By Larry Hodges
One of the most fundamental rules of serving is that you have to be able to serve short. A deep serve may be effective against some players, and up to a certain level, it may always be, but if you cannot serve short, you will always be handicapped against most good players.
A short serve is a serve that, if allowed, would bounce twice on the far side of the table. Because of this, a short serve cannot be looped like a deep serve because the table is in the way. This forces the receiver to reach over the table to return the serve, which can be awkward, especially on the forehand side. Even a chopper has more trouble, because he can’t dig into the serve with the table in the way. The chopper’s return will have far less backspin than off a deep serve.
There are many types of short serves, with advantages and disadvantages to each. You can serve very short so that the ball bounces very close to the net. You can serve a short serve so that its second bounce would be near the endline. You can serve sidespin, spinning either right or left, combined with topspin or chop, or else a pure topspin or chop serve. You can serve to the wide angles, to the middle, or anywhere in between. There are endless varieties and you should be able to use most of them.
To serve short takes good touch. Try serving short with your most comfortable service motion which is probably your backhand.
Get a bucket of balls or as many as you can and practice alone on a table. If you point the table into a corner, the balls will mostly stay in one spot, so you can practice without long breaks to collect the balls. Practice this until you can control the ball’s bounce and placement.
Start off by serving chop by brushing the BOTTOM of the ball with and open racket. Try to make the ball barely clear the net. It should bounce close to the net both on your side and your opponent’s side. If you do it softly enough, it should bounce several times on the other side. Contact the ball just above the table level so that it will bounce lower.
As you learn to control the short chop serve, try putting sidespin on it by brushing the ball from side to side. Experiment until it feels right. Then practice it.
When you can do a short sidespin chop serve, you’re ready to try a short topspin serve. This time contact the ball with your racket going sideways and UP simultaneously. This action will make the ball pop up and go deep at first, but practice will give you control. Remember to keep the ball low to the net (on ALL serves) and don’t be afraid to experiment until feels and looks right. Practice until you can put maximum spin on all types of serves and still keep them low and short.
Generally, all short serves can be classified as either chop or side-top. A sidespin can be treated as a topspin once you get used to it so unless the serve has chop, it is considered a side-top serve.
The advantage of the short chop serve is that it is hard to attack. The disadvantage is that it can be pushed back heavy or short and is easier to return safely. The advantage of a short side-top serve is that it is awkward returning it, especially on the forehand and many times is pushed off the end or simply popped up. The disadvantage is that it is easier to attack than a short chop serve. But even if it is attacked, the return of a short side-top serve is easier to deal with because it will probably go deep. Consequently, you don’t have to worry so much about the return being short.
You will have to decide which types of spins work best for you. For example, if you like to loop pushes, serve mostly chop. You will find that certain spin work best against certain players. Another fact to keep in mind is that it is harder to return a sidespin serve spinning away from you rather than one spinning towards you. For example, a righty’s backhand serve is usually more effective to another righty’s forehand. Try it out; you’ll see.
By serving wide to one side, you make your opponent reach over the table even more but you will also be providing him with the opportunity to hit an extreme angle against you. It is often best to serve to the middle and force the opponent to move both sideways and in, while also taking away the extreme angle. Again, this depends on the opponent.
A short serve can be effective even if done over and over as long as you vary the spin. U.S. Champion Danny Seemiller often serves the same short backhand serve with different spins. He knows that the returns will be predictable and that he will be able to follow them up with his loop. But for most players, a short serve is most effective when used in conjunction with an occasional fast deep serve.
Finally, you should watch the good players whenever possible and copy their serves. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – most players are glad to give you a lecture on their favorite serve.
Placement is extremely important. A very short serve can be awkward to receive, but can be returned at an extreme angle. See what gives your opponent the most trouble, that is, which side of the table bothers him the most or what depth of serve troubles him. A very short serve brings your opponent over the table and leaves him vulnerable to a deep return.
Most importantly though, get out that bucket of balls and start practicing!