Maximise your Service Play

Rowden Fullen (2005)

A mental approach to the service area.
The laws – make them serve you.
Ready position.
Hard or soft.
Penhold and ’shakehands’.
Recovery times.
Bat areas.
Topspin, chop and float.
Low and high throw.
Use service spin.
Receiving – areas of difficulty.
Play the odds.
In the final analysis.


As you will know service is defined as striking the ball so that it first touches your side of the table and then passing over or round the net, bounces on the opponent’s side of the table. If you play the game to any standard however, you are aware that the serve has become much more technically advanced over the years and if you wish to remain truly competitive, it is no longer sufficient just to put the ball into play.

The whole area of service has to be considered in the light of a free kick in soccer, taken just outside the penalty box, where if you approach the kick with enough planning, deception and tactical awareness, you will be able to score a goal! Just as with the table tennis serve, the top players will have a number of alternative plans and free-kick variations to use, depending on how the opponents set their field to try and cover the goal.

So in table tennis the service is a prime opportunity to ‘score’, the first chance to win the point or to create an opening to win on the third or fifth ball. Why waste this chance by blasting the ball past the post – by serving off or into the net, or by giving the opponent an easy serve from which he or she can gain an advantage? The same applies to the old idea of neutrality in service. In the old days attacking potential was limited and you could be neutral with your serve, play safe and get away with it. Not any more! Nowadays with modern rackets and with strong second ball attack a common factor, being neutral or playing safe is not really a viable option. At the best it places you in the situation of struggling to win the point from a position of equality, when in fact the serve should be used to give you a definite advantage.

The prime factor to bear in the forefront of your mind as the server is that this is the one set piece in table tennis where the opponent has to dance to your tune. You are in the driving seat, you are in the position of dictating, you put the ball into play in your own time and you pick where you are going to serve and the type of spin and speed you are going to use. All the opponent can do is to use his or her experience to set himself/herself up in the best position to receive, but all the initiative is yours. I think most top players would agree that if one player were allowed the opportunity of serving all the time, games would be rather one-sided.

Just think what your service can achieve.

It can;

If you are going to gain maximum advantage from the occasions when you have the serve, then from the outset it’s vital that you cultivate an ultra-positive approach to the service aspect, a total commitment to winning the point on the serve or on the third ball. Better to try to win the point outright than to be constantly neutral and safe. Note that I say outright and indeed this is how the serve should be regarded, as your first chance to win the point directly — not just conferring a tactical advantage enabling you to win the point eventually in the next half-dozen strokes. Set your sights high and don’t lower them. At the very worst your serve should present such problems to your opponent that you can comfortably kill the third ball.

The acrobat can attain pinpoint accuracy through hard training, why not the table tennis player? The answer lies in the fact that table tennis is an antagonistic competition, acrobatic performance isn’t. Every stroke you make is based on correct and split-second judgement of the incoming ball, which varies in a thousand and one ways. Service however is the one exception. Much remains to be exploited in the service area in terms of spin, speed and placement of the ball and different ways of striking the ball. Achieving results is largely only a matter of practice and being aware of how to use the arm and body and where and how to contact the ball, both on the ball and on the racket.

However this is not necessarily going to be either straightforward or easy. Raising the level of your technical expertise so it is on par with your determination will involve a great deal of hard work and application, both physical and mental and hours of arduous practice. You will have to be aware of and aware of the significance of, the conditions you are playing under. Aspects such as the speed of the table, the size of the court, the type of ball, the various racket combinations involved, the stance and receiving position and even the mental condition of the opponent, all require consideration. But there are certain factors which can ‘stack the odds’ in your favour!


It is your responsibility to serve in such a way that you comply with the requirements of ‘a good service’. But also if you know the laws on service they will assist in protecting you. Is it legal for example for the opponent to start the serve from under the table, to shield the ball with the body or to move the table during service? If your opponent is faulted on his serve and the umpire’s attention is focused on him, this will curb some of his effectiveness and may prove to your advantage, possibly at a vital stage in the game.

Equally you can use the laws to your own advantage. You have the right for example to see both sides of your opponent’s racket, before he or she starts the match. Make use of this opportunity don’t throw it away. Seeing the opponent’s rubbers allows you to pick up the double-sided combinations, fast, tacky and long pimple surfaces. It allows you to use your own serves to maximum advantage. But also it assists you enormously in receive as you have a good idea what type of serve to expect from the differing rubbers. Once you have control of the serve and receive situation it’s much easier to work out how to use your opponent’s spin or lack of it and to take the initiative away from him or her.

Operating quite legally you can for example throw the ball high up above the lights in service, which may be of benefit against many players. Or you can hide the bat from the opponent, either under the table or behind your back so that he or she has as little time as possible to see which side you will use. This is often a big advantage if you have different rubbers on your racket.


Study your opponent and his ready position before deciding which serves to adopt. Many top players are masters of this technique. From any one service position you should be able to set in motion several very different serves in terms of spin, speed, direction or placement. Of course if you see your opponent moving at the last second, perhaps to play the forehand from the backhand corner, then you should change the serve accordingly. Equally if you see him settle in his position, it’s very easy to alter your own position fractionally, but just enough to obtain a rather different angle on his side of the table. Practise serving from differing areas on your side of the table so that you feel just as comfortable putting the ball into play from the backhand, forehand or middle.

You should of course be constantly alert to your own positional strategy when your opponent has the serve. Most of the best receivers move their position between the time the server throws up the ball and the split-second just after the ball has made contact with the racket. Bear in mind too that it’s not only movement from side to side which is important but also in and out. As your opponent serves closer or further away from the table you may well have to adjust your receiving position accordingly. Some receivers tend to stand a little back and jump in to take the serve, which can work to the server’s advantage if he or she serves fast, wide to the backhand for example.

Be aware too that in these modern times and with the increasing speed of our sport, a ready position and subsequent movement patterns which retain a square stance are not just preferable but essential.


If you throw a table tennis ball against a stone wall as hard as you can, it will bounce back fairly sharply – if you do the same against a pair of thick curtains, the ball will drop almost directly to the floor. This would seem to be fairly obvious to most people. However most players do not seem to appreciate that the tension of the body holding the table tennis racket, the rigidity or softness of that body, equally affect the rebound of the ball from the bat. If your muscles are tensed and you grip the racket as hard as you can and your legs are braced hard against the floor, then your body assumes all the characteristics of the stone wall! Another major disadvantage of the tensed muscle is that it loses its elasticity and flexibility and freedom of movement becomes restricted. Your fluency, your ability to ‘play shots’ and ‘feel’ the ball is very much hampered.

On the other hand if your grip is relaxed, the wrist loose, the knees flexed, the softness of your body will absorb a great deal of speed. Your ‘pick up’ of the ball is completely different, the movements supple and fluid, you play with the ball rather than against it. The knees are of particular importance in this ‘soft’ approach as they transmit the hardness of the floor through your body to the bat arm, if you let them. A serve from a rigid knee position will result in a longer, faster ball – it’s harder to play short and tight. However by relaxing the knees at the exact instant that the ball touches the racket, it’s rather easier to produce a shorter, very spinny serve, with little or no pace.

You should also use the soft body principle to give variation to your own service returns and indeed to your whole game. The ‘soft body’ block can be used to drop the ball back short and ‘dead’ over the net, thus drawing the opponent forward. Equally you can ‘force’ the ball back, increasing the pace and putting pressure on your opponent, giving him or her a limited time to react.


Most players who have had the opportunity of competing against penhold grip opponents will tell you that they are able to achieve a high level of spin, especially sidespin. Try a little experiment yourself — hold a pencil or a ruler in the penhold grip and twist your wrist rapidly from side to side. You will find that you achieve a very quick and natural spin swing just by using the wrist alone, even before you bring the rest of the arm into play. Also you are effective over a wide height range from almost shoulder height right down to your knees.

If you try to achieve the same action with the ‘shakehands’ grip and holding the racket normally, you find that because the forearm is no longer facing forwards but pointing down instead, your range of movement is limited. Any spin action is initiated more from a combination of wrist and forearm and the action of the wrist is rather different. The whole movement is in fact of most use to you down near the knees and as you serve from a higher level you are more and more restricted. As a result you try to bring in more arm movement to compensate for losing the wrist action. In other words you move away from using the fastest moving part of the arm to relying on the heavier, slower moving areas!

Of course the penhold spin action is also different, you have a much easier and more natural rotation of the wrist and also a longer movement. Even with the ‘shakehands’ grip where you only hold the racket between the forefinger and thumb, full rotation of the wrist is still not achieved and it’s more natural to bring in movement of the forearm. Also the whole range of movement is shorter. You can increase this and increase your effectiveness, by gripping the racket blade more out on the top edge instead of nearer the handle. THE THUMB SHOULD BE IN POSITION 2 RATHER THAN IN 1

 Maximise Service

The forefinger of course must be in a bent or hooked position. You only bring tension into the wrist by trying to keep it straight.

This grip is especially good for sidespin and the reverse spin serve. Grip 1 is rather better for backspin or topspin but pressure on the racket handle from the other fingers is rather more important with these serves. With backspin it helps to have light pressure from the middle and fourth finger on the side of the racket handle. With topspin the middle finger on the side of the racket handle can help to ‘pull’ the racket upwards and strengthens the topspin action.

A point to bear in mind with the ‘shakehands’ grip is that you have a larger variety of service actions available to you and you should take advantage of and build on this aspect. You have the axe and reverse axe serves and also the possibility of many variations on the backhand side. It can often be better with the backhand serve to remove the forefinger from the racket and to use the hammer grip — this gives rather more freedom of movement in the wrist and makes it rather easier to vary the racket angle at the time of contact with the ball.

You should also give more consideration to where you serve from. You should be prepared to serve at differing heights and at differing distances from the table. The whole idea of the same 16-centimetre throw, serving only from the BH corner, the whole predictability of the serve, has to be re-thought. The higher throw-up creates the opportunity directly of more variety, of more spin and a different bounce factor. It is important to experiment with differing grips, differing throw-ups and serving at differing distances from the table as well as placing the ball in varying areas on the opponent’s side of the table.


It is vital to be aware that each individual serve has its own recovery time in some cases much longer than others have. With the axe service for example where it is necessary to bend the legs and serve from a low stance, it may be difficult to recover for the next ball if the return is long and fast. With the backhand serve often the action of the arm and the body brings the player back automatically to the ready stance, so that he or she is in a good position to take advantage of the return ball.

We may only be talking about tenths of a second, but our sport is so fast nowadays that every fraction is important. Another consideration is that the time element can be further complicated by tactical considerations. If you for example combine a slow recovery serve from a bad service position, from which it is difficult for you to recover quickly, you risk a quick return which can leave you stranded. Similarly if you serve to an opponent’s strength, long to the forehand corner for example, you risk a strong return, regardless of how good or how spinny your serve may be!

Another consideration is which serves can give you a better tactical advantage. With some it is much easier to vary direction and placement and you can create a variety of spin and length with the same or very similar actions. It is also important to use serves, which allow you to play to your own strengths on the third ball.


If we whirl a metal weight round on a length of string, then obviously the string nearer the weight moves much faster than that part nearest the hand. Exactly the same applies to the table tennis racket. The end of the racket farthest from the handle moves at a much faster rate when you swing the bat in an arc. With the identical service action you can achieve varying degrees of spin by contacting the ball on differing areas of the racket. Because neither the angle nor the speed of the blade alters, it is extremely difficult for the opponent to read the amount of spin on the serve.

It’s important also for maximum effect that you attempt to increase the speed of movement of the racket just before contact with the ball. It can be quite deceptive if you execute the serve with a relatively slow action and increase the racket speed just 2 – 3 centimetres before you ‘acquire’ the ball. Seeing a slower service action the opponent can be misled as to the amount of spin on the serve.


The long, fast serve should be in every player’s repertoire. It’s surprising how many cheap points you can often pick up at vital stages in the game, with a sudden fast float or topspin. Last second changes in the bat angle can change the serve from fast topspin to float or even chop in a fraction of a second. The fast float played with an upright racket straight through the ball on a horizontal plane can be a particularly useful serve at all stages in the game. It is also easy to conceal the direction till the last moment.

Of course placement and length are important but variation can also bring good results. Many players don’t work enough at producing a variety of differing spins with almost exactly the same service action — sidespin, sidespin and backspin, sidespin and topspin or near float. Serves where the spin can be changed by simply using slightly closed or slightly open racket angles can be particularly effective, especially if executed with a very fast and short movement which gives the opponent only a fraction of a second to recognize what is happening and to adapt. The playing of table tennis is after all more than anything else a question of adapting one’s game to what the opponent is doing. If you can cultivate slightly different techniques then these are harder to adapt to, because they are not what the opponent is used to meeting and his or her conditioned reactions don’t work so well any more.

Equally table tennis is also about time, about how much time you allow the opponent to have to consider his or her actions — a very short distance between racket contact on the ball and ball contact on the table and fast, short service movements give the opponent less time. With very fast movements it is very difficult to see what is happening. The speed of movement usually increases from the centre of the body out to the extremities. It is difficult to see rapidly moving extremities or striking implements such as rackets. Movement observation can be simplified by looking at slower moving parts first.

It’s also important to use the various contact points on the ball, under, at the back and on the side, so you are in a position to vary the spin at will, with the same or similar actions. Don’t overlook the heavy chop and float serves initiated from a high throw – these too can be quite deceptive.


The low throw tends to result in;

A high throw tends to result in;


The detailed evaluation of how your serves are returned and from there how to take maximum advantage of the third ball, is something which should be a continuing process in your development and something which is under constant review. The importance of regularly bringing this into your practice sessions cannot be emphasized enough and you should encourage your sparring partners to try and find new ways and places to return your serve. In this way you are able to develop both the serve and the third ball and to raise them to higher levels.

You should be aware for example that when you serve, especially with sidespin, a certain amount of your spin will remain on the return and this can be used on the third ball. Look at the forehand serve from the backhand corner, which swings away from the opponent as in the diagram. This will often be returned to the middle or forehand area of the table,because of the sidespin element.

If the server plays the third ball again to the receiver’s backhand, the ball will often kick outwards again as some of the service spin still remains on it. In the case where you play against a racket surface such as antiloop or long pimple, which leaves much more existing spin on the ball, you will be in a position to use maximum 3rd ball return spin against the opponent.

 Maximise Service


There are one or two areas where we all tend to experience a little difficulty on the receive. That elusive ‘crossover’ point for example where we sometimes get caught between using forehand or backhand, especially if the ball swings into the hip area at the last second or if we are standing a little too close to the table. The short, heavy spin ball, which swings out and away from the forehand or backhand side. In fact this outswinging serve often opens up the table for the attacking 3rd ball or permits forehand domination.

Even at the very highest level, players have problems against the short serve to the middle or to the forehand. It can be especially difficult with short sidespin as it is often not easy to read the serve and to assess just what amount of other spin there is on the ball. Good short serving also creates another dilemma for the opponent. The onus is on him or her to initiate speed on the second ball if he or she is to get on the attack. But if the opening stroke is not effective enough the server will almost certainly counter hard on the third ball.

Another area we must not ignore is deception in speed. Too many players are one pace servers, which allows the opponent to settle into a rhythm. It is important that you are able to produce the same serve, with the same action, but with totally different pace. Some players too because of the racket they use or because of their playing style, may have problems against certain serves or may not be able to obtain any advantage against them.


In these days of the highly technical game the second, third and fourth ball are of vital importance. It is often no longer just sufficient to get the service back, so committed is the server to third ball loop or kill. In addition the power, spin and angles are so extreme that the ‘safe’ areas of return have become fewer and fewer.

Increasingly it becomes necessary to move away from accepted return techniques and to ‘play the odds’, to switch into what used to be high risk areas. Not only for example attacking the ‘impossible’ spin serve, but hitting it wide to acute angles or down the line or against the spin. It is noticeable for example now that the top players take the ball much earlier after the bounce even on the push return and give the opponent no time to react.

Bear in mind against the high throw that the ball may take one or two seconds from the time the ball leaves the server’s hand until bat contact — but after the contact you may have only a fraction of a second to determine where the ball is coming, what spin is on it and what speed and to move into position to play your stroke. It becomes apparent that one cannot over-emphasize the vital importance of practising receive of serve at every opportunity.


All the areas we have delved into will form a background store of theory which you can call upon in times of need and which will give you an edge in the service area. However in the final analysis when you are out there at the table, you have at this time really only the mental capacity to consider a few vital factors and to keep these in the forefront of your mind.

The first four are under your control, the last two partially under your opponent’s control.

Look at service from the point of view that if you use these factors to the full you will have the best possible chance of winning the point. If you fail to adopt or neglect one or more, then your chances decrease accordingly. Bear in mind too that four of these factors are wholly under your control and that the opponent has no influence over them.