Serve and the strategy of service have changed very much over the years. In the days of the old hard bat there was very little spin and often the serve was just used to put the ball ‘into play’, now there is spin, speed and deception. Short serves are usually short or half long (with the second bounce on the white line) to tempt the opponent to push or to open with a less strong shot, whereupon the server can counter hard or open strongly. Long serves are usually very fast to the corners or the crossover point.
Let us examine the main serves and grips and think which part of the ball to contact, where on the racket and where the ball should bounce on the table (where on the player’s own side first).
NB Most FH serves can easily be executed with concave or convex arcs.
|Backspin||Finger/thumb||Under||Bottom/leading inside edge||Mid-table/end line|
|Sidespin||Finger/thumb or normal loose||Side||Bottom/leading inside edge||Mid-table/end line|
|Topspin||Finger/thumb middle finger support||Top||Top inside shoulder||End line/30% in|
|Float||Finger/thumb||Back||Middle or trailing edge||End line|
|Reverse/top||Finger/thumb ’blade’ grip||Top/side||Outside/leading bottom edge||End line|
|Reverse/back||Finger/thumb ‘blade’ grip||Bottom/side||Outside/leading bottom edge||Mid-table|
|Axe backspin||Normal loose/‘long’ grip||Bottom/side||Top leading edge||Mid-table/30% in|
|Axe topspin||Normal loose/‘long’ grip||Top/side||Top leading edge||End line/30% in|
|Reverse axe topspin||Loose hammer||Top/side||Top leading edge||End line|
|Reverse axe backspin||Loose hammer||Bottom/side||Top leading edge||30% in|
|Backspin||Loose hammer||Under||Bottom/leading edge||Mid-table/end line|
|Sidespin||Loose hammer||Side||Bottom/leading edge||Mid-table/end line|
|Topspin||Loose hammer||Top/side||Inside leading shoulder/top leading edge||End line/30% in|
|Float||Normal||Back||Middle/trailing edge||End line|
|Reverse axe||Loose hammer||Top/bottom/side||Top leading edge||End line/30% in|
We must also bear in mind the value of the high-throw serve, where becauseof the speed of the descending ball (we are not initiating spin or speed from a next to ‘dead ball’ situation), we can achieve rather different effects and bounce factors on the opponent’s side of the table. For example a fast float serve off a high throw can be particularly effective and it is also possible to achieve rather more spin from the high throw situation by converting the downward speed into spin.
Remember the serve is the one time you control what is happening, you are in the driving seat. Consider 6 aspects.
The first four are under your control, the last two partially under your opponent’s control.
It is particularly important that you can follow up on your own serve and put the opponent under real pressure directly. To this end serve and third ball should form a major part of each and every training session. You should know where the ball is usually returned and practise third ball attack until your response is automatic. Also you should know how the ball is returned — the opponent may return some or all of your own spin, or impose his own. You should of course train with your practice partner returning to unexpected areas, playing at times with and at times against the spin. In this way you become more at ease dealing with the unusual and unexpected situations you will face against the best players.
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 in different ways of striking the ball.
This is probably one of the most under-practised of all the aspects of our sport. If a serve is long for example we should always be prepared to be positive, loop or drive and think placement at the same time. Also however we should think tactics too, some players especially in the women’s game want speed back so that they can smash the next ball. Sometimes you must be ready to change the speed, stop-block, slow roll. Equally if a player serves long chop you should always (girls too!) be looking to open. There is little point in pushing only to see the next ball looped past you. Quite often to return power with lack of power, or spin with lack of spin, or even just to return the server’s own spin to him or her, can be a very good tactic.
Short serves can always be dropped back very short to take the advantage away from the server and neutralize his or her service advantage. This too requires much training for if you misread the heavy spin and float you lose. Most top players however are good in short play and in gaining advantage in this area. Try to take the ball at as early a timing point as possible, just after the bounce to give the other player little time to react. This is also a good tactic if you have to push back long, again early timing, fast return, sometimes with spin, sometimes without, (try to use the wrist as little as possible). At top level, especially in the men’s game it is necessary to flick some balls — bear in mind you can do this at differing timing points, as the ball bounces up (very early) or drops down (quite late). This late-timed flick can often be effective as many players think you are going to push. Often the higher the level, the more there must be a certain amount of risk taking. Do you have a better than 60% chance if you are positive? It may well be worth the risk.
Unfortunately many players at the highest level, especially in the men’s game, serve just long enough to make life very difficult — the half-long serve with the second bounce on the white line or just off. If you open with a weaker stroke, you lose, equally if you push long, you give the initiative in opening and placement to the server. If the serve is so good that you must push long, then how and where you play is vital.
An important stage and one essential to the development of any good player, is how he copes with the first opening ball. It is not enough at high level just to control the first drive or topspin — the other player retains the initiative and will accelerate spin and power until he wins the point. Being just safe is a loser’s tactic, here too you must look at responding positively — force the return with either power or spin or both and put the opponent under pressure. Another alternative is to change pace and length as dramatically as possible, the stop-block has its place at the highest level. And of course always consider where to play, variation in placement (short or long, straight, body or angles) is a vital factor in top-class play.
Above all work at the strategy of receive, training against good servers, training at returning with and against the spin and playing the opponent’s spin back to him or her, varying placement and length and angles. Work at doing different things with the 2nd ball so that the server cannot have an easy 3rd ball situation. Train to do enough with the 2nd ball so that you can perhaps create an advantage on the 4th 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 in differing 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.
How many players for example have considered that with the bigger ball it is rather easier to serve an edge or near-edge serve! It is perhaps easiest to do this with the short serve just over the net. However it is also a good tactic to serve short just over the net so that the second bounce is on the edge or just off the side of the table. If this ball drops down very close to the table side it is often quite difficult for the opponent to take. (See first two diagrams).
Even if the opponent does return the serve it is often quite difficult to do anything positive with it and the server may well gain an advantage on the next ball. In the first two diagrams both serves have spin with the server’s racket moving from left to right. This can of course just as well be from right to left. In diagram three the backhand serve is used with a low elbow and the racket almost upright and coming round the outside of the ball, to impart sidespin to a very short and wide angled ball.
Often many players think more of extreme spin rather than considering the aspect of placement. The serve which is both very short and low can cause problems to players at the highest level and even if they are able to attack, this will more often than not be with a weaker ball, which will enable the server to respond with a strong counter. Also consider the point that many players who are good at attacking short balls, have more difficulty in flicking serves directed to the middle of the table. In general good short play is required if a player is to reach the top and this is a capability, which should be worked at and cultivated from an early age in the player’s development.
Another serve which is often overlooked by players is the long, fast, float serve bouncing deep, on the white line at the opponent’s end of the table as in next two diagrams. This serve often causes problems to attacking players, especially to loopers. If the opponent is reduced to blocking you will usually have a weaker return which you can counter-attack. The same long, fast serve can be executed with a trace of backspin or from a high throw with a slightly open racket. This will result in a little slower ball with a different bounce characteristic and back and/or sidespin, which can be quite deceptive.
Many top coaches are of the opinion that there is a need for more long serves. Over the last decade there has been more emphasis on the short or half-long serve. As a result players are becoming increasingly comfortable in the receive situation against the shorter serves. At all levels it is becoming necessary to bring in more longer variations and this is particularly important now we have only 2 serves. Players should be able to serve two radically different serves in succession and without mistake, as in the final diagram of the three.
Now that the serve must be plainly visible to the opponent throughout the service action, it is important to look at other methods of deception. The shortness and quickness of the service movement now assumes rather more importance, as does the shortness of the distance between the contact of the racket with the ball and the ball hitting the table. It is still a case that the ‘quickness of the hand’ can deceive the eye and the shorter the distance before the ball hits the table, the less time the opponent has to read the spin. This is why a high throw, coupled with a fast service action can often be quite effective.
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 as 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 — 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.
The high throw is another technique that players could work at more. There is not only the possibility of producing more spin by converting the downward speed into forward spin and speed, but also the bounce characteristic is rather different. Often the bounce is rather lower than a normal serve because you are not initiating forward speed from a ‘dead ball’ situation.
In the service game we must also consider in which areas players encounter difficulties in taking the serve. There are obvious places such as to the corners or the crossover and it’s always wise to asess the receiver’s ready position before you serve. Many players also have problems taking the short or half-long serve which spins away on their FH side as in the next diagram. This applies even at the highest levels in the men’s game and is well worthwhile bearing in mind. Being able to execute this serve with differing spins can bring very beneficial results.
Opponents may also have individual weaknesses against service, which you the player must look for and take advantage of as early as possible in the match. Do they for example more often than not push the half-long serve to their backhand side thus giving you the opportunity to come round and attack the third ball with your forehand? Do they stand with their right foot well back in the ready position, so that they may be weak against the short or long, fast serve to the forehand corner? Do they take up position a little back then jump in when you serve, making them vulnerable to the long, fast serve to the backhand corner?
It is particularly important that you can follow up and play positively after your own serve, putting the opponent under real pressure directly. To this end serve and third ball should form a major part of every training session. You should know where the ball is usually returned and practise third ball attack until your response is automatic. Also you should know how the ball is returned — the opponent may return some or all of your own spin, or impose his own. You should of course train with your practice partner returning to unexpected areas, playing at times with and at times against the spin. In this way you become more at ease dealing with the unusual and unexpected situations you will face against the best players. Above all you should try and play to your own strengths and fortés and try whenever possible to deploy your stronger aspects against the opponent’s weaker areas and as soon as possible after the service. If you can’t win the point on the third ball, look to keep control with one interim ball, then try to win on the fifth. Above all if you can’t win on the first one or two balls it’s essential to keep an offensive initiative and not let the rally drift into a stalemate situation. You have in other words still succeeded with an attack after serve or an attack after the receive by using a transitional ball to gain a definite advantage. At the higher levels you don’t often get ‘two bites at the cherry’, so it’s important to take the chances as they occur.
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.
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
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 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.
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.
The whole objective of the serve is to obtain a decisive advantage. The aggressive third ball figures very prominently in winning the point as early as possible in the rally. However to be completely successful in third ball attack it is necessary not only to limit or control any 2nd ball opening, but also to be poised, ready and prepared (in the right position) to take full advantage of any opportunity you create from the serve.
To have the best possible chance of doing this certain prerequisites have to be observed –
It helps to serve from the basic modern ready position as in diagram A, or as near to this as you can get. It is then most difficult for your opponent to create any advantage on the 2nd ball as you are in a sound position to cover the table. You also need a minimum of movement after your serve to get into a good position to attack the third ball. Finally you should be well placed to use your forehand effectively to attack strongly after the serve.
Equally if recovery is necessary as in diagram B, where the player has moved to the middle of the table to serve with the backhand, then such recovery must be made as rapidly as possible either to the basic ready position or to a position relatively central to the new ‘angle of play’ (this is the new table area available to the opponent as he/she plays the return ball).
What should be stressed also is that the faster the serve, the less time you will have to recover and to get back to a sound ready position for the next ball. It is perhaps good policy to put your fastest serves into play from the modern ready position as in A.
Bear in mind too that weight distribution is of immediate importance both after your own serve and on the receive. It is vital (for a right-hander) to have right foot mobility, to the short ball (under the table), to the wide ball on the forehand side, backwards to create space to play forehands off the left hip, or backwards and behind when playing forehands from the backhand corner. Even those players who stand with the right foot well back often take a half-step in to cover their options in playing the next ball.
Many players even at top level continue to serve outside the backhand corner as in diagram C. They do not seem to appreciate that much of the advantage has now been lost under the new serving regulations. In fact most players have made little attempt to change their action, they just try to remove the free arm which results consequently in a stiff and unnatural service action. As a result they are often slower to get round to play the third ball. It has been noticed for example that some women players now have up to three separate movements after their serve before they are in a good position to play their next stroke.
Few players seem to have worked out for example that a higher throw and good body rotation above the waist, will automatically remove the free arm from the field of play, while still retaining good spin and effect on the serve. This action can be done also just as effectively from position A as it can from C and has several advantages especially in the women’s game. Many women play more backhands from the middle of the table and are much better placed from position A to do this. Women are slower than men are to recover and in movement generally. Position A again simplifies the area of movement. Also it is possible to cover a wider area of placement to the opponent’s forehand and achieve a little more deception when serving from this area of the table.
Many players and especially men players want of course to use their forehand on the third ball and therefore continue to serve from outside the backhand corner as in C. They ignore certain new factors which can have a bearing on the situation –
Of course in the case of many players they have in fact changed their service action as little as possible. A number of the top stars complain that the new rules have had little impact and that many players still serve in a very questionable manner. What is obvious is that few established players have made a real effort to make changes in their service action or to research methods of being more effective under the new regulations.
The forehand serve normally used from the backhand corner can be effective against left-handed players, but it is necessary to think a little more about placement. Left-handers are usually strong in the middle and from their forehand corner for example. You can often however obtain an advantage by serving long, straight to their backhand or short to the middle or at a wide angle to their forehand. Another manoeuvre can be to use the same serve but from the middle and aim to achieve a wide angle both to the opponent’s backhand and forehand as in A).
The backhand, reverse or axe serves can be of importance too as they allow you to spin the ball out and away from the left-hander’s back-hand, or conversely into the bat arm elbow and either long or short B). The backhand serve can be used from the middle and the axe serve even from the forehand corner. The reverse spin serve (from the backhand) is particularly useful as many players have some difficulty in opening up against an inswinging serve with the forehand.
Serve return and the 3rd ball are critical against left-handed players. They are usually strong on the forehand side and if you allow them to get their strength in, then they can make life extremely difficult. Their topspin often incorporates an element of sidespin and as the ball then spins away to the backhand this constitutes an atypical situation. By this we mean it is not something most right-handers train against and as a result they have difficulty in adapting to it.
A good tactic can often be to play many straight balls particularly down the line to the left-hander’s forehand, from your forehand corner or from the middle C). It is important too to use your backhand against left-handed players, force them out wide to the forehand, then play back into the body on the next ball, or wide to their backhand.
As we have said, often left-handers have strong forehands, which they try to use over much of the table. This can make them a little susceptible to the short serve to the middle or wide out to their forehand, especially if the next ball is played long into the corners or into the body. The reverse spin serve can be particularly effective short or half-long to the forehand or middle areas.
Receive tactics are also important against left-handed players. They can be quick to come round on the 3rd ball to loop hard into the corners, so often it is not advisable to push long into their backhand side. A better tactic can be to drop short to the forehand or middle, or to flick or loop long and straight into the forehand corner. This approach pulls them over to the forehand side and leaves them vulnerable to attack into the backhand sector.
As we have emphasized in other articles the prime skill of table tennis is quite simply to be able to adapt in an ever-changing situation. Most of us train more against right-handers and therefore when we meet left-handed players we find their serves and tactics unusual and it’s more difficult for us to adapt quickly. Our automated, ‘grooved’ reactions let us down when we have to bring conscious thought into an automatic situation. It is therefore essential that players train against left-handers of differing styles and do this even from an early age.
Often in addition it’s necessary too for us to change well-used tactics and table areas which are second nature to us. When we for example meet a left-handed defender with long pimples on the backhand, we are top-spinning on our forehand diagonal to the pimples. For many right-handers this is not a scenario in which they have trained and it requires adjustment. It may also require us to accentuate aspects of stroke-play which we are not normally accustomed to using. For example looping with pronounced sidespin into the left-handed, pimpled defender’s backhand will usually cause them considerable problems, but are we capable of using this tactic effectively?
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.
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.
When changes occur in the fabric of our sport it’s not only crucial to consider changes which will occur in tactics and strategy, but also to look at the implications from a scientific viewpoint. Unfortunately the science of table tennis is an aspect to which we often do not attach enough importance.
You will find it very easy to prove to yourself in your own club, that with some service actions you can achieve more spin than others with the plastic ball and that the spin stays on the ball for a longer period of time.
Tests in our own High Performance Centre in the south of England have shown the following statistics.
● Pure Backspin Serve – Spin stays on the ball for 22.22 seconds
● FH from BH corner with Side/Backspin – Spin stays on the ball for 26.97 seconds
● FH from BH corner with Side/Topspin – Spin stays on the ball for 41.97 seconds
● BH serve with Side/Backspin – Spin stays on ball for 32.13 seconds
● Tomahawk serve with Side/Backspin – Spin stays on ball for 45.13 seconds
Similar tests in other areas show almost identical results in terms of which serves produce the most spin. The only difference might occur with a very tall player serving with the FH from the BH corner executing the Side/Backspin service as more leverage would result due to the height of the player and there would be less restriction in the action.
Also noted is that sidespin is the single most advantageous spin with the plastic either on its own or combined with other spins. Not only do we often observe a pronounced ‘kick’ on the opponent’s half of the table but it is easier to keep the ball lower and shorter after the bounce on his/her side. The sidespin also remains on the ball longer and can still often be used on the third ball. Pure backspin on the other hand dies quicker and it’s much more difficult to keep the shorter serves low in the opponent’s half, resulting in easier receive capability.
Even in the rallies players who can utilize powerful sidespin with topspin will be difficult to deal with. Much of the difficulty lies in the area of adaptability: our sport is extremely fast and requires us to play on ‘autopilot’ without thinking too much. Even the very best players have problems coping with something completely new, which they haven’t come across before.
The other absolutely crucial criterion is the speed of the service action (particularly in shorter serves) and the time element between the server’s contact with the ball on his /her racket and the bounce on the opponent’s half of the table. A longer time frame will allow the opponent more time to think and prepare his/her response. For example if the server carries the ball forward with the action so it bounces two thirds of the way down his/her side of the table then short over the net, this gives over half a second for the opponent to see what is happening. Also because the ball is not being played with strong forward momentum, though it may bounce short in the opponent’s half it will tend to be high.
What is needed is not a slow service action, but an extremely fast one. This will have two advantages. It will create more spin and will give the opponent less time to react. The optimum is therefore a ball bouncing on the baseline on your side of the table but with a very fast action. With practice you will find it is relatively simple to achieve two, three or more bounces in your opponent’s half. The mean time average on the ‘fast action’ serve will be around a half second or less, compared with 0.65 plus with the slower action.
The very mechanism of ‘carrying’ the ball forward on your racket to bounce two thirds of the way down your half of the table and short on your opponent’s side, alerts them in advance to what you are intending to achieve. Not a good strategy against a top player.
If you watch the world’s best men playing table tennis there are several aspects of the play which will strike you almost immediately. First will be the power and unpredictability of the first opening ball and perhaps some surprise at how quickly many of the rallies are over. Then will come an appreciation of just how tight most of the serves are and how it is almost impossible to open and attack these serves. Finally there is an understanding of the necessity of some direct attack from the receive, impossible or not — without this you cannot win.
At top level the importance of the first four balls is crucial. If your serve is not good enough and the opponent can open with enough spin and power, you lose. If on the other hand your opponent’s serve is so good that you can only push back, you lose again.
The first step is to work on your own serve — to make it short enough or tight enough or with enough spin or deception that it is difficult for the opponent to open hard. You will note we say difficult not impossible. If he can be persuaded to open with a weaker stroke, then you have the advantage, you are the one who can initiate and respond with power. The first player at this level to introduce real spin or power, especially with good length and placement, will usually win the point.
The next stage is to explore different methods of coping with the short or half-long serve and to train on these. Can you attack, flick, spin over the table and fade and can you do this in such a way that you gain an advantage and have a better than even chance of winning the point. Often the higher the level, the more there must be a certain amount of risk taking. Do you have a better than 60% chance if you are positive? It may well be worth the risk.
Another alternative is to drop the ball back so short that the server can do little or nothing with it, thus neutralizing his service advantage. This too requires much training for if you misread the heavy spin and float you lose. At high level it is important to take this short return on a very early timing point so that the opponent’s time to react is severely limited.
Unfortunately many players at the highest level, especially in the men’s game, serve just long enough to make life very difficult — the half-long serve with the second bounce on the white line or just off. If you open with a weaker stroke, you lose, equally if you push long, you give the initiative in opening and placement to the server. If the serve is so good that you must push long, then how and where you play is vital.
The third important stage and one essential to the development of any good player, is how he copes with the first opening ball. It is not enough at high level just to control the first drive or topspin — the other player retains the initiative and will accelerate spin and power until he wins the point. Being just safe is a loser’s tactic, here too you must look at responding positively — force the return with either power or spin or both and put the opponent under pressure. Another alternative is to change pace and length as dramatically as possible, the stop-block or slow roll have their place at the highest level. And of course always consider where to play, the variety of choices in placement, straight, body or angles.
Finally each player must have a point winning weapon or tactic. It is particularly important that you can follow up on your own serve and put the opponent under real pressure directly. To this end serve and third ball should form a major part of every training session. You should know where the ball is usually returned and practise third ball attack until your response is automatic. Also you should know how the ball is returned — the opponent may return some or all of your own spin, or impose his own. You should of course train with your practice partner returning to unexpected areas, playing at times with and at times against the spin. In this way you become more at ease dealing with the unusual and unexpected situations you will face against the best players.
You should also be aware that as you improve it is necessary for your technical and tactical levels to advance. A serve which a regional player can only push, may well be easily killed by a world class star. As you move up the ladder so the levels of expertise in serve and receive change, as do the skill levels in taking advantage of the next ball.