Table Tennis backhand serve
Using your service to win games
by Greg Letts - an Australian state coach, an International Umpire and one of the top ranked players in his country.
Ask just about any high level player what the most important shot in table tennis is, and the chances are pretty good that he'll reply - the serve.
But on the whole, the serve is a much neglected part of lower level players, who prefer to practice their rallying skills when training, and like to talk about the best technique for a forehand loop. In this series of articles I'm going to redress that balance a little, as I concentrate on that oft-underrated stroke - the serve. After all - every point has one!
I'm going to start in this article by discussing some general aspects that apply to all types of serves. In later articles in the series we will examine particular serves in more detail, such as the Forehand Pendulum serve, the Backhand backspin/sidespin serve, etc.
Now, for those of you who like to know why, away we go...
Why is the Serve important?
What is it about the serve that makes it such an important stroke? Reasons include:
- Control - it is the only stroke that you make where you have total control of the ball, without any interference or influence from the opponent. As such you should be able to do exactly what you want with the ball.
- Frequency - as I mentioned in jest above, every point starts with a serve. And considering that the average rally length at higher levels is often only 3-5 strokes, that means the serve makes up a pretty high proportion of shots played during a match.
- Setup - good use of serves can strongly influence the stroke played by the receiver, allowing a good server to predict the return and play more of his favourite third and fifth ball patterns.
- Pressure - a player who knows his opponent has better serves than he does will feel under pressure right from the start of the rally. Conversely, a player with better serves than his opponent will usually feel a bit more relaxed, knowing that he has an important edge every time he gets the serve.
- Knowledge - the better you are at serving yourself, the more you understand about how certain serves work, and the best ways to identify them and return them.
What makes a good serve?
This is a trickier question to answer, because what could be a good serve under one set of circumstances could be a bad serve under another. So instead of giving a hard and fast definition of a good serve, I'll discuss several of the factors involved in serving, which work together in different amounts to make a serve good or bad depending on the situation.
The concept of frequently using a double-bounce serve (where the ball would bounce twice on the opponent's side if left alone) is one of the most important in serving. Watch videos of the pros and notice just how often they are trying to do this on their own serves. Bear in mind that the second bounce should be somewhere close to within six inches of the end line - shorter serves or more bounces are not better! Reasons for the popularity of this serve include:
A Typical Double-bounce Serve
- It's difficult to attack with a powerful return. Because the ball is not going over the end of the table, it is hard for the opponent to use his natural loop stroke to attack. At best he may be able to use a modified stroke that barely brushes the ball in order to topspin, but this will have a lot less power than a normal loop. More often, he will be forced to push or flick the return from over the table. Which brings us to point 2.
- Because most of your opponent's returns are made from over the table, the double-bounce serve makes him perform it from as far away from the net as possible. This has the effect of:
(a) increasing the time you have to recover from your serve and react to his return;
(b) maximising the distance he has to play the ball to get it over the net, making it more difficult for him to drop the ball short (ie double-bounce the return). This increases your chances of getting a return that goes over your endline, making it easier for you to use your normal attack stroke;
(c) because it is deep, it cuts down the amount of angle your opponent can use, effectively making your next attack easier;
(d) any mistake made by your opponent in reading the spin is magnified by the extra distance the ball has to travel. A mistake that would be insignificant when made from a distance of six inches (15cm) from the net can be a return that goes into the net or high into the air when made from over a metre away (remember, each half of the table tennis table is 1.37m long).
These are serves that bounce once on the opponent's side of the table, typically within six inches or so of his endline. The emphasis is on surprise and speed to force weaker returns from opponents, which can then be counterattacked. If your opponent is not caught off-guard, you may be getting a very strong attack coming back at you, so use with care!