At all levels of the game, having a reliable return of serve is more important than ever. (AP)

The return of serve may be the most under-appreciated—and also the most under-practiced—shot in tennis. We all go out and hit buckets of serves, hone our forehands for hours and try to shore up our backhands. But how many of us spend a significant amount of our court time trying to improve our returns? How many of us think seriously about how we want to approach this stroke, and what we want to accomplish with it?

It’s time to follow the lead of the world’s best tennis players and focus more on your return. In this era of the power baseliner and the two-handed backhand, the return has come to rival the serve in importance. Novak Djokovic and Andy Murray wouldn’t have reached No. 1 without their rock-solid, first-strike returns. And while Venus and Serena Williams are known for their serves, they’ve also made their returns into powerful weapons.

In reality, every player should have two returns, and two sets of return philosophies: one for the first serve, and one for the second.

On first serves—especially against heavy hitters—the goal should be very simple: keep the ball in play, and give the server as few free points as possible. Making your opponents work for every shot will gradually increase pressure on their service games as the set progresses, something that can pay off later in the match. Pete Sampras was a master of building that pressure—and then taking advantage of it by suddenly upping the pace on his returns at the end of a set.

On second serves, the goal should be to begin a point on even terms—and if possible, on your terms. In my opinion, the most efficient way to do this is to return the ball deep and up the middle. You can take an aggressive swing, because you’ve taken the sidelines out of play. Most importantly, by going up the middle, you take away the angle from your opponents on their next shots.

Here are three things the pros do well with their returns, and that you should keep in mind with yours:

1

No Gifts

A double fault is often called a “donation,” so why don’t we call a missed return the same thing? After all, you’ve given your opponent a point without forcing him or her to hit a ball after the serve. Think of missed returns the same way you think of double faults, and you’ll misfire on them less often.

2

Think Weight, Not Pace

Don’t try to win points outright with flat return winners—that’s risky. Instead, hit your return with depth, weight and spin. The heaviness of your shot will move your opponent back, and will do so safely.

3

Know the Angles

Every smart server wants to push you into the alley, and then hit into the open court with their next shot. You might think a smart way to counteract that is to send your return down the line and into the corner. But that still gives your opponent a sharp crosscourt angle. By returning the ball down the middle, you’ll take that angle away. Always think aggressive shots to big targets!