Ping-pong beginners often concentrate on their rallying strokes (fun), and do not give much thought about their serves (boring!). In this article I’m going to explain why this is a mistake that you should avoid. I’ll also give you some theoretical and practical tips on how to improve your serving, and discuss what to do once you have mastered the serving basics. This information can be broken down into the following topics:
- Why is the Serve Important in Table Tennis?
- How to Improve Your Serve – Theoretical Advice
- How to Improve Your Serve – Practical Advice
- How to Troubleshoot Your Serve
Almost all beginners love to rally, and are willing to spend lots of time practicing their rallying strokes. After all, the rally is what ping-pong is really about, isn’t it?
Well, not quite (not even close, actually). Here are some reasons why the serve is more important in table tennis than most beginners think.
- To begin with, every rally in table tennis starts with a serve. You will be serving for half the time in singles, (and a quarter of the time in doubles matches). That’s anywhere from 16 serves in a best of 5 whitewash (11-0, 11-0, 11-0), to 50 serves in a best of 5 singles match that doesn’t have any deuce games (11-9, 11-9, 9-11, 9-11, 11-9). If you make bad mistakes with your serve 25% of the time, you will be giving your opponent a lot of free points – not a good thing!
- The serve is also the only shot in ping-pong where you have total control over the ball without any input from the other player. So it makes sense to try to use this advantage as best you can to make life harder for your opponent.
- You can use the serve to help you play more of your favorite shots during the subsequent rally, and also to prevent your opponent from using his favorite shots. If you are best at backspin strokes, using short backspin serves will allow you to play more backspin rallies. Likewise, if you are good at hitting topspin balls, you can use long or short topspin serves to help create more topspin rallies. And if you struggle with sidespin, you can avoid using sidespin in your serves, making your life easier when rallying.
- Better opponents will be able to attack your bad serves, putting you under pressure straight away. Good serving will prevent an opponent from making powerful attacks, and improve own your chances of making good attacks. This is a important factor in table tennis as your standard rises and you play tougher opponents.
- If you can serve well, you increase the pressure on your opponent, since he knows that he will not have any easy serves to hit. You will also win a few easy points each match from your opponent’s mistakes.
Now that you know why the serve is so important in table tennis, let’s look at some of the theory behind how to serve better.
- Make sure that you understand and can comply with the rules of ping-pong that cover the serve. There’s no point developing a killer serve if the umpire is simply going to fault you every time you use it!
- Remember that a fault loses the point automatically. There’s no second service rule in table tennis – once chance is all you get. So you need to do enough practice so that you can serve without faulting when the pressure is on.
- Deception is an important part of serving in table tennis. For beginners, it is easiest to start practicing deception by learning to vary the amount of spin you put on the ball. This will force your opponent to watch your serve closely so that he can judge the amount of spin on the ball when making his return. By varying between light, medium, heavy and no spin serves, you will make the return of serve more difficult for your opponent.
- Sidespin can also be used to make it harder for your opponent to read the amount of topspin or backspin on the ball. You must be careful not to use more sidespin than you are comfortable with. It is not uncommon for an opponent to return your serve without changing the amount of sidespin you have put on the ball, in which case you will then have to deal with your own sidespin!
- Don’t serve the ball where the opponent can hit it easily. Try to serve the ball so that he has to reach or move to return it, since he will find this more difficult (it’s much harder to move and hit the ball at the same time). Another good option is to serve the ball at his playing elbow (the elbow of the arm holding the bat), so that he has to decide whether to take it using his forehand or backhand side quickly, and he will also have to move to give himself room to make the stroke.
- Keep a close eye on how each opponent you face handles your serves. Try to discover what he is good at returning, and what he is relatively weak at. Then use more of the types of serves that he is having difficulty with.
- As you improve your ability to attack with topspin against all types of returns, you will find it useful to serve what is called a double bounce serve more often. A double bounce serve is performed when the ball bounces twice on your opponent’s side of the table, with the second bounce within 6 inches or so of the endline.
- When done correctly, a double bounce serve is the most difficult serve for your opponent to attack strongly, and gives you the best chance of attacking his return with a strong shot of your own. You will need to be able to attack both topspin and backspin balls, since your opponent is likely to return a double bounce serve with a flick or a push.
Now that you understand the theory involved in improving your serve, it’s time to give you some practical advice for when you get out on the table.
- A few excellent serves are better than a lot of mediocre serves. Concentrate on mastering four serves to begin with: the forehand topspin serve, the forehand backspin serve, the backhand topspin serve, and the backhand backspin serve. Keep the spin on each serve the same until you can perform each serve consistently (if you can regularly hit a piece of Letter sized paper on the first bounce on the opponent’s side of the court 8 times of of 10 (without any faults), that is pretty consistent.
- Once you have mastered these serves, begin to vary the amount of spin on the ball. Keep practicing until you can serve the basic four serves consistently with any amount of spin, from heavy to virtually no spin. Once you can do this, you will actually have added two more types of serves, the forehand no spin serve, and the backhand no spin serve. And you will have a wide range of serves available just by varying the amount of spin on your four basic serves.
- There are several ways to vary the spin on the ball, and you can use any one or combination to do so. Ways to vary the spin include:
- brushing or skimming the ball different amounts
- using more or less wrist snap
- hitting the ball down into the table at different angles (the more you hit the ball straight down on the table, the more the spin is reduced)
- using faster or slower arm speed
- using the tip of the bat (which moves faster than the rest of the bat if the wrist is snapped).
- In order to practice serving with different spins, start with one of the serves you have mastered. Try increasing the amount of spin you put on the ball by skimming the ball a little more at contact. Notice the difference in the way the ball moves – topspin should kick forward a little more than your normal serve, and the backspin ball should hold up on the table a little more. Keep increasing the spin until the ball does not bounce on the other side of the table. This is your upper limit.
- Next, try reducing the amount of spin from your normal serve. This should have the opposite effect of increasing the spin, the topspin serve will kick forward less, and the backspin serve will slow down less. Keep reducing the spin until you can see the marking on the ball is not moving much when you serve. This is your no spin serve, and your bottom limit.
- Now, as mentioned earlier, try aiming at the piece of paper on the table again for each type of serve, but vary the amount of spin on the ball. Keep practicing until you can vary the spin but still hit the piece of paper 8 times out of 10 attempts (with no faults). When you have achieved this, you will have mastered the basic serves you need to play table tennis well.
- The above suggestions sound simple, but what do you do when your serve isn’t working as well as it should? When it’s going too high or low, too long, without enough spin or with no deception. That’s when you start troubleshooting your serve.
During your table tennis career, despite all the theory about serving you have learnt and the serving practice you have done, there are going to be times when your serve is not working as well as it should, and your opponents will be hitting winners left and right. Rather than giving up and going home, here is some advice that will help you get your service back on track fast.
Learn to improve your serves by taking note of the result of each serve, and then adjusting your service motion accordingly. I would recommend trying to change only one thing at a time, to make it easier to see whether your change was successful. If you change several things at once, it can be hard to know which changes are working and which aren’t.
What to Do When Your Serve is:
A common problem for beginners is serving the ball with too much bounce, so that their opponent can easily attack the ball. The opposite problem, serving so that the ball does not clear the net, is also common.
If your serves are bouncing too high and being attacked by your opponent, you could try any or all of the following to make your serves bounce lower.
- Throw the ball a little lower. The higher you throw the ball, the more speed it has when coming down. This extra speed at contact can often make the ball bounce higher.
- Make contact with the ball at a height closer to the height of the net. If you make contact with the ball way above net height, you will tend to get a ball that bounces very high.
- Hit the ball a little more horizontally, instead of up or down. Hitting the ball up will cause the ball to rise in the air more, making it bounce higher. Hitting the ball down will propel the ball into the table with extra speed, also making it bounce higher. Hitting the ball more horizontally will allow the ball to fall on the table with less vertical speed, reducing the amount of vertical bounce.
- You can also reverse these ideas to get more bounce if your service is bouncing too low and hitting the net.
Another common problem at all levels is serving the ball too long, so that the opponent can easily attack it.
If your serves are going too long and being attacked strongly by your opponent, there are several ways that you can make your serves shorter (remember, a double bounce serve is ideal) and more difficult to attack. Let’s have a look at them.
- Increase the amount of sidespin that you are putting on the ball. More sidespin will make the ball curve more, causing it to be able to travel more and drop further while still remaining short.
- Serve using the diagonals of the table. The table is only 9 feet (2.74m) long from end to end. But on the diagonal it is about 10.3 feet (3.14 m) long . That’s a lot of extra table to work with!
- Decrease the amount of speed that you are putting on the ball. This could be done by: (a) slowing down the speed of your swing/and or wrist snap; (b) swinging in a motion that is more parallel to your own endline, instead of forwards towards your opponent’s endline.
There is no doubt that being able to put spin on the ball when serving is important. After all, if you can’t put much spin on the ball, you can’t vary your spin very much either, can you?
If you are not getting as much spin as you would like on your serve, you have many options to increase the spin you are generating. Here is a number of them.
- Make sure that you are skimming the edge of the ball, rather than hitting towards the center of the ball. The closer to the edge contact is made, the more spin you will generate.
- Increase the amount of wrist snap or arm speed that you are using.
- Use the tip of the bat to make contact with the ball, since the tip moves faster when the wrist is snapped.
- Use a little extra height on your ball toss. The extra speed of the ball will be partly converted into extra spin as well as speed if you hit the ball with some brushing action.
- Avoid hitting the ball down into the table – this tends to kill some of the spin (which is actually quite nifty for producing a low spin ball that looks spinny!).
If you are having trouble deceiving your opponent about the amount of spin on your serve, remember that you have many factors under your control that can affect the spin you produce. Different combinations of these factors can help produce subtle variations of spin that are not easy for an opponent to read. These factors include the following items.
- Service motion – the speed, height, and direction of your swing can all be varied.
- Wrist snap – the wrist can be used to any degree you like, from a heavy snap to no snap at all. Making contact at the beginning or end of the wrist snap, when the bat is moving more slowly, can also affect the spin.
- Height of the ball toss – the higher the toss, the more potential for spin.
- Direction the ball is hit – hitting down into the table will tend to kill the spin.
- Amount of brushing vs. solid contact – an almost infinite amount of variations of brushing contact can be made, producing many different amounts of spin.
- Adding sidespin – the addition of sidespin adds extra complexity to the path and bounce of the ball, and makes it harder for the opponent to read the amount of backspin or topspin on the ball. It also means that you can produce a serve that obviously has heavy spin, but your opponent will have to determine what proportion of sidespin vs. topspin or backspin is on the ball.
- Changing the speed of the serve – faster serves tend to curve less and deviate less when bouncing than slower serves. So you can actually get quite different serves with the same amount of spin just by changing the speed. Not exactly a deception in spin, but still effective!
Once you have mastered the 4 basic serves, along with the no spin variations, and can troubleshoot them when necessary, you will be ready to begin working on your advanced serving techniques. These include the use of the forehand pendulum serve, and the forehand reverse pendulum serve, (currently the most popular serves in advanced table tennis) and other less used variations. These serves and their use will be the subject of attention in the advanced section of this site.
Next: It’s always great to have good serves, but don’t forget your opponent will probably have some too! With that in mind, it’s time to take a detailed look at improving your return of service in ping-pong.