The Service Potential

Rowden Fullen (2003)

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).

Service Potential

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.

Service Potential

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.

Service Potential

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.