I was in the ready stance mentally preparing for which badminton return of serve to play if the serve crossed as a low backhand serve. The score was 19-20, so it was do or die.
Everything rested on this moment. It felt as if time slowed down.
Our opponent served as we held our breath…
It went into the net!
It was a fault. We lived to fight another day!
They felt the pressure too.
These unforced errors are the worst points to give away as the opponent doesn’t have to do a thing to earn them, especially that early in the rally.
In preparation for this article, I’ve looked at 25 intermediate doubles games to understand which badminton return of serve is used the most. That can help us understand what best to work on when we’re looking to improve our return of serve.
Let’s dive in.
The opportunities of the badminton return of serve for intermediate players
At first, I found myself lifting the shuttle a lot when returning the serve. It was like my default move. I didn’t know what else to do. It was as predictable as the sunrise, and if my opponent had a killer smash, we were toast before the rally even began.
Lifting can be a dangerous game, especially if it’s not your strongest skill.
But here’s the funny thing: turns out, I wasn’t the only one falling into the lift trap. In fact, it seems like most of us go through this phase in our badminton careers. Almost like a universal initiation into the world of shuttlecock sorcery.
That became clear to me as I analyzed more than 800 serves and returns of serves in my intermediate doubles games.
I’ve discovered some surprising insights to share with you. But before we dive in, let me set the stage.
It appears that we aren’t used to putting pressure on our opponents early in rallies. I’ve noticed that we often stand too far back when receiving the serve and perhaps just aren’t aware of other tactical ideas that can give us an advantage.
This data might be skewed a tad as the players rarely had a fixed partner, and almost always rotated. That appears to lead to less planning on the return of serve and a slightly more casual approach to the games.
On occasion, I noticed that some players weren’t going hard on the serve and return of serve if they knew that their opponent was significantly weaker than them. With this disclaimer out of the way, let’s look at the data.
|Low Serves||To the T||447||50%|
|Drive Serves||To the T||7||1%|
|Flick||To the T||21||2%|
|Forehand high serve||To the T||3||0.3%|
|Forehand low serve||To the T||9||1%|
|Rear court lift||Straight||124||15%|
|Net shot||Straight (same corner)||51||6%|
|Attack (i.e. smash/drop on high/flick serve)||77||9%|
|Return of serve shot types||%|
What do you notice?
They say that in professional games, a significant number of rallies are lost within the first five shots. With that in mind, I expected a higher percentage of service faults than the mere 8% and 7% I found in the returns of serve.
I don’t have the average score for these games handy, but my best guess is that it hovers around five points per game on average. Don’t quote me on that, though.
But here’s the thing we’re not seeing: the number of times the shuttle crossed the net after the return of serve before hitting the floor. Watching the videos, I noticed that the serve and return often weren’t tournament-aggressive.
You see, as I watched those videos, it became apparent that the serves and returns often lacked that tournament-level aggression.
It was like they were just going through the motions, treating it as a mandatory warm-up rather than a golden opportunity to seize the rally. It’s almost as if the rally didn’t truly kick off until the third shot.
As I was watching the games and collecting the data, I noticed something peculiar. It seemed like the players often looked like they didn’t think about which return of serve to play. They just went with whatever their whims dictated in the moment, often leading to poor-quality lifts. Exactly like I did at first (and still do at times).
In fact, the most popular shot for the badminton return of serve was the lift, accounting for 41% of all returns.
Unfortunately, more often than not, these lifts were about as high-quality as a soggy sandwich at a picnic. They ended up landing in the midcourt rather than challenging the rear court player at the backline.
Not exactly a recipe for success.
The most used serve, by far, was the low serve (used a whopping 76% of the time). It seems like a safe bet to go on the offensive with this one, as there’s a high chance it’s coming your way. Especially, if you don’t move all the way up to the service line and bait your opponent into playing it.
In my experiments, I’ve discovered that standing closer to the service line often prompts my opponents to opt for the flick serve more frequently.
Interestingly, this happens less with players who are more skilled than me and more with those at my own level or below. Like they’re still perfecting their flick serve skills.
I’ve noticed this pattern so frequently that it has become fairly predictable. Many players take a bit longer to set up for the flick serve, giving me a brief moment to anticipate their move. I won’t pretend that my return of a flick serve is strong, but there’s power in being able to predict which serve is about to be played.
Half of all serves were low serves aimed at the T. So, if you’re feeling lucky, you could gamble with a 50-50 chance of success by planning where to return that one. It’s like playing badminton roulette.
I’ve especially come to like returning the low serve into the dead zones, on the sides of the midcourt, as that tends to confuse which player should return it.
Often, it’ll win the point directly or offer a weak return in the shape of a lift that my partner can attack. It’s usually a safe choice to get a few easy points in every game until someone catches on.
In my experience, you often don’t even have to be crazy aggressive on the return, and, on occasion, you can even wait a moment before returning the serve in case your opponents move around.
The best returns of serve to improve your game
While you might not always want to go hard in social games, it’s convenient to have an extra gear whenever necessary. Especially if you’re behind and forced to catch up with a streak of points.
The quickest and easiest way to gain points seems to be early in the rallies.
As we saw in the table, only a measly 11% of the badminton return of serves were net shots. And even then, most of those net shots were a result of players being caught off guard by a low serve and just barely managing to flick it over the net, rather than strategically using it to put their opponents under pressure.
It’s like a last-minute, panic-induced decision rather than a calculated move.
That means players often aren’t expecting it after the serve or ready to move out fast enough to return it effectively.
Most of the return of badminton serve shots were played straight ahead (40%), which seems to present an opportunity to catch players off guard with cross shots to the front of the court (particularly the net). At least on paper–this skill might take a while to learn since if the shot is too high it’ll be easy to intercept.
On the surface, it might feel as if lifts are easy to play, but that’s mostly the poor quality ones and they are suicide. There’s an effective alternative that might just save the day: the flat lift. It gives your opponent less time to react and may even force them to take the shuttle below the net cord if they aren’t quick enough.
But since the biggest win for most of us seems to be reducing the number of lifts in our return of serves, let’s explore some other options that can spice up your game.
One alternative to consider is midcourt shots. These shots can be both highly dangerous and incredibly effective, depending on how you execute them. But, there’s a fine line to walk here. If your midcourt shot gets too much height, it becomes an easy target for your opponent to kill or creates problems as they will have time to react.
On the other hand, by placing your shots at the sides of the midcourt, you can create confusion and uncertainty among your opponents. They’ll be left wondering who should retrieve the shot, which often leads to two players going for it simultaneously, leaving a massive open space for your next shot.
In both cases though, being early on the shuttle is crucial. The key is to give your opponents less time to react and avoid having to play the shot in a high arch over the net.
What’s great about this strategy is that you don’t necessarily need amazing footwork since you’re starting from a standstill. Instead, focus on maintaining a good stance and positioning yourself advantageously on the court before the rally even begins.
This is often as simple as taking a small step forward towards the service line for most players and keeping your racket held out in front of you rather than down or up in the air. The most difficult thing in the heat of the moment is deciding which side to play the shot to – a straight or cross shot.
While many will expect that straight shot because it’s common, it’s worth considering if your opponent covering the net is right-handed or left-handed, and which side they’re standing on.
Since lifting has become a habit for many of us, the key is to break that habit and get into the routine of not lifting as a default response. A simple place to start is by returning a straight net shot on a low serve, especially when it’s directed towards the T or the middle of the court.
Now, if you’re dealing with a flick or drive serve, the approach might differ, but since those situations don’t occur too frequently, I won’t delve into the details here.
Once you feel confident in the habit of playing a straight net shot, you can then focus on improving the shot itself.
Here’s where things get interesting. While I won’t go into the technical details of performing the strokes, this strategy allows you to be slightly deceptive, making your preparation appear as both a net shot and a lift. The variation in your shots will keep your opponents guessing, instead of the rear court player always anticipating your lift.
To keep things simple, you can work on creating a pattern where you aim to play one straight lift, followed by one straight net shot, and then one straight midcourt shot before repeating the pattern.
Start with using your backhand for each shot, and once you feel confident, you can progress to incorporating more aggressive forward movement, allowing you to reach the shuttle earlier and utilize your forehand to play downward shots with less arch.
By implementing these habits and refining your shots, you’ll elevate your game and keep your opponents on their toes.
- The badminton return of serve appears like an area where many intermediate players have room to improve as it often seems overlooked and just like a mandatory part of getting the rally going
- The low serve is by far the most used serve and lifting is the most common return of serve, while most shots were played straight rather than to the middle or cross
- That presents an opportunity to build a habit of playing more net shots on the return of serve