So, you’ve practiced hitting thousands of forehands and backhands, figuring you’re ready to go into that big match and crush any service return your opponents can dish out.

WRONG! It’s important to recognize a couple of basic differences between service returns and groundstrokes.

Especially when returning a powerful serve, the backswing needs to be compact. You have to learn how to use your body weight, legs, and your opponent’s power to hit a good return, rather than swinging away at the ball.

The most underrated, under-practiced shot in tennis, is also the second most important after the serve.* The return of serve can be an effective, useful tool with some practice and understanding of how to execute and benefit by it.

Two of the most noted pros, Andre Agassi and Novak Djokovic, are great examples of just how effective this shot can be.

An easy way to get better at this stroke and understand how it works is to break it down into three steps:

• Split step on your opponent’s serve (just before their racquet contacts the ball). This lets you get up on the balls of your feet and be in balance to easier spring in the direction the ball is coming. It also helps you focus on tracking the ball, getting your racquet back, and getting to the ball quicker.

• Maintain your aggressive positioning. When you move forward toward the ball (take it on the rise), you give your opponent less court to work with while making less court for you to have to cover.

• Have a target to hit to. Especially in doubles, try to do a little more than just get the ball back in play. Have an idea of where you’d like to hit the ball and try to execute it (e.g., hit just wide of the middle, or toward where the service line and singles line meet).

A likely reason why the service return is under-practiced is because you need someone willing to serve a bunch of balls to you. This is a good time for a pro, or a hitting partner with a consistent serve to help you practice by serving a ton of balls for you to return.

There’s no question that improving the service return will produce more service break opportunities in your favor.

(*In the bigger picture, I feel the most important shot in tennis is “the next one,” then the serve, followed by the service return).

Lou Marino is a USPTA Cardio and youth tennis coach who lives, teaches and provides custom-hybrid racquet service in the Bluffton-Hilton Head Island area.