As Alejandro Davidovich Fokina took to the court last month to face fellow Spaniard Albert Ramos Viñolas at the Madrid Open, it soon became clear he had a slight problem.
Between the lines, all modern tennis courts measure the same, but the distances beyond vary widely. Madrid’s outside courts had very little space behind the baseline and were tight, a problem for a player like Davidovich Fokina who likes to return serve from deep on clay. His service return attempts left the linesmen diving wide and led to numerous near misses with the back fence.
Then Davidovich Fokina, world number 34, shook his head and laughed as he acknowledged the challenge of playing on such small courts, especially against big servers: “You have to change plans a bit. Or maybe you should go the day before [to the referee] and say, ‘I want to play on the stadium courts,'” he smiles.
Players retreating so far behind the baseline to return the serve has been one of the most notable recent trends in men’s tennis, particularly on clay courts, as players attempt to effectively neutralize the serve of the opponent. “It’s a joke,” laughs Daria Kasatkina, the female No. 9, Madrid courts. “I was watching a few men’s games and it’s impossible; they touch the wall with the rackets on the return. It’s too small.”
Casper Ruud is one of the most prolific deep returners on clay: “You feel like you can’t hit your ball when you have the line umpire just half a yard behind you. It feels a bit like being in a cage. It’s kind of our fault because we chose to stay so far back,” he says.
During his fourth-round loss in Madrid to Aslan Karatsev, Daniil Medvedev was so furious with his placement at the smaller Arantxa Sánchez Vicario stadium that he called the supervisor to complain. “From a certain point of view, I understand that all the tournaments in the world can probably not make all the match fields as big as me or other players want. At the same time it’s a disadvantage. Playing Karatsev on the second pitch, I had a disadvantagesays Medvedev.
This can often make watching fun. There are the linesmen dodging and diving, and at certain camera angles, a near side player will completely disappear from view returning the serve, hidden by the back wall.
“Several years ago, I was watching [Jaume] Munar vs. [Reilly] Opelka,” Kasatkina laughs. “Poor Jaume couldn’t return his fucking kick [serve]. Especially with the new balls. The rebound from the serve went to the spectators; the bullet nearly killed them. And [the linespeople] jumped over the fence because they had no space.
In the past, Rafael Nadal or Dominic Thiem received criticism for their defensive positioning, yet the tables have turned and the players’ intentions to do so are many and varied. For some, the main goal is to stand far enough back for the ball to have time to fall, allowing them to hit it at a comfortable height. At a time when players are getting bigger and big serves are ubiquitous, it’s also a tactic used to help one of the most important aspects of tennis: gaining more time on the ball.
“When you go back to serve I think you have to accept that you will play defense on the first or two first serves and then once you neutralize you can slowly start to take a few steps,” says the men’s world No.9 Taylor Fritz. .
Meanwhile, some aim to land a high return percentage and lengthen rallies from the start of the point, especially on slow, high-bounce clay. Others can adjust during the match or even get into the opponent’s head by giving them a different look. It can also be a last act of desperation when you’re struggling to earn points back.
Regardless of their specific preferences, the common intention is clear: to win the next point. “For me, I feel like in general, if I play 100 points coming from behind, 100 points coming from inside, I will win more coming from behind. So that’s kind of my mentality about it,” Ruud says.
It is not a tactic for everyone. Frances Tiafoe opts for a drastically different approach, utilising his slick hands by taking returns early, rushing opponents and sometimes moving to the net behind them. When he tried to practice a deeper return position, he struggled badly: “I’ve tried, man,” he says. “I just find I get lost back there in the forest and I end up staying too far back.”
One of the interesting aspects of deep returning is that it comes at a cost. Despite players often employing the tactic to play more conservatively, it is a risk. By stepping back, the returner opens up the angles for the opponent. The best players, such as Novak Djokovic and Carlos Alcaraz, take advantage of the extra space by serve and volleying, swinging first serves out wide and mixing in copious drop shots.
“Of course, when a guy serves and volleys, you have to find a good angle, but that’s what I like to do also,” says Medvedev. “I think that’s the biggest challenge – that your opponent has a lot of time to prepare for his shot so you need to make a good return.”
The popularity of the tactic is a reflection of the modern baseline game but also arguably a failure of it. Many believe the only way players are able to get away with standing so far back is because so few can serve and volley effectively.
“On clay, more people are doing it,” says Tiafoe. “Even on hard, more people are doing it. Just trying to get their racket on more returns and trying to make guys play. I think guys are getting away with it because in this generation, a lot don’t volley well. Serve-volley is not a play so guys know they can block the return and get to running.” He adds: “If I see a guy back there, I love to be up at the net so I’m gonna serve and volley.”
Tiafoe and most others note Medvedev in particular has mastered the return tactic, and even when players do serve and volley he can produce outlandish angles from over five metres behind the baseline. Fritz cites the Russian as an influence in his own positioning.
“I think Medvedev, for me, opened my eyes to it, thinking that it could be an option because he has a similar body type to me, very tall,” says Fritz. “I always thought it’s better for guys that can be quicker with their feet, like Nadal, because you need to be able to react to the ball and take a couple of steps to the ball before the serve gets past you.”
There is an enormous focus on holding serve in men’s tennis, but not as much the return. Alcaraz, who leads the tour for return games won over the last year, says he trains his return “probably more than serving or other shots”.
But perspectives vary. A few years ago, Roger Federer said he did not specifically practise his return at all. Tiafoe finds agreement with the 20-time grand slam champion: “I actually worked on my returns though for a little bit, shorten up my backswings, but I’m not gonna come out [to practise] and be like, 'Let's do some throwbacks'.