Stan Wawrinka – The Art of the Block Return

Stan Wawrinka US Open

When one thinks of Stan Wawrinka, booming serve and wrecking groundstrokes, particularly the one-handed backhand, usually come to mind first. But there is one shot that was almost as essential to Wawrinka’s haul of three Grand Slam titles and seventeen Major quarterfinals after Novak Djokovic retired down two sets to love. 

What is a block return?

A blocked return is a shot that uses little backswing, relying on the power of the incoming serve. It’s usually used subconsciously when a big serve is coming right at you and there’s no time to strike the ball. The block return can drop a  short and low-skidding ball which might be tough to deal with for someone who doesn’t feel comfortable playing inside the baseline or a deeper, sliced ball which gives the opponent no pace or angle to be aggressive with.

Why does it work so well for Stan? 

Firstly, Wawrinka’s strokes have big backswings. To perform these against a big server, he would have to resort to Nadal-like tactics of standing a few meters behind the baseline and he’s not quick enough around the court to make it work. Blocking returns (Wawrinka can do it from both wings, most players use that tactic from time to time mostly on the backhand side) allows the Swiss to stay close to the baseline and move from side to side as little as possible. He usually backs down for the second serve return and performs a full, powerful swing.

Big server’s nightmare

It’s a great strategy against serve and volley. The ball can have a very low trajectory, little pace and some underspin which makes the attacking player hit the first volley from a difficult position under the net.

The biggest servers in the world are usually among the tallest and they struggle handling low balls. Whether they’re at the net or staying near the baseline, the low trajectory and the underspin blocked returns forces them to bend their knees and perform very accurate footwork. Because of the underspin, it might also be tough to find the right position as depending on the surface and the angle of the head of the racket, the ball might either skid towards the baseline or stop at the spot of the first bounce.

What about the Djokovic match?

In the two completed sets yesterday, Djokovic struggled excessively with Wawrinka’s block return. The Swiss broke four times in thirteen return games and won 32% of first serve return points. Djokovic is a fantastic counterpuncher but he is known to struggle with no pace balls. You can’t play monotonously against the world no. 1 and the block return was among the few things that brought a much-needed variety in the pace of the rallies.

Some examples:

Wawrinka starts this point off with a block return that is very similar to a slice. The Swiss usually waits for a serve with a backhand grip and he can perform a forehand block here without changing it. Chiudinelli gets a long, no pace ball and can do nothing other than allow Stan to take control of the rally.

Stan returns a 211 km/h serve as if it was nothing with a great backhand block and wins the point after Berdych struggles to create any pace on his first shot after the serve.

A big first serve down the T but Wawrinka is ready with the block very deep to Dan Evans’s backhand side.

The Swiss makes Anderson all kinds of uncomfortable in this rally, starting with a low trajectory backhand block that is way out of the South African’s comfort zone.

Nishikori tries to outfox Wawrinka with a serve and volley approach, but the Swiss lets the ball stay on his racket a little longer and makes Nishikori hit his first shot after the serve from a very difficult position.

Wawrinka will now play Daniil Medvedev, another counterpuncher with a huge cannon of a serve. The Russian has looked physically spent so far and admitted to taking painkillers before his match against Dominik Koepfer. Wawrinka will face another opponent who might not be fully fit and the block return will be important to neutralize the Russian’s big first delivery and force him to bend the knees and limit the number of “free” points he’ll get.

Main photo:
Embed from Getty Images

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