The Serve: How to Master the Most Important Shot in Table tennis
Table tennis is a game that encompasses a strategy that surrounds keeping your opponent off balance.
The serve is the most effective way to keep your opponent guessing and hitting less effective shots that put you in the driver’s seat straight away to put the next shot away.
The Table tennis serve grip
A proper discussion of the table tennis serve, must first begin with the proper grip. While there are varying grips being used, the handshake grip is the most widely used for table tennis and the one I’ll discuss here.
To form the handshake grip, put your hand in a handshake formation and place the top of the handle of the racket in the web of your hand.
Wrap your thumb and second through fourth fingers around the top of the handle, squeezing it, while leaving your pointer finger out.
Your thumb will overlap the bottom of the face on your forehand side.
Extend your pointer finger horizontally across the base of the racket face on the back side.
This grip gives you the advantage of quick maneuvering and is the best grip for transitioning from a backspin serve to a well-balanced power shot grip.
Why is the Serve in table tennis so Important?
The table tennis serve is the only part of the game where you are in complete control.
The timing, spin, speed, and placement are all under your control when you set up to serve. Should you go low and slow or deep and fast? Therein lies the strategy and psychology of the game.
Before even starting the table tennis match, if you know the strengths and weaknesses of your opponent, you can plan on how to use the best serve to put yourself at a quick advantage.
Before each serve, you can read your opponent’s mannerisms and position to determine where to place the ball.
The bottom line is that having a terrific serve puts you at an advantage every time against any opponent.
What Makes a Good Table Tennis Serve?
As I said before, there are 4 elements to a serve: timing, spin, speed, and control. Let’s look at them individually
Timing on the table tennis serve
There are basically two ways of tossing the ball up before striking your serve, short toss and high toss.
All tosses are straight upward with the short toss being 6 inches above the racket and long toss being 2 feet above the racket.
Short tosses are used for backspin and sidespin serves while high tosses are used for fast, topspin serves.
Mixing these variations as well as using an element of surprise on your short tosses is the easiest way to keep your opponent guessing as to what’s coming their way.
Another way to catch your opponent sleeping on his feet is to use your body to throw him off.
Wiggling your hips back and forth makes them unsure when you are going to toss that ball for a quick, slow serve.
You can also flip your racket back and forth so they can’t be sure if you’re going for a backspin or sidespin serve.
Spin on the serve
There are 3 main versions of spin in a ping pong shot. Topspin, sidespin, and backspin. A shot can also mix two of these to create a side/topspin or side/backspin.
A topspin serve will strike the top of the ball and a backspin serve will hit the bottom.
A sidespin serve will be hit in the middle of the ball with a side-sweeping backhand motion of the racket.
Remember that a relaxed hand and wrist are the key to maximizing spin. If you’re having trouble with this, take a deep breath and shake it out before you serve or after a spirited rally.
Backspin table tennis Serve
These serves will be slower and must be kept low to avoid putting your opponent into a position to hit an aggressive, fast shot and put you away on the return.
The intention with this shot is to either have it bounce twice on your opponent’s side or to get them to hit a weak return shot that you can use to do a quick put away shot.
Sidespin table tennis Serve
This is another slow, short toss serve. This is the only serve done backhand, so you’ll have to have quick hands and good racket skills to pull it off effectively.
You’ll remove your pointer finger from the face of the racket and place it in a grip with the others when doing this serve.
After the serve is hit, you must be able to quickly transition back into the handshake grip to prepare for a power kill shot on your second hit.
The technique here is all about placement. You want to get your opponent’s racket out of the sweet spot, where he has more power.
An effective sidespin shot will put your opponent’s arm either over or under-extended.
You can place a sidespin serve toward the outside line with spin causing to travel away from the opponent or near the middle of the table curving toward their body or backhand.
The trick is to keep your opponent guessing whether you are sending him a backspin or sidespin serve and where you will place it.
Topspin table tennis Serve
The third spin, topspin, is used with the high toss. This is an attacking serve and hopefully puts your opponent on his heels.
If his center of gravity is moving backward, it is more difficult for him to make an effective return.
Placement is also key as a poorly placed topspin serve will open you up to a smashed return shot that will turn the tables and put you on your heels.
The best-case scenario is that you fool your opponent and cause him to whiff entirely on this serve.
Once you’ve mastered the three principle spins, you can turn it up a notch by adding some sidespin to your topspin or backspin serve to further confuse your opponent.
Speed on the table tennis serve
There are basically just two speeds in ping pong. Very fast and very slow. The trick is to keep your opponent off balance and guessing.
A big windup fake with a slow backspin shot or a surprise, lightning-fast forehand are great ways to trick your opponent.
It’s important to vary the speed of your serves even if one of your serves is drastically better than the others.
Again, read your opponent. If you’ve just finished a long rally with a lot of hard, fast shots, maybe throw in a slow and low serve to catch him on an adrenaline rush and force him to overreact.
A serve at mid-range speed is an invitation to take a hard smash to your noggin. Practice your serves until you have mastered the art of changing speeds effectively.
Placement on the table tennis serve
Slow serves must be kept low, as close to the top of the net as possible. You want to force a backspin serve to be addressed by your opponent shifting his weight forward.
This puts him at a disadvantage and unable to get any power on his shot. Same goes for the sidespin serve.
If you place this serve too far back on the table, your foe will have time to move into a position of power for a devastating return shot.
A fast, topspin serve is best placed at the back of the table. This way your mate will be forced to hit the ball on a short hop or back up and hit it from his heels.
Neither of these positions is advantageous and will make the return shot one that will give you the upper hand.
Table tennis serve rules
Remember that the rules state that your opponent must always be able to see the ball. This means it must be visible before the toss and you must not obstruct view during the toss or serve with your racket or free arm.
You can make sure you’re not doing this by simulating your serves in front of a mirror or shooting a video of yourself during practice. After your toss, make sure to get your free arm out of the picture to avoid obstructing view of the ball.
The ball must be kept behind the edge of the table at the beginning of your serve. You are also required to keep the ball above the table at all times.
Your hand or racket may cross over the table and you may also hide your racket below the table or behind your back to disguise your grip.
You must toss the ball at least 6 inches high on all serves and it cannot be tossed sideways, frontwards, or backwards. You also may not drop the ball from six inches high.
When practicing, find a tall glass or an object 6 inches high and place it near where you are serving so you can ensure you’re meeting this requirement.
It is necessary that you hit the ball on its downward drop. You can hit it at any point in the fall but not while it is still rising.
The ball must bounce once and only once on your side of the table before crossing the net.
When playing singles, you may hit the ball anywhere on your side and anywhere on your opponent’s side of the table. When playing doubles however, you must hit to the side diagonal of you.
The Return Shot
After your serve, you must be quick to get in a position for a put away on your opponent’s return shot.
If you’ve put them at the edges of the table, center yourself around the middle line and prepare to put your next shot on the opposite side.
If you’ve placed your serve in the middle of the table, you must read your opponent and cheat toward whichever side he’s favoring.
Remember, your serve leads your follow up shot. Before you even hit your serve, you should be thinking about your next move. Quick, planned positioning is the key to winning the point on the third shot.
Practice, Practice, Practice
There are many techniques involved with great serving.
You must have an effective toss to begin with. If your toss is not straight or the height is not right, your serving will suffer.
Practice tossing until you master the height and placement of your toss. This is a great warm up before your match begins.
To practice your spin technique, you’ll need a bowlful of balls and a friend. Have someone catch the balls and collect them or else you be chasing them down instead of practicing.
You’ll want to combine this drill with placement but practice placing each of the spins in different locations repeatedly until you feel like you have a consistent approach.
Placement practice is as easy as placing an empty bowl on the opposite side of the table.
Put your bowl where you want to hit your serve and hit several dozen serves, one after the other, until you can consistently put the ball in the bowl.
For topspin serves, you can place an empty shoe box at the end of the table to stop the balls before they end up in the neighbor’s driveway.
Practice these tips often and you’re sure to see a drastic improvement to your ping pong game.
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