Dominate with Serve and Receive

Masaaki Tajima (2007)

In this article, I will go over the importance of serves and the receiving of serves as two of the top technical training priorities for future champions.

In virtually every racket sport, serves and the ability to return them effectively, are dominating factors in the outcome of any match. Besides table tennis, tennis is another example of a sport where this is true. Whether it is the men’s or women’s division, the big serve sets the tone of the match; if you serve well, you play well. On the other side, the player who can receive well can stay in the point until it is his or her turn to serve. Conceptually, the serve and return of serve is the same in our sport as it is in tennis except, I maintain, it is more difficult to receive in table tennis because of the complexities involved. In tennis, the variety of serves is limited to such elements as speed, variations of topspin, placement and cross-court serves only. In table tennis, in addition to the above, there is variation of spins, dead balls, all of the court being open and most deadly of all, deception — the disguising of the type of spin and speed generated and the placement.


Ever since the sponge revolution in table tennis in 1952, the basic tactic of the serve has not changed: to gain an immediate offensive advantage. The most effective deception technique which transformed the tactics of serving started about 30 years ago when Cai Zhenhua (1975-77 World Men’s Team Champion) executed racket flipping serves using anti-spin on one side and inverted rubber on the other. The two-colour rule was not in effect at that time. During that period the use of combination rackets was not new, but he was the most effective in using the tactic of disguising which side was being used and how to gain an immediate offensive advantage. The two-colour rule for rackets was enacted soon, when powers that be deemed the technique more trickery than skill. But coaches and players continued to find new methods of deception. In the 1980’s the “hidden serve” came into play, in which the body or the arm tossing up the ball hides the point of contact with the ball. Which player first developed this is debatable, but Swedish players during their domination in the late 1980’s through the 1990’s were very effective in its employment and they influenced generations of new players.

In table tennis, as in tennis, the impact of a strong serve is undeniable. Tennis also struggles with the consequences of “big” serves leading to shorter matches, a direct result of the technological evolution of stronger and faster rackets and athletes’ physical development through strengthening programs. This trend, whether in tennis or table tennis, will not change.

Overall tactics, equipment and even rules regarding the serve have been evolving, but the basic tactic of the third ball attack remains constant – first ball is the serve, the second is the return of serve, and the third is attacking that return with some variation of strong topspin or speed to establish an offensive advantage. Some of the best exponents of this, and my favourites, are Guo Yuehua, Cai Zhenhua and of course, Jan-Ove Waldner.

Recently, the service rule changed again to outlaw the “hidden serve,” ostensibly to improve the image factor of table tennis by allowing longer rallies. But the reality is and statistics prove this, that most points are over by the fifth ball. If history is an indicator of the future, coaches and players will continue to find other means, within the rules, to execute the goal of the server. The loss of the hidden serve doesn’t mean you lose deception. You need to get creative in your execution of deception.

The key point is in the production of deception. Disguising which serve you are going to use and where you are going to place it, causes a time loss, a hesitation by the receiver because of the sudden change of spin, direction, depth and/or speed. As an example, for one style of serve like the forehand serve from your backhand court, contact should be made at the last split second after you decide on a particular serve, keeping your service motion exactly the same each time.


The consequence of the inability of a player to return deceptive and innovative serves is obvious from bottom levels of play to the top. Events at beginner levels to world championships are often won or lost by margins of just a few points, and these points are won and lost mainly by effective serves or returns of serve.

The significance of the ability to effectively return serves was demonstrated clearly by Sweden’s domination of China (Men’s division) in the late 1980’s through the 1990’s. China, with their massive talent pool and infrastructure has a history of producing innovative serves, playing styles and tactics when faced with challenges. When Stellan Bengstan won the world championships in 1971, they came up with Huang Liang. When Hungary won the team event (1979), they came up with great servers in Guo Yuehua, Cai Zhenhua, and the acrobatic Chen Zenhua, followed by the team of Jiang Jialiang, Teng Yi and Chen Longcan, and won the next four championships.

However, Sweden in the ensuing period found a technique to overcome the then world champion’s, China’s mainly short pips players Teng Yi (who used pips on the forehand and inverted on backhand), Jiang Jialiang and Chen Longcan, who are all close-to-the-table hitters, by attacking their short serves with quick flicks and countering their attacks by using shorter looping strokes then before. The other contributing factor was the introduction of speed glue and Sweden’s new generation of talented and diverse-style players exemplified by Applegren, Waldner, Persson and Lindh who went on to win three world championships in a row from 1989 to 1993.

Like anything else in life, prioritizing the training program is a critical factor in maximizing one’s available time. An accurate and realistic assessment of a player must be done before any formation of a training regimen. For important elements, such as serve and return of serve training, there is a need for much dedication and discipline, because these drills are not fun like some of the others.

The intricacies of serve and return of serve require absolute timing. It means developing the ability to time contact with the ball and consistently execute basic shots, like flicking or rolling and looping, along with enhanced anticipation to read the serve and have the physical flexibility, adaptability and the technical skill to cope with the ensuing sequence of shots.

Here are some basics:

These are basic fundamentals. Serve and return of serve must be a training priority because the basic offensive-oriented strategy in our sport will not change in the foreseeable future. At higher levels, it is the player who is able to attack first and establish the momentum and the receiver who has the know-how and the courage to use offensive tactics who will determine the outcome of matches.