Rocky Dotzler writes:
I’d like your opinion on serve strategy, but first my style as I see it. I am a left hander who stands close to the table with decent reflexes and speed. I play a pure power game, relying mostly on a loop drive versus both topspin and backspin to win points outright. My question is:
1) What type of serve would you use to generate the most favorable return for a 3rd ball attack? Also, if during a point a 3rd ball attack is not feasible, how would you play the point to attack the 5th ball? Since most of the people I play are right handed, and I am left handed, how does that change–if any– where I stand, what part of the table I serve to, and the length of serve for the 3rd ball, and my positioning, type of return, and to what location for the 5th ball.
Your help is appreciated. Thanks for a great site.
That’s all one question?! Where do I start? Well, I’m going to need to make some assumptions about what your best shots are. Assuming you are a typical lefty, I’m going to answer from the point of view that your best shot is the forehand loop played from the backhand side of the table. If the reality is different please let me know and we’ll have a look at your specific situation.
With that out of the way, let’s get down to the nitty gritty. Is there any differences in your serving strategy when compared to a right hander? In my opinion, the answer is a definite yes. Let’s start with the type of serve.
What should be your bread and butter serves? You should be choosing serves that will allow you to get your best stroke in as often as you can. In your case, you want serves that will help force your opponent to play down his left hand side of the table, towards your backhand, so you can use your powerful forehand loop from the backhand side.
- Forehand Pendulum Double Bounce ServeThe weapon of choice. The sidespin generated on this serve will help get more returns to your backhand side. Be careful with the placement though – go down the line to the backhand of the opponent and you could be faced with a highly angled return to your wide forehand instead. So stick to the middle and forehand side of the table to encourage the opponent to go back to your backhand – he’ll be hesitant to put the return straight down his right hand line into what he perceives as the danger zone for your forehand.
- Backhand Tomahawk Double Bounce ServeKong Linghui has an excellent version of this serve – it’s basically the same principle as the forehand version of the tomahawk, but done from the backhand side to get the sidespin that will kick the ball back to your backhand. It’s tough to get the heavy topspin version going, but backspin/sidespin of varying degrees can be used quite easily with a bit of practice. Again, go more often to the middle and forehand of your opponent.
Use your other serve variations to keep your opponent on his toes and as uncomfortable as possible. Mixing in the occasional forehand reverse pendulum serve and looking to force a wide return to your forehand that you are expecting and put away will help make the main pattern of forcing returns to your backhand work that much better. Serving the same serve over and over again will reduce the effectiveness of your pattern.
Third Ball Attacks – The Magic 5 Criteria
In order to make your best third ball attacks, you want serves that can get your opponent to return balls that meet as many of the following categories as you can:
- High – well above the net, so you can hit the ball down towards your opponent’s side.
- Mid-table – bouncing only once on the table, not too short or too deep.
- Slow – so that you have plenty of time to execute your powerful swing.
- Less spinny and with obvious spin – so that it is easier for you to hit.
- Easy to pick the direction – so you don’t get caught going the wrong way.
Some of these points will be more important to you than others, and this will influence the type of serves you will use to set up good third ball attacks.
For example, let’s imagine that you have fast footwork and a quick swing with good recovery, but are not so strong at reading spin variation or hitting backspin balls.
You want serves that will encourage your opponent to flip, topspin, or float the ball to you, rather than backspin it. You may also want to cut down the amount of spin on your serve, so that it is easier to decide how much spin your opponent has put on the ball. (The more you spin it, the harder it is to determine how much the opponent has affected the spin – you have to take into account the spin you put on the ball as well.)
You have good speed and a quick swing, so forcing the opponent to hit in a certain direction is not as important. You also have a quick swing, so you should be quite happy to allow the opponent to hit drives or less powerful loops at you, since you are confident you can move and swing fast enough to attack these aggressively.
So the recommended options for serves that will help you in generating third ball attacks in this particular case are:
- Both short and long serves, with less spin variation, and mainly sidespin or sidespin and topspin. The use of sidespin mixed with varying amounts of topspin should also help to induce higher returns from the opponent, which are easier to third ball.
- The shorter serves could be served slightly higher than normal to encourage your opponent to flip and make it more difficult to push it back tight.
- The longer serves should use variation of pace and placement over the whole table to help prevent the opponent hitting too powerful an attack, although you don’t mind where he hits it.
- Backspin serves should be used occasionally to keep your opponent on his toes, but always with some sidespin to make reading harder for the opponent. Combine this with disguised float serves or pure sidespin serves that look like they have some backspin, and you should be able to force a few more ‘pop-up’ returns that can be third balled.
- Heavy backspin balls should be avoided unless they can be disguised well, as otherwise they encourage your opponent to push short returns which may be more difficult to third ball.
Fifth Ball Attacks – Not Just for When the Third Ball Fails
Fifth ball attacks can be arrived at via two different ways.
- The first is when you have been looking for a third ball attack, but have been unable to make a good third ball attack. So instead, you quickly change tactics and use your third ball to try to set up a fifth ball attack.
- The second way is when you have planned for a fifth ball attack all along. The serve and third ball were carefully chosen to set up a powerful fifth ball.
Both approaches are valid ways to get a fifth ball, with the main difference being that a planned fifth ball should allow you to make a slightly stronger attack than a fifth ball after a failed third ball. The reasoning here is that because you have been intending to fifth ball attack all along, your serve and third ball should be prepared in advance according to a set pattern that you want to play, and if it all goes smoothly, a good fifth ball attack should follow.
In both cases, you want a fourth ball return from your opponent that meets as many of the Magic 5 Criteria for third ball attacks mentioned on the previous page.
Planned Fifth Ball Attacks
A planned fifth ball attack should involve a sequence of shots selected to maximize your strengths and take advantage of your opponent’s weaknesses. Some examples include:
- If your opponent has slow footwork, a weak backhand, and only an average short game, a good sequence would be to serve short, flick or quick push his return out wide to the opponent’s forehand side, then fifth ball attack to his weak backhand.
- If your opponent has a good short game but lacks a good block, serve long to the point of indecision to allow your opponent to attack (but not powerfully), then counterdrive or counterloop his return to the wide backhand or forehand, going for placement rather than power. His hopefully weak return can then be powerfully fifth ball attacked.
- If your opponent has a good fast push, serve double bounce serves to the sides of the table to try to force play cross court, then be ready to heavily spin the third ball, looking to hit a powerful fifth ball from your opponent’s block which hopefully should go higher due to your heavy spin.
Unplanned Fifth Ball Attacks
A short service return that was too low, spinny, or well placed to be powerfully attacked can still be played by you to force a fourth ball return that meets as many of the 5 criteria for setting up third ball attacks as you can. For example:
- A good drop shot push by your opponent could be flicked by you into his playing elbow, allowing you opponent to topspin but hopefully without any power, so you can aggressively reloop his weak fourth ball.
- A looped service return by your opponent could be angle blocked away from him, forcing him to move and hit his fourth ball, which again could be relooped on your fifth ball for a winner.
- A fast deep push serve return could be looped by you with heavy spin to his wide backhand side, forcing him to move and block, and hopefully causing the return to come slow, higher above the net, and long enough to make a strong fifth ball smash or power loop.
As you can see, the overall patterns are generally the same. The difficulty lies in being able to change your plans quickly, and discard the third ball attack for a fifth ball attack instead.
Going to Plan B
The best of both worlds is attempting to third ball, but having a backup plan in case the third ball fails. This is not always easy to do, but is possible. This is where the use of patterns when training can help you react faster to the situation.
For example, in training you serve a forehand double-bounce serve, which can be flicked, drop-shotted or pushed fast and deep by your partner. The flick return, and any poor drop shots or fast pushes should be third balled. Good drop shots should be flicked or pushed by you to set up a fifth ball, while good fast pushes should be relooped with heavy spin to force a block return that is high and can be fifth balled.
Intensive practice of this pattern should help you develop the ability to plan a third ball attack, execute it well if all goes smoothly, or change plans to go for a fifth ball attack if necessary. Difficult? Well, yes it is, but these are the sorts of things that the best players are capable of doing. If you want to keep up with the best, you had better be able to do it too.
Some Thoughts on Positioning
As asked originally, will being left handed have any effect on positioning during the rally? Well, as I often like to answer, the answer is both yes and no.
- Yes – because being left handed means that you will stand at the other side of the table to where a right hander would stand;
- No – because regardless of whether you are a left hander or right hander, you should always try to be central to the line of play, allowing for the fact that your reach is better on the forehand than the backhand.
So, in reality, the principle of where to stand doesn’t change, but being left handed makes the ideal place for a left hander different to that of a right hander.
That’s probably more of an answer than what you had in mind – that’s what happens when I get started! Anyway, I hope this is of help, and if anybody has anything else that they would like to add, please feel free to add your comments below.