Practicing Serves the Productive Way

It's almost a cliché. I hand someone a box of balls to practice their serves. They grab a ball and serve, grab a ball and serve, grab a ball and serve, and so on, all done with the speed and thoughtfulness of firing a machine gun. Then they wonder why their serves aren't any good.

There's a lot more to developing great serves than rapid-fire serve practice, where the goal seems to be to empty the box of balls as rapidly as possible. So what should you do differently?

First and foremost, learn the proper way to execute great serves. You can do this by watching players with great serves, or a coach or top player can show you. It's pointless to practice your serves if you don't know how to do them properly.

Once you have at least some idea of what you need to practice, get that box of balls and go to the table. It's generally best done alone; having someone return your serve can be a distraction, especially when you are learning a new serve. (But sometimes you want someone to return your serves, so you can get feedback, and to see how much difficulty they have.)

Grab a ball and get ready to start. You might want to first hold a ball in your fingers (tightly) and practice the actual contact you are going to make with the ball. (But don't rub the sponge into the held ball too hard or you'll damage your sponge.)

Now go into your serving position, and come to a complete stop. The rules actually state that you must start the serve with the ball resting freely on the palm of your stationary free hand--but there's a more important reason to do this than complying with the rules.

This is where you visualize the serve in your head. Don't just grab a ball and mechanically serve it; from now on, never serve a ball without first seeing it done exactly as you want it done, in your head. This is what the top players do. Visualization is one of the best tools in sports, and for serving, it's especially good since there are no outside influences--it's just you and the ball. In your head, see how you swing at the ball, the contact, and the entire trajectory of the serve as you want it.

After you've visualized the serve in your head, go ahead and serve. Don't try to guide it; let the subconscious take over. (You should do this for all table tennis shots.) Let go; you're just an observer. Watch the ball as it leaves your racket. Did it bounce on each side of the table at the spot as you visualized? Did it bounce low to the net as you visualized? Did it go at the speed you visualized? Did it have the spin you visualized? Did it go short or long as you visualized? Am I emphasizing the word visualize enough for you to make clear its importance?

Now visualize the next serve, making corrections for what went wrong in the previous one, and emphasizing the aspects that went right. You are now well on your way to developing great serves. You should also be tired and sweaty pretty soon--serving is a very physical motion. You can't make the ball spin at extremely high speeds if you can't get your racket moving at extremely high speeds, like a whip.

Does any of this sound boring? It shouldn't. If you just grab a ball and serve, grab a ball and serve, grab a ball and serve, that's like working an assembly line at a factory. That's boring. But serving is the trick part of table tennis, and practicing your serves, and all the tricky, deceptive things you can do with them, while revving up and varying the spin, is like practicing a magic trick. That's not boring, and neither should practicing serves. 

Serving Short with Spin

Many players face a devastating choice: Should you serve with lots of spin, with the serve going long and allowing the opponent to loop, or should you sacrifice spin, even serving with no spin, so you can keep the serve short? Actually, you can do both. In fact, the spinnier the serve, the easier it is to keep short.

Nearly every coach will tell you to first learn to serve with great spin. Holding back on the spin so you can serve short is a good way to develop a bad habit. When you can get great spin on the ball, then you learn to serve short - but this happens automatically. To get maximum spin, you barely graze the ball. Nearly all of your energy from your arm and wrist goes into spin. When that happens, the ball barely comes off the racket - and so it is easy to keep the ball short. Those who have difficulty serving short with spin are having trouble mostly because they are not grazing the ball finely enough - and so the solution isn't to serve with less spin; it's to serve with more spin by grazing the ball more.

The other reason a spinny serve might go long is the contact point is too high. Once you are grazing the ball very finely, you need to learn to serve it low with a low contact point, and learn where to bounce it on each side of the table for varying depths.

The ideal spin serve will, if given the chance, bounce twice on the opponent's side of the table, with the second bounce as close to the endline as possible. Sometimes a super-short serve is effective (which might bounce three or more times on the opponent's side, given the chance), as it forces the opponent to reach well over the table, but super-short serves are also easier to flip, push short, or quick-push at an angle. Many players use "tweeny" serves, where the second bounce is right around the endline, and the receiver is never quite sure if it will come off the end or not.

Once you have a true spin serve that you can serve short, that's when I'd recommend adding no-spin serves as a variation, and focusing on keeping this and the spin serves very low, with the second bounce near the endline. Serving no-spin when there's little threat of spin isn't as effective after the first few times. No-spin becomes far more effective when it can be done with a spin motion, when there's a threat of spin. (How do you serve no-spin with a spin motion? Several ways, but primarily by contacting the ball near the handle, where the racket travels slowly even in a vigorous serve.) A no-spin serve with a vigorous motion is called "heavy no-spin." Seriously!

It's easier to serve short backspin or no-spin than to serve short sidespin or topspin, or various combinations of these two. So many players fall into the habit of serving just backspin or no-spin when they want to serve short. This greatly limits their options, and makes things a lot easier for the opponent. Well-disguised backspin and no-spin serves are effective, but they are often even more effective if you can throw sidespin and topspin serves into the mix.

At the beginning/intermediate level, some coaches (including me) will recommend a player who has difficulty serving short with spin to add a simple short backspin serve, with the focus on keeping the ball low with as much backspin as possible while still keeping the ball short. This simple backspin serve should be a temporary serve, used only so the player doesn't spend all his time serve & blocking. (Also, since most players will push it back long, you get to practice your serve and loop a lot.)  Roughly speaking, by the time a player is 1800, a well-coached player should be able to serve with good spin and keep it short. By the time he's 2000, he should have varied spin serves that go short. By the time he's 2200 he should have varied and deceptive serves that go short. (He should also be able to do all this with long serves.)

But you don't have to wait until you're 1800, or 2000, or 2200 to do these things. There are many examples of players who really worked at their serves early on (both short and long), and were able to compete with "stronger" players because of this - and because of that stronger competition, they improved faster. Why not you?

Hardbat Serving Tips

By Larry Hodges

During the hardbat era, serving was generally not a major weapon. Service technique simply had not been developed to the degree that it has in the sponge game. This makes sense, since you can’t get as much spin with a hardbat, and so you are more limited in what you can do. However, in the sponge era, service techniques have reached an extremely high level, and these techniques are only now beginning to spread to the hardbat game.

First, a reality check. Unlike the sponge game, you aren’t going to dominate with your serve against players your own level. However, you can use modern serve techniques to both take the initiative when serving against your peers, and to dominate against many weaker players, thereby avoiding upsets.

It’s assumed, for this article, that you know how to serve with spin, and have some knowledge of modern serve techniques. If you don’t … well, you can always emulate the great hardbat masters, and serve just to get the ball in play! However, if you want to use your serve to take the initiative against your peers, and dominate against weaker players, learn some modern serving techniques, and then follow these tips.

Contact: with sponge, the key to spin is to just graze the ball with a grippy surface, knowing that the surface will grab the ball. If you use the same technique with a hardbat, the ball will slide some, and you’ll get less spin. With a hardbat, you need to contact the ball with the racket moving slower – and then accelerate through the ball. It helps to slightly push the rubber into the ball to lengthen contact and increase grippiness so you can maximize the spin.

Spin vs. Deception: Since you really can’t get nearly as much spin with a hardbat as with sponge, it is often more important to be deceptive than to go for pure spin. Right at contact, change directions, so the opponent has trouble figuring, for example, if you are serving light sidespin-backspin or light sidespin-topspin. Hardbat is a game of precision, and it only takes a little to throw the opponent off enough to force a slightly high ball to attack and take the initiative.

Height: Many sponge players have lost the art of flipping short balls, since inverted is not the best surface for doing that. However, hardbat is the best surface for doing this. Therefore, it is extremely important to serve low in hardbat. To do so, contact the ball low to the table. If you contact the ball too high, the ball will bounce high. Many players serve too high and don’t realize it until they find their serve getting attacked in a tournament.

Depth: Very short, low serves are very effective, both with spin and with no-spin, with a fake spin motion. However, many players find fast & deep serves even more effective, especially if mixed in with short ones. Some players can go after fast & deep serves, but not most. By serving deep, you have more time to see the incoming ball, more time to react, and there will be less angle on the return. Plus, you don’t have to worry about inverted loops! By serving fast, you rush the opponent, and force him to return with his weaker side if you choose. Be ready to follow a fast & deep serve with a strong drive or smash.

Look for Weaknesses: In sponge, you can cover for a weakness with other shots. It’s harder to do that in hardbat, which by its very nature forces longer rallies, allowing you to probe for and find opponent’s weaknesses. The same is true of serve return. Most players have at least one type of serve that they aren’t particularly comfortable returning (as well as at least one that they are very comfortable against!), so find what serves give your opponent trouble – and find it as early in the match as possible.

Choppers: Choppers often make the mistake of just serving to get the ball in play. That’s throwing away an advantage. Instead, put pressure on your opponent with tricky serves, and never let him know if you are going to chop or attack. If you can’t react or move fast enough to be able to choose between attacking or chopping depending on the return, decide before serving, and be decisive for that one shot. (Then fall back and chop if you don’t see a quick putaway.)

What To Do With Problem Serves

By Larry Hodges

Everybody has at least one serve that gives them trouble. It might be a certain sidespin, or a deep serve, a short serve, a no-spin serve, an angled serve, etc. The question is what to do against these problem serves?

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