How to Serve Like a Pro
Thursday, October 03, 2019
Ask ten players at your local table tennis club to name their favorite part of the game and you’ll get ten different answers. Now ask a hundred professional players to name the most essential skill to succeed and you’ll likely notice something quite different. You might even get frustrated with what seem like overly simplistic and repetitive responses.
Then you start to wonder, maybe they’re right. What’s the one aspect of the game that a player has complete control over? Which shot comes into play with the highest frequency? What separates a good player from a great player? Every point starts with a serve, and understanding this will help you accelerate along the learning curve.
A wise man once said, “50% of the time, you serve every time.” Serving is a player’s chance to take control and set the tone for the match. High-quality serves are built upon a foundation of technical understanding and adorned with individual expression. There is no substitute for proper coaching and ample practice when it comes to developing an array of effective serves. A good coach will train your technique and advise you on the best serves to complement your game. Then it’s up to you to hone these skills on and off the table.
Now you’re probably thinking, “Off the table? You’re off your rocker!”
Don’t worry, you’ll get your table time. The problem with only practicing your serves on the table is that you will inevitably miss many serves, especially in the beginning. Psychologically, this will cause you to make adjustments to avoid service faults instead of finding ways to generate the heaviest spin. Focus on the point of contact and try to generate different spins with variation and deception.
When serving, you must keep the rules in mind. Over time, the official rules have evolved and professionals need to maximize their effectiveness under each ruleset. You should too!
Jan-Ove Waldner was the master of deceptive serves during the times when you could hide the point of contact. He forced his opponents to make errors and set up his vicious attacks. The rules no longer allow you to shield the serve with any part of your body, although many players still do this illegally. Keep in mind, the best point of contact for forehand serves is over your racket-hand hip and close to your body. When standing side-on to the table, people may think you are attempting to hide your serve, even if you aren’t intentionally doing so.
The rules also state that the toss must be vertical, at least 6 inches in height (roughly the height of the net), and should not impart spin (the toss, not the serve). Because of these rules, where and how you start your serve toss is very important. The toss should be practiced and perfected in order to avoid breaking the rules, especially if you intend to play in tournaments with serious umpires.
If you watch enough matches, you will probably realize that the rules are not always strictly enforced. At times, the contact point is hidden or the toss is anything but vertical. It’s up to you to use your best judgment when practicing and implementing your serves. Do you want to be known as someone who pushes the boundaries just to gain an edge on your opponents? Will you be prepared to serve strictly within the rules if you are forced to? These are things to consider when preparing yourself for competition, friendly or otherwise.
You can serve with just about any rubber. However, if you want to be able to serve with the maximum amount of spin (while still preserving the option to serve with less spin), then you need to use quality inverted rubbers with grippy surfaces. Pips-out rubbers, especially those with long pips and a thin sponge, will impart less spin on the ball. You’ll often see players who use multiple surfaces switch to their inverted rubber for the serve, before twiddling the racket back to their preferred orientation.
The great debate… Chinese or European rubbers? The struggle is real and the answer is, it depends. Some people prefer using tacky Chinese rubbers, while others prefer using European rubbers. The main advantage of tacky rubbers is that they release the ball more slowly, even when you take large cuts into the ball. Consequently, some people perceive this slower speed as increased spin and control. Serving fast and long is a bit more difficult with hard, tacky rubbers but it’s quite doable with sufficient practice.
On the other hand, European speed glue effect rubbers and their lack of tack makes it harder to serve short with fast swings. It takes a lot of practice and the server must be very precise when serving short with aggressive European rubbers. As you might expect, serving the ball fast and long is comparatively easy. Overall, the serving techniques are largely the same but the swings with a European rubber tend to be shorter whereas the swings with a Chinese rubber tend to be longer and have a thicker impact.
You’re standing there, eyeing up your opponent, now what? Serving well means keeping a few very important goals in mind.
The first and most common goal is to provoke an error from your opponent. A fast serve to an open part of the table falls into this category. Catching your opponent off-guard and scoring an outright point on your serve is a valid objective, especially at the lower and mid-levels. However, as you move up and your opponents get better, doing this successfully becomes more difficult. Experienced players will quickly read your serves and you will be at the mercy of very aggressive returns if you don’t employ varied service tactics.
The next goal is to get a desired return from your opponent that allows you to attack or play an aggressive shot that fits within your game plan. Setting up a “Third-ball attack” is an essential tool in any aggressive player’s toolbox. For example, players with a strong forehand attack often use the side spin pendulum serve from the backhand corner to set up their forehand.
The last goal is to prevent the opponent from returning the serve in ways that frustrate your gameplan. This is why you see so many short serves at the highest levels of the game. A short serve loaded with spin is difficult to attack, even for the professionals.
All three goals are linked and you need to be able to fulfill each objective. You might have a high-quality serve that can accomplish all three goals, especially #2. Ideally, you will have a mix of serves that you deploy. Your service selection should depend on each situation and the abilities of your opponent. Keep track of which serves work well against a given opponent and exploit their weaknesses without being overly predictable.
There are four key elements used to measure serve quality: height, length, spin, and deception.
For a serve to be high-quality, it has to be low (relative to the height of the net). High serves are easy to attack with power shots. The receiving player can use power flicks against short serves that bounce high. For long serves that drift off the table, the returning player can loop or smash the high serves. Low serves usually have to be returned with arcing shots, so keep your serves low! The best way to achieve this is by contacting the ball at a lower height. A rare exception to this rule would be serving with an unusually high bounce to hide the spin and increase the length of the ball’s flight path. This is a very advanced tactic, but it’s important to consider all methods of variation and deception as you develop your service game and evolve as a player.
With respect to length, the most common serve in table tennis at the professional level is the double bounce short serve. The goal of this serve is to make it hard for the opponent to attack with a full stroke, while also making it difficult to strategically place a very short return. Very short serves are easy to drop short, but if kept low, these serves prevent the opponent from attacking.
Fast long serves are also common. They are used to drive the opponent back and to guarantee that the return will be long. Lazy half-long and slow long serves are common at the amateur levels. These types of serves will get loop-killed or attacked with heavy spin at the higher levels so be very aware of your serve length, and practice until you can control it.
Spin and spin variation are extremely important for quality serving. Heavy spin limits the ways a player can return the ball. The receiving player must read the spin on the incoming ball accurately or face the consequences. The ability to serve with heavy spin, as well as vary the amount of spin, is an important element of deception. Spin variation is only truly valuable if you can first serve with heavy spin. If you can do that then imparting light spin, and even no spin, becomes an effective weapon.
Cue evil laugh (Mwahahah). Deception is what most people think about when they call someone a good server. The serves appear to be something other than what they are and they cause bad returns, leading to third ball opportunities or outright errors. There is absolutely nothing wrong if you tend to serve without deception as long as you pay close attention to the height, depth and spin of your serves. These essential qualities limit the opponent to a range of returns that you are fully prepared for. However, deception is important. This skill helps you create more problems for your opponents and will help you move up the competitive ranks.
Deception is usually with respect to spin and trajectory, although it can also relate to placement and depth. By incorporating deception, players are forced to read your serves which causes them to play less aggressively and make more errors. At the higher levels, most serves are done with some degree of sidespin combined with backspin or topspin. This makes the serve harder to read for the receiving player. Backspin is created by contacting around the bottom of the ball or by using a downward motion and topspin is achieved by doing the opposite. When combined, the side-top and side-back serves are quite effective. Players often add additional movements before and after the ball contact, to make reading the serve more difficult. Learning to serve with deception is one of the most valuable aspects of working with a good serving coach.
For the most part, in order to serve deceptively it’s very important to serve with a flexible wrist. Because of this, most forehand serving is done with a grip other than the basic shakehands grip. After serving, players quickly switch to their normal playing grip. For some players, especially those with limited practice time or mobility, it can be helpful to serve with the same grip used to play. Backhand serves are extremely popular with such players.
Speed is also an extremely important element of deception. Deceptive serving is quite similar to the sleight of hand that magicians employ when performing tricks. When the trick is done very slowly, the trick is often easier to see. When the magician does the trick at his performance speed, it looks like magic. Deceptive serving often requires practice to make the serve really fast, making it harder for the receiver to detect where and how the ball was actually contacted.
Putting it into Action
There are many different kinds of serves and the only limit to serving is the human body and your creativity. The most common serves are the backspin serve (usually combined with the no spin serve), pendulum serve, reverse pendulum serve, punch/jab/hook serve, tomahawk serve, backhand serve, reverse tomahawk serve, windshield wiper serves and just about anything that can be imagined.
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