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Returning a pro tennis serve: just don’t watch the ball

August 18, 2019

Keep your eye on the ball, is one
of the first pieces of sporting advice we are all given. Which seems pretty sensible, when facing an
object potentially moving at 100 mph plus. But is it even possible? The average male tennis pro has a serve of
around 125mph. Baseball pitchers are throwing on average
a 100mph fastball. With cricket fast bowlers
coming in at a pedestrian 85mph. But when considering reaction times,
speed isn’t the only factor, we have to take in to account
the distance too. If we take tennis, and consider the server’s
height and position on the court, the ball has about 75 feet to travel towards the receiver.
Wind resistance, air friction and the impact of hitting the surface will slow the ball
by roughly half, by the time it reaches the receiver. Meaning the overall journey of the
ball takes an estimated 700 milliseconds. For context, blink twice.
That was 700 milliseconds. But consider now that it takes around 500 milliseconds
for the brain to process information received from the eyes, and 25 milliseconds for the
motor cortex to send a message to the arms and legs.
It will take a further 150 milliseconds to swing the racquet, meaning the receiver has
about 25 milliseconds to gauge the flight of the ball, and act accordingly. Decent odds if you’re a fly,
less so for a mere human. Now add to all this
that it is extremely unlikely for the ball to be visible to the human eye
until the point it crosses the net, which means the receiver really has only around
400 milliseconds to react. The maths just doesn’t add up.
If you watch the ball by the time you’ve swung the ball will be past you.
For big servers like John Isner or present world record-holder Sam Groth the journey
time from the net is reduced to about 300 milliseconds, less than half the time
needed to judge and execute the shot. So watching Groth’s delivery to get to it,
is impossible “You cannot be serious man” And in order to return it, you’ll need to
predict where the ball is going. “You cannot be serious!” Fortunately, your brain is able to do exactly
that. With a little practice. While we’ve all heard that, practice makes
perfect, well this is especially true for elite athletes.
Where practice isn’t just about technique but about cutting down on thinking time.
Eight-time Grand Slam winner Andre Agassi says that his game was at its best when he
was able to, stop thinking and start feeling. Stop thinking.
Let things happen. Practice isn’t just about improving your
own game. It also helps you to understand and exploit your opponent’s. The brain contains a catchily-named
action observation network of linked regions, including the
cerebellum, which governs motor control and the superior parietal cortex, that
assists hand-eye coordination. The AON helps us recognise familiar patterns
and anticipate future action. Like Ronaldo here, scoring in the dark.
The more an athlete prepares and practices, the more effective the AON becomes.
For example, in a football penalty shootout, even if the striker isn’t known at all to
the goalkeeper, they can still look for familiar gestures and body-shapes in the run-up to
help with their prediction. Elite athletes show enormous capacity for
making such predictions, with the best tennis players able to regularly anticipate the trajectory
of their opponent’s shot even before they make contact with the ball. So how does this even work?
The eyes help to determine the trajectory of the ball through tiny, rapid
movements known as saccades. When we look at a picture, our eyes establish
multiple fixation points for us to focus on, to help us make sense of what we are seeing.
When a tennis ball is struck, the brain is able to draw a line from point of impact,
to where it thinks the ball is likely to be in future, creating, an imaginary fixation
point. The eyes are able to track the ball along
this path, and suddenly saccade away to this imaginary point, allowing the player to prepare
for the shot before the ball has arrived. So with the right amount of training
and mental preparation, returning a 125mph serve is a piece of cake. In theory.


  • Reply Your Englishteacher July 13, 2018 at 6:03 pm

    This is more about explaining things than it is a how-to guide…

  • Reply Denis O'Brien July 14, 2018 at 3:16 pm

    Feet, miles per hour ?
    Is this the Middle Ages ?
    what a joke, the world operates in metric now !

  • Reply Torald July 15, 2018 at 3:15 am

    Feet… OMG

  • Reply Sarah Marshall July 15, 2018 at 5:32 am

    That was fascinating.

  • Reply The Cat July 15, 2018 at 5:39 am

    That was really interesting. With the big serves nowadays, reaction times simply aren't quick enough to return well hit serves. The Isner v Anderson at Wimbledon was a classic example. Becker has been saying for years you don't react, you try and predict based on cues.

  • Reply Jeroro Mouse July 16, 2018 at 5:11 am

    But when you try it live=3 times harder then just theory

  • Reply spicy.ramen.memes July 16, 2018 at 7:23 am

    100 mph fastball is insane more like 90

  • Reply Ryan Guzman July 16, 2018 at 4:49 pm

    I already knew this lol

  • Reply Mark Heslep July 16, 2018 at 9:02 pm

    Guardian does not know what it's talking about here.

  • Reply Sam Andy July 17, 2018 at 1:26 am

    average male tennis pro serves at 125? that is basically sampras' life time average. assuming it's only first serves from new balls generation onwards my estimate would be more like 115, include second serve and it's even lower. current top 10 players usually deliver first serves at 110s-130s.

  • Reply lunatic26tan July 17, 2018 at 2:35 pm

    baseball average is 100mph???lol

  • Reply Opportunistyk July 17, 2018 at 5:34 pm

    Backing up from the baseline also helps. Now explain how Roger does the sabr…

  • Reply Drew Dillon July 17, 2018 at 6:34 pm

    125 mph gimme a break last week at Wimbledon Isner served over 145 mph

  • Reply vasDcrak Gaming July 17, 2018 at 6:44 pm

    This is why Federer is one of the best servers because his wide and T serve look the same. there are no visual clues, you just have to react.

  • Reply javier Abraham July 17, 2018 at 6:55 pm


  • Reply Ahmed Ashraf July 17, 2018 at 9:16 pm

    So far it is true

  • Reply Maurice Jr Haynes July 18, 2018 at 5:31 am

    Baseball pitchers do not average a 100mph fastball!

  • Reply WoolfyBG July 18, 2018 at 8:41 pm

    And then you found out table tennis, after that tennis looks and feels like a game for older grandpas.

  • Reply Joe Star July 18, 2018 at 9:14 pm

    Just watch the 2009 Wimbledon final between Roddick and Federer. Roddick was continuously serving at around 125 Mph and Federer was returning it very easily. He didn't think about it.

  • Reply Gendo’s traumatized son July 18, 2018 at 9:28 pm

    Returning a serve is more like a reflex (re)action, something you do almost automatically and you can master it through practice and experience. But apparently returning a serve is more than that. You can’t just rely on luck. There’re many other parameters like who’s the opponent, the way he serves, 1st or 2nd serve etc. Great video tho! 🎾

  • Reply marble89 July 18, 2018 at 9:59 pm

    is that gannicus?

  • Reply Woineey P July 18, 2018 at 10:15 pm

    Umm. This is a piece of complete garbage. If you want a consistent decent speed serve, you have to look at the ball all the way until u hit it.

  • Reply Darth Jimmy July 18, 2018 at 11:32 pm

    Average listed for BBall100mph is too high

  • Reply Yue Li July 19, 2018 at 12:10 am

    This is why Kevin Anderson vs John Isner was horrendous

  • Reply Andrew Monkarsh July 19, 2018 at 4:59 am

    the averages are way off. The average male pro serves at 117 mph and the average mlb pitcher hits around 94. Obviously there are highs and lows. I could count the total amount of mlb pitchers that can pitch 100 mph or higher with just my 10 fingers.

  • Reply Florian Koenig July 19, 2018 at 9:19 am

    Just find the Lagrangian of the Ball on the fly and solve the Euler Lagrange equations, to know exactly where to hit the ball, easy stuff

  • Reply Mithilesh Mithu July 19, 2018 at 2:40 pm

    Rafa will have all the time in the world to return..

  • Reply Tapiture July 19, 2018 at 7:13 pm

    I’m a tennis player and this is very true. When I’m playing an opponent with a big serve, I’m never looking at the ball whilst I hit it. My racquet falls to my side and I ease it over the net, without consciously focusing on it. Even with some rally court shots, I’m not “looking at the ball” but estimating where it is and hitting it.

  • Reply DNA cu July 19, 2018 at 10:47 pm

    Miggate no gokui

  • Reply Ben Fleschman July 19, 2018 at 11:04 pm

    Avg pro serve more like 115-120….avg fastball more like 92-93

  • Reply Ivan Guerrero July 20, 2018 at 3:34 am

    Are there References of peer-reviewed studies available to support claims regarding how long it takes for different parts of one's brain to process the mentioned recognition sequences? Would like to see. Thanks

  • Reply Backcountry Sports July 20, 2018 at 3:44 am

    What about people who stand behind the line. That adds time to receive and think, while slowing down the serve.

  • Reply Adam Powers July 20, 2018 at 3:56 am

    The average mlb fastball is NOWHERE NEAR 100mph

  • Reply Reggie's Homework July 20, 2018 at 9:40 am


  • Reply wu jimmy July 20, 2018 at 11:29 am

    Baseball on average 100mph fastball? I swear that must be wrong

  • Reply Phil Evans July 20, 2018 at 12:16 pm

    except this doesnt actually work and serena doesnt change her racquet position by more than like 5 degrees

  • Reply Random PC-User July 20, 2018 at 5:00 pm

    And the speed of the serve is not the only factor, players can also serve with lots of spin creating some crazy bounces

  • Reply TheCrazyhumans July 21, 2018 at 12:06 pm

    I watched a video were it mentions that kyrgios' serve is effective as he does not toss the ball high up and wait till it drops to the right height. He instead toss the ball to the height at which he is going to serve and strikes the ball. Is it true? PS: I don't play tennis and have just been following tennis for some years.

  • Reply Macks Power July 21, 2018 at 1:11 pm

    This was sort of interesting, and I won't pick nits over what the "average" speed is, because that's just silly, but the real issue is that it's entirely wrong in the basic concept, not just minor details.
    If you search for best tennis serve return, one of the videos you will find is of Roger Federers top ten best returns.
    I am making a claim that Roger Federer is a good tennis player, and watching him, well, it just makes your claim absurd.
    In every return, in every match, his eyes will be on the ball at the point of contact.
    In fact, most professional players do this most of the time.
    So dress it up in as many numbers and facts that you want, it's still BS underneath it all.

    The only way that it is sort of true, is they have developed a good habit of tracking the ball, (after looking at it to determine direction and speed) to ascertain where it should be going and move their gaze to that location so that their head and eyes can be still and focused clearly on that spot so that they can look directly at the ball with clear vision at the critical point.

    But watching the ball intently as it moves, tracking it, moving the gaze to a predicted location and watching it intently, well, that just doesn't sound like "not watching it" to me. It sounds more like WHILE watching it, your eyes do not move in a slow arc with motion blur throughout the track, but jump from clear focused picture to the next clear focused picture location.

    The example of the soccer players hitting in the dark is similarly faulty, in that the lights are on when they see the kick, so they know roughly where it should go, so they were WATCHING THE BALL to see where it will go, predict, and then hit it.
    When they practice a lot they get good at reading the trajectory and spin, and predicting the outcome. Their shots would still be better and more capable of correcting for changes if they could see the ball throughout the flight.

    For example, if a tennis ball hit a net, or took a weird bounce on a rough court surface, good player can often adjust their swing to compensate for that. Does your theory of prediction also cover this, or is it really magical?

    Simple experiment, like, very simple. Blindfold. Done. You're wrong.

  • Reply Diogo Lima July 21, 2018 at 5:05 pm

    Mile per second make it hard for people outside us or uk to get the speed references that you guys are talking about

  • Reply Oriole_FpS July 21, 2018 at 10:49 pm

    Well the tennis I think is wrong because baseball players have 400 ms to react and swing and that is a 90 mph fastball

  • Reply Felix Qt July 21, 2018 at 11:40 pm

    Who’s the player in the thumbnail he’s cute

  • Reply Zaremstein Vids July 21, 2018 at 11:53 pm

    There isn’t a single Mlb player throwing at an average of 100 mph or higher

  • Reply Ophitone - July 22, 2018 at 1:01 am

    Don't forget the fact that badminton shots can go up to 400mph

  • Reply ClydeMcbride July 22, 2018 at 5:12 am

    Lol, have you received badminton smashes tho? The little buggers average on 200kmph, not to mention that the world record was at 417kmph. Not to disrespect tennis or anything btw : P

  • Reply carlsong643 July 22, 2018 at 3:55 pm

    Average baseball fastball is NOT 100 lolololol. Its like 92 haha

  • Reply vivek sharma July 22, 2018 at 5:30 pm

    Bring Shoaib Akhtar and Brett Lee in the Context

  • Reply vivek sharma July 22, 2018 at 5:35 pm

    I have Played Both Baseball and Cricket.. both Averages The Same As 85-90mph.. Baseball may be 1-2 mph faster.. 100mph is Not an Avg. In Baseball.. Fastest pitch is 106Mph.. nd in Cricket it is 101mph.. but as A Batter its 5 times more harder to hit a Cricket ball as it Pitch on the surface first and then comes on to you.. And Unlike Baseball a bowler/pitcher can Aim It Anywhere on your Body from Foot to Your Head.. So Baseball was Lot more Easier to play than Cricket..

  • Reply MmoviesE July 22, 2018 at 10:23 pm

    163.4mph? No thank you I’ll stick to mario tennis

  • Reply Oh No July 23, 2018 at 5:34 am

    Actually the ball hitting the ground will speed the ball up depending on the spin

  • Reply ad July 24, 2018 at 8:08 pm

    A human doesn't need 600 ms to process before reacting. Or am i misunderstanding this? Just take a random online reaction time tester and try it out.

  • Reply Philip Hubbe July 26, 2018 at 4:35 pm

    The ball does different things on the bounce so you really only have that period of time by your reasoning to react.

  • Reply Anon Nyymi July 26, 2018 at 5:17 pm


  • Reply Ethan Specht July 29, 2018 at 1:18 am

    I need to get back in it

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