Roger Federer and 10 of Tennis' Most Lethal Returners of the Open Era
In tennis, common thought might be that positive results favor the players with the biggest serves.
But if you can take the advantage out of the hands of those thundering down their deliveries with excellent returns, then odds are greatness and Grand Slam glory won't be too far behind. Roger Federer and Andre Agassi can definitely attest to that.
Here is a look at 10 of the best returners of the past 40-plus years the game has seen.
Chris Evert's career achievements are nothing short of astonishing. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly is the fact she was able to rack up the titles against players such as Martina Navratilova, who was always on the attack from the first ball on.
Evert is one of the greatest baseliners to ever play and developed her style taking on some legendary serve-and-volleyers. Evert often forced her opponents to "volley up" when they came in behind their serves, setting her up for precision passing shots—if she didn't pass them outright.
For a time there in the early 2000s, it could be said that Australian Lleyton Hewitt actually dominated the men's game. His foot speed and groundstrokes were nearly unrivaled and he managed to win two Grand Slam singles titles in his career.
The role his returning ability played in his ascent can't be discounted, either. In the 2001 U.S. Open final, he ripped return winners against one of the greatest servers ever, Pete Sampras, which was the first big statement in his Hall of Fame career.
From the first ball on, Michael Chang made his opponents work for every point they earned.
And if they went out on the court thinking they could serve the 5'9" American off the court, a few returns zipping past them often made them change their game plan.
Before he started developing his own serve, Chang would often make inroads against his foes when it was their turn to "toss it up."
Saying Roger Federer does everything well is like saying the sun is going to come up in the morning.
In other words, it doesn't need to be said.
However, it should be acknowledged that he possesses one of the greatest returns the game has ever seen—in any era. How else would you explain the fact that he's often dismantled deliveries coming at him in excess of 130 mph? Federer's not content with merely putting the ball in play: Oftentimes he's taking swings at the ball, or when he is forced to chip it back, it's done with direction.
No one—male or female—has punished second serves like Serena Williams has. It's already troubling for her opponents when their first serve is likely to come back as hard as they hit it, if not harder.
Over the course of her career, she's notched a huge number of 6-0, 6-1, 6-2 sets won. More than likely, she's going to hold her serve. And there's a good chance she's going to break the serve of the player on the other side of the net, too.
The fact that Bjorn Borg won five Wimbledon titles—consecutively—is one of the most impressive feats in tennis history. He wasn't your typical grass-court player by any stretch and possessed some of the loopiest strokes of his era.
But if you can make your opponent "hit up" on their volleys as he was able to do for years, then success and legendary status is there for the taking.
If you had to use an adjective to describe the returns coming from Monica Seles, the best word would probably be "sledgehammer."
Her double-fisted returns off both sides came back like rockets. Seles took the ball early and was either on or inside the baseline by the time the serve came her way.
Pete Sampras as a great returner? Most definitely.
"Pistol" Pete actually took time to make himself one as he and his former coach worked especially hard on that aspect of his game. If he hadn't, his career statistics could have looked a lot different, particularly going against Patrick Rafter, Boris Becker and the always-dangerous Goran Ivanisevic in Grand Slam finals.
He beat all three of them and the return was a big part of that against those potent servers.
You could say that Andre Agassi only consistently struggled with returning the serves of two players over the course of his career—Pete Sampras and Roger Federer.
That's not too bad.
Of course, he didn't always break the serves of everyone he faced, but rarely was he caught off balance or wrong-footed. His eye-hand coordination was off the charts, and the fact that he was receiving serve right on top of the baseline put immense pressure on his opponents.
In the second half of his career, Agassi's game was built around taking control of the point from the start and being able to do that off the other player's first ball is a sign of greatness.
Taking the ball early on the return was practically invented by Jimmy Connors.
Serving the ball to Connors' backhand side was a mistake—and it wasn't that safe a bet to send it to the forehand side, either. By hitting the return on the rise, Connors was often able to guide the ball where he wanted, essentially getting the server to play into his hands. If a down-the-line winner wasn't blazing past the net rusher, then more times than not, he hit a sitter volley Connors could pounce on.