The 8 Basic Tennis Shots & Skills (Explained)

The 8 Basic Tennis Shots & Skills (Explained)

If you’re just now considering learning tennis, chances are you might get quickly overwhelmed. You always imagined you would be able to at least hit the ball with your racquet, because how hard could that be, right? Well, if you’re like the vast majority of beginners, chances are that you will eventually swing as hard as you can – just to watch the ball go straight past you. And that’s ok, because every advanced tennis player has done the same thing at some point. 

When you’re beginning to learn tennis, all you want to focus on is hitting that ball and getting ready to play matches as soon as possible. You may not really care about the name of the shot you’re hitting, as long as it’s going over the net. And yet, whether from your coach or other players, you will keep hearing things about serves, volleys, and on-the-run-forehand-inside-outs (what?!?). 

The 8 basic shots in tennis are the serve, return, forehand, backhand, slice, forehand volley, backhand volley, and overhead. Beginners must become comfortable with these 8 shots before they can be considered intermediate players and learning new, advanced skills.  

So why do these names exist? And most importantly, why should you care about them?

The names of basic tennis shots exist in order to facilitate communication between coaches, players, and tennis fans. They make it much easier for people to understand what they are learning and what they need to do about it. It is just like how we have defined subjects in school, – math, biology, history – technically we don’t need the definition, but it makes understanding a whole lot easier. And why should you care about the names of basic tennis shots? Well, because if you don’t you may end up like the guy below. 

Now that you’re hopefully convinced, let’s get to the good part. Below we will dive in a little bit more in-depth into what each one of those shots means and how you can become quickly learn them. If you’re interested in learning them further, at the bottom of this post we have included links to our full tutorials for specific shots.

Tennis Shots vs Strokes

One important step is to first establish the difference between tennis shots and strokes. While people may disagree on this topic, most believe that there are only possible 6 tennis strokes you can hit: serve, forehand, backhand, forehand volley, backhand volley, and overhead. Each one of these strokes, on the other hand, can be executed in different ways and therefore produce different shots. For instance, a forehand stroke can produce different shots, like a crosscourt forehand, a down-the-line forehand, a passing shot, or even a lob. 

If you struggle to remember the difference, just remember that shots are “subdivisions” of strokes. 

In this article, we will be covering the 8 basic tennis shots. While a forehand is technically a stroke, we’ll be calling it a shot – so you can understand the fundamentals of it. As you become more advanced, you will be able to execute different shots with that one forehand stroke. Now, let’s get to the nitty-gritty. 

Serve & Return – The Ones That Start The Point

Until you become comfortable with serves and returns, you will not be able to play a tennis match. The reason is that at the beginning of each point in a tennis match, you will either serve or receive. So if you don’t know how to serve and return, your tennis practice will be limited to drills and exercises, which is not as fun as playing matches! On average, you will serve on 50% of the points and receive on the other 50%, so it is a worthwhile investment to master these skills. 

#1 – Serve

Probably the most difficult stroke for beginners to learn, the serve is also one of the most important skills to develop for every player. First, because it is the only shot in which you have absolute control over it. Second, because having a good serve will give you an edge compared to your opponents, regardless of which level you are playing at.  

So, in tennis, what is a serve? The serve is the stroke that begins every single shot in a tennis match. While one player is serving, the other is receiving, and they take turns after the end of every game. Serves can take different shapes and forms, but they are generally characterized by a movement where the player swings the racket above his head, while still standing behind the baseline. 

At the start of each new game, the player who is serving begins at the right side of the court divider (see below), and needs to serve the ball across the court and over the net to the service box on his left side (indicated by the blue box in the picture). After the point is played, the player who is serving needs to start the new point at the left side of the court divider, and serve towards the service box on his right side. The player keeps alternating sides until the game is over. 

Players start serving on the right side of the divider
On the next point, they serve on the left side. Then, they alternate until the game ends.

It is also important that the player does not step on the line while serving. If that happens, it is considered a “foot fault” and the serve will be counted as a miss. 

Players can add different spins to their serves, which will characterize the serve as either a flat, slice, or kick serve. Depending on the where the serve lands inside the service box, it will be called either a wide, body, or T serve. In addition, players have begun to use the underhand serve, which is considered legal but was seen as unethical until recently. Below is a video with examples of underhand serves in 2019. 

#2 – Return

Since at the start of every point in a tennis match one player is serving, that means that the other player is returning. Returns are very difficult at the advanced levels since serves are extremely fast, but having good returns can benefit players at every single level. Returns are especially important when your opponent is not a great server since you can fully take advantage of that weakness. 

So in tennis, what is a return? A return is a shot where one player waits to see where the other player’s serve lands and then attempts to hit the ball back to the other side. A return can be executed in several different ways, with a forehand, backhand, slice, block, or chip. The most important aspect of a return is just getting the ball back to the other side, no matter how. 

If one player successfully executes a serve, and his opponent successfully executes a return, the point is now “open” and groundstrokes and volleys will come in play. 

Groundstrokes – The Ones You’ll Hit The Most

During a tennis match, about 60 to 75% of all the shots will hit will be groundstrokes. They’re the foundation of every tennis player’s game, and you will spend the majority of time practicing them. They are the ones that make tennis games enjoyable to watch and are probably the first thing you will learn when you start playing tennis. 

#3 – Forehand

Forehands are, for the vast majority of players, their strongest weapon. A player hits a forehand when he allows the ball to bounce once on his court before hitting it, and hits it with his dominant side. With very few exceptions, players hit forehands using only one arm. 

The reason why forehands are called forehands is because normally, the front (fore) of your hand holding the racquet will be facing your opponent. 

Generally, when people refer to forehands, they mean a forehand with topspin – which means that the player hits the ball on the top, causing it to spin forwards. Technically, a forehand can be hit with slice, but people mostly refer to that as slices (see below). For right-handed players, a forehand is executed on the right side. For left-handed players, it is executed on the left side. 

This is what a standard forehand progression looks like

#4 – Backhand

The backhand is another one of the main shots in a tennis game. It is the equivalent of the forehand but executed on the player’s non-dominant side. For instance, if a player is right-handed, the backhand will be executed on the left side. If a player is left-handed, the backhand will be executed on the right side. 

The reason why backhands are called that is that the back of the player’s dominant hand is facing the opponent. If you look at the picture below, you will have a better understanding. 

Backhands can either be one-handed or two-handed. One-handed backhands (like the one above), generally get more power and more spin. Two-handed backhands (like the one below), give the player more control. With very few exceptions, players stick to one type of backhand. 

Another shot that is similar to the topspin backhand is the backhand slice, which we will cover below. 

#5 – Slice

A slice is essentially a variation of the backhand shot. Instead of hitting the ball on the top, your racquet swings through the bottom of the ball. That adds underspin to the shot, so after the ball bounces on the other side, it stays low and close to the ground. 

A slice can be used either on your dominant or your non-dominant side, but it is most commonly used as a backhand slice. Players usually use slices in order to change the pace of the game and add some variation. You can see 

Top Spin Effect

This is how the ball rotates when you hit it with topspin

Slice Effect

This is how the ball rotates when you hit it with slice

Net Game – The Ones That Will Make You Win The Most

The last 3 basic shots are part of your net game, which means that you will hit them without letting the ball touch the ground before you hit it. These shots are mainly used to finish the point, after you were able to move your opponent around by hitting successful groundstrokes. They are also used a lot more frequently during doubles matches. Mastering the last 3 basic shots will take your game to the next level.  

#6 – Forehand Volley

The forehand volley is a fairly simple movement, in which you use only one arm to hit a ball by your dominant side, without letting the ball touch the ground. It requires firm hands and fast reflexes. 

Volleys are not used as often as they used to be in the 1990s. As the game has become increasingly slower, players become too vulnerable when they go to the net – since their opponents have a lot more time to react. 

#7 – Backhand Volley

The backhand volley looks a lot like a backhand slice, but without letting the ball touch the ground. Once again, a volley usually occurs when you are standing close to the net. A backhand volley always happens on your non-dominant side. 

Backhand volleys are an important part of your net game since they will allow you to shorten the points and take time away from your opponent. 

#8 – Overhead

The last basic shot you should become comfortable with is the overhead (also called smash in some countries). You must be standing close to the net and hit the ball without bouncing. You need to hit the ball over your head (similarly to a serve), and that is why this shot is named the way it is. 

Overheads are usually used to finish a point, as it is considered a fairly easy shot in which you can hit it very hard. It is important to master this shot so you make sure you win those points. 


Now that we have covered them individually, let’s recap the 8 basic tennis shots:

  1. Serve
  2. Return
  3. Forehand
  4. Backhand
  5. Slice
  6. Forehand Volley
  7. Backhand Volley
  8. Overhead (or Smash)

If you’re looking to learning more about these specific shots, we have full guides that will not only teach you about the importance of each shot but also how to execute each one – and you can check them out here:

If you are looking to improve your tennis game, these are the 8 shots you should become comfortable with. Remember that each one of these can be developed into several other variations, in terms of where you hit them and which type of spin you add to the shot. As you become familiar with the basics, you will learn the variations as well. 

Gui Hadlich

I got a chance to play junior and professional tournaments across the world, and in 2015 I began playing as the #1 player for Pepperdine University, a great division 1 school. I’ve had the chance to play against great names of the new generation, like Christian Garin, Cameron Norrie, and Kyle Edmund. I’m extremely passionate about the mental and technical part of the game. Oh, and I had lunch with Brad Gilbert once.