit of underspin on the ball by slicing under it, this can help it die closer to the front wall.

The Cross Court Drive

This can be played either as a volley, or after letting the ball bounce.

Hit it reasonably hard, and try to get it nice and wide of the player waiting at the T. The ideal cross-court will hit the opposite sidewall about halfway into the backbox, before bouncing and dying near the backwall.

 The Cross Court Lob

This is similar to the cross court return, but you just hit the ball higher on the front wall and not as hard. You are hoping to loop it over your opponent and get it to bounce high off the sideall and die in the back corner.

This shot takes a bit of practice before you can be confident not to hit it out above the line either on the front wall or the sidewall.

How To Practise Your Returns

Practice with a partner is probably the best way of honing your skills in returning.

There are different ways of doing it. The simplest way of doing it is to get them to hit the same type of serve ovre and over at the same target area. You simply practise your returns, thinking about hitting good areas and keeping the ball tight and long.

To make it harder, get the server to mix up serves, trying lob serves, body serves, and backhand serves.

The next step after that is attempting different types of return such as drops and boasts, again against a range of serves.

There are solo drills that also help for returning the serve.

A good one is practising hitting high volleys to yourself again and again down the line. Start near the front wall, but move back slowly, trying to keep the ball up.

Who To Watch

All professionals play returns in a way that looks effortless. Very few rallies will end as a result of a poor return.

To watch how the staple returns can be played to perfection, watch someone like Nick Matthew.

If you want to see how the return can be exploited as an attacking option then wath Ramy Ashour with his array of volley returns aiming at the nick. Shabana and Gregory Gaultier are also very aggressive returners of the serve.

Related Questions

How do you play a lob serve? You play a lob serve in squash by hitting the ball high on the front wall, and slightly to one side of the centre. Aim to hit the sidewall quite high up, before the ball bounces on the floor before hitting the backwall. The ideal lob serve will die in the back corner.

Can you volley the serve in squash? Yes, you can volley the serve before the ball has bounced in squash. This is actually seen as the best way of returning serve as you can play your shot before your opponent is in position, and also you are not playing the ball too deep in the court.

Does court temperature effect what type of serve to use? The types of serves that are most effective in squash can be effected by court temperature. On hotter courts, beware that your lob serve doesn’t bounce out of court. Also harder serves can bounce back into the middle of the court. On colder courts, lob serves are often most effective.

Martin Williams

Martin is the founder of Improve Squash. An avid squash player for many years, he enjoys coaching youngsters and passing on his knowledge. He is passionate about encouraging players of all abilities to improve and enjoy this beautiful game.

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