Returning the ball well in tennis can be one of the most valuable weapons if done correctly. Players who can redirect a serve and take control of a point with a good return can threaten to break every single time they play.
Who are the 15 best tennis returners of all time? The order might be argued by some, but these 15 all deserve recognition for their ability to handle all types of serves.
15. Roger Federer
Roger Federer has always been a great first-serve returner. Where he seems to have more issues is when he is trying to return a second serve. Maybe the extra topspin and action on balls prevent him from being as consistent as we like.
A small racquet head size also caused issues for Federer at certain points in his career. Although he was stubborn for quite a while, he eventually move to a bigger head size so that he can get the strings on more balls.
14. Steffi Graf
Did Steffi Graf have a weakness? If she did, her return of serve certainly wasn’t one of them. She was able to hit deep, consistent shots with her return of serve.
The variety of shots she could hit as a return kept opponents in a very tough situation. They never knew how to approach her returning game. Couple that with her great service game, and it’s easy to see how dominant she was.
13. Chris Evert
A counter punching player from the baseline, Chris Evert was known for getting everything back. She rarely came to the net unless she had to, which was unusual for the time. Another unusual part of her game was her ability to have a great return game on any surface.
Her return of serve never came down to hitting powerful shots. Instead, it was putting her in a position for a shot later on in the match. Her creativity, especially on Clay, allowed her to compete against players who seemed much more physically dominant than her.
12. Garbiñe Muguruza
A winner of two Grand Slam titles, Garbiñe Muguruza toned down her game a bit after being very aggressive from the baseline early in her career.
Her powerful groundstrokes allow her to dictate points when serving, and it also gives her the ability to return balls well.
A look at statistics for returns shows that Muguruza will hit plenty of winners on returns. She also will have some bad stretches every once in a while. Her feeling is that by taking advantage, it puts constant pressure on the opponent.
11. Caroline Wozniacki
A defensive player from the baseline, one of Wozniacki‘s best skills was her ability to return balls that gave her a chance to win the point.
Statistically speaking, she was one of the best returners on the WTA Tour. She had outstanding footwork and stamina, which meant that she could break throughout the match.
Players who rely on defensive shots all the time can be viewed as a pusher. Indeed, she didn’t take as many chances as other players, but it still allowed her to be a threat as a returner. If she needed to, she could turn her two-handed backhand into an offensive weapon.
10. Lleyton Hewitt
The fighting spirit of Lleyton Hewitt allowed him to get up to #1 in the world. While he had quite a few different weapons, his return of serve was one of the very best. He found ways to neutralize points very quickly and allow himself to break at all times.
The biggest disappointment for Hewitt was that he was never able to stay healthy for as long as he would like. This possibly robbed him of additional Grand Slam titles.
He did win Wimbledon and the US Open while getting to the top of the rankings, so it was still a very successful career for the Australian.
9. Nikolay Davydenko
Nikolay Davydenko tried to take an offensive approach from the baseline at times when it was there. He was very technically gifted with his groundstrokes, and his anticipation allowed him to return a lot of balls as well.
Hitting groundstrokes with all types of angles meant that he could threaten to break just about any service game.
A lot of comparisons were made between Davydenko and Andre Agassi during the peak of his career. He might not have had the overall ability of Agassi, but his return game was right there with him.
8. David Ferrer
Tennis experts have argued that David Ferrer is one player who maximized his skill as a professional tennis player.
He was not blessed with superior size or the ability to hit hard shots all the time. However, he crafted himself into a very good player who reached as high as #3 in the world.
Physical fitness allowed him to be very consistent from the baseline with returns. He would keep the ball deep and move opponents around the court so they never knew what was coming.
A lot of tennis experts believe him to be one of the best returns of all time, which is quite a feat considering his size.
7. David Nalbandian
Known as one of the cleanest ball strikers in tennis history, David Nalbandian put a lot of fear into big servers when he was on tour. He could hit offensive returns on either wing, which allowed him to take control of the point.
Nalbandian was never afraid of taking chances and giving up a few free points along the way. This could frustrate many of his fans, as he probably could have turned it down a bit and still had success.
6. Jimmy Connors
A player well ahead of his time with groundstrokes automatically gains an advantage as a returner. Jimmy Connors did so many things right with returns of serve.
He could either hit a consistent forehand, or his patented two-handed backhand to be defensive or offensive-minded.
Another thing that helped out Connor‘s quite a bit came down to his fighting spirit. He was never afraid to make adjustments and try to figure out a serve in the middle of a match.
5. Michael Chang
How did an undersized 17-year-old win the 1989 French Open? Along with outstanding speed and strategic play, Michael Chang‘s outstanding return game rates amongst the best.
He’s not going to outpower the average player, but variety was always part of his skill set.
Chang found ways to create angles and keep himself in rallies that others would struggle with. He’s a classic definition of a counterpuncher who came up with solutions against players much more talented than him.
4. Andy Murray
Andy Murray is about as solid as a returner comes in tennis. He can hit all types of shots with his forehand and backhand. He’s incredibly fast and quick, so he’s never caught off-guard.
Some labeled him as a defensive-pusher early on in his career, but he take chances on occasion to create opportunities as well.
He doesn’t make the very top of the list since other people did it slightly better, but few players have enjoyed returning shots from Andy Murray.
3. Andre Agassi
Andre Agassi turned himself into a great returner thanks to his ability to step up and take chances. Throughout his career, he would stand closer to the service box than just about any other player on tour.
He would be a few steps inside the baseline in some instances. Never afraid to take huge cuts at the ball, he aimed to dictate points.
Yes, there were times he missed those returns and didn’t take control the way he would have liked. However, Agassi was never truly out of a match since he could break even the best servers at a higher clip than most.
2. Rafael Nadal
Speed, anticipation, and positioning allow Rafael Nadal to be one of the best returners in tennis history. He purposely puts himself way behind the baseline to ensure that he can get a racquet on the ball and start the point off in a way that neutralizes things as much as possible.
There have been players in the past who’ve tried to mess with Nadal and give him a drop-shot serve when he is standing far back. While it has worked in the past, it’s not something that can be a sustainable approach for the most part.
Players need to find a way to hit extreme angles so that he doesn’t neutralize the point from the very beginning. Once Nadal gets a chance to battle on the ground, especially on clay, it tends to go his way.
1. Novak Djokovic
There are a lot of great attributes of Novak Djokovic, but his return of serve captures the attention of fans. His anticipation, balance, and flexibility are just a few of the reasons why he has had so much success.
Djokovic has found a way to return serves that no one else in the history of tennis can get to. Even going up against the hardest servers in the world makes it a massive nightmare since they don’t hold serve as easily as usual.
Unpredictability is what makes Djokovic so special as a returner. He’ll play a defensive shot when he has to, but he’ll rip a winner or a great setup shot as well.
The only predictable aspect of Djokovic’s return game is that it’s going to be on point.
Can a Great Return Win Matches?
Professional tennis is all about holding serve. It can be very difficult to break certain players. Being able to put extra pressure on opponents with a great return can change any match.
No return of serve is perfect. Get enough looks at returns, and there’s always a chance to win. This goes for all levels of play, but it’s particularly important at the professional level.