Advanced Serve & Serve Receive Tactics


1.     Even advanced and higher players who usually have dozens of great serves don’t fully understand how to use them effectively in a match. They forget the simple fact that not all serves are equally effective across the board against all opponents. A serve that works great against opponent Y may be totally useless against opponent X but a serve that was not effective against opponent X may be very effective against opponent Y. It is not easy to remember for each opponent ad so you may need t keep scouting notes. If you are playing someone for the first time you may mentally note which serves worked best & worst in the first & second games and probably save your best working serves towards the end of the match as they have a higher probability of success.

2.     Ball travels in z-direction. With topspin the ball travels in +z-axis and also spins towards the receiver in +z axis as well. Conversely with back-spin (sometimes referred to as under-spin) while the ball is now spinning towards the server in –z direction while the ball still traveling in +z direction also.ntact with the ball is made more behind the ball left to right or right to left for corkscrew sidespin (y-axis side-spin) . Contact is made towards left or right of the ball also possibly combined with bottom for side-back spin (x-axis with –z axis side-spin ) and on top of the  ball for side-top spin (x-axis with +z axis).  But generally there is no pure x-axis or y-axis side-spins as they are usually a little of both is a side-spin serve. Most of the complexities of the sport arise due to these mostly side-spins but delivered at higher and higher top-spins and back-spins at higher and higher speeds. As stated in many of my other technical papers in pure theory, if you can deliver your strokes with maximum possible speed 100% of the time (as somewhat done in the older block and smash pips-out  style of play) then spin is unnecessary. However spin is essential even for even most other best human (table) tennis players to control the ball and keep it on the table (court). Modern (table)tennis at the higher levels thus focuses on creating  obscene spins as well as maximum insane speeds but in table-tennis side-spin and backspins play a more significant role than in lawn-tennis hugely complicating matters as the playing court is smaller but speeds are about the same but with much higher spins in table-tennis (with the ball coming back to you much faster but with also obscenely more as well as sometimes puzzling spins (for the smaller time-frame  to process and resolve quickly even for best athletic minds))  .  

3.     Your serves sometimes maybe too good for your own good. You may have a great serve that your opponent has trouble with and gives a weak return but if it comes to the wrong spot and length for you to attack then that great serve is quite useless

4.     You want to serve to your opponent in such a way that it puts him in an awkward position. At the amateur level a player who is big and slow may have trouble returning wide or short balls.

5.     On the flip side you may want to force your opponent to serve where you prefer to receive the serve and try to force them not to serve where and how you don’t like to receive it. For example if an opponent’s short serves are giving you repeated problems, try to take a receive stand with your hand well into the table to quickly get to the shorter serve. This  will annoy and unsettle your opponent both because of your crazy serve return stance as well as the fact that you are now rendering their short serves useless. Conversely you have trouble with long serves stand farther away to force shorter serves and of course you need to be very quick on your feet to pull this off. Same principles apply to serves to your wider forehand or wider backhand or combinations of short and long with forehand and backhand as well as left or right side spins combined with either top or back or no spin.

6.     At non-professional levels, the serve return strategy will have to be somewhat different. A professional player generally (there are exceptions) will not be bothered much by opponent’s serve but otherwise lower the level, the more difficult the return of serves can be. I generally am able to “excuse” players 400 or so ratings points below me by using my good serves if I want. So again, my point (reemphasizing item above) is that if you have difficulty with one or more serves from your opponent, try to devise methods to take away their best serves using different methods of your own. Lot of this may involve screwing with the mind of the server, just as much as (s)he screws with you mind, such as if you don’t like a certain long serve to your backhand, just stand too far from table and also towards your deep backhand & execute your forehand. You may not win the point but at least your opponent may now try to serve deep to your forehand and now (s)he is playing into your hands. You may have to play this cat & mouse game all throughout the match to mask your weaknesses if you are not a professional player to gain some advantage. Of course if the opponent is of a much higher skill / rating level than you, then you are going to lose anyway but against players close to your skill level, you greatly improve your chances of winning a close one.

7.     The best way to understand an opponent’s serves & patterns is NOT when you are playing against them but by watching them play against other opponents. You may want to take mental (or document) notes of each opponent.

8.     Not taking any risk at all can be the biggest risk of all. If some of your opponent’s serves are so out of your league, just attack them anyway at least once in a while… were going to lose the point anyway. You might as well look good losing the point LOL. If you are defensive player, don’t be afraid to attack your opponent’s serve when it is deuce in the deciding game.

9.     Many beginner and intermediate players have great trouble adjusting to heavy side-spins and / or combined with either heavy top or back spin. You can tell this because your first two returns go wide to left . You adjust but now your opponent has switched side spin the opposite way and your next 3 returns go wide right. You adjust, but your opponent  adjusts as well and drives you crazy. This can also happen with top or back spin. Your opponent gives two heavy backspin serves and you put the ball into the bottom of net. You try to adjust & next 2 balls go 10 feet deep out of your end line. Now combine the above left or right side spins with above top or side spins and your opponent will basically win every point on their serve.   If you are beginner or intermediate player this is what separates an advanced player from an intermediate or beginner player. Anyway if you are a beginner or intermediate player (& have great difficulty keeping your returns inside the table) use the following strategy >>  return every serve to the dead center point on the opponent’s half of the table. This would at least eliminate the ball going out left or right and deep or short.  This way you have at least 25% landing the ball somewhere on the table. Usually when an experienced server sends a serve they may usually send the serve to your right with side spin to pull towards their right or they will serve with sidespin to your left side with sidespin to their left side. This is because natural human tendency is to return cross-court not down the line.  But if you recognize this and try to adjust going down the line then will switch up with opposite side spin. This is why it is always safe to return to dead center of the opponent’s half of table if you have no clue as to incoming spins (left or right and top or back)

10.                        For advanced serve return professional players will angle their racket to nullify incoming side-spin (left or right). But given that most advanced serves are 70% drama & 30% substance, it is very hard to read advanced serves.

11.                        Serves & serve returns in leftie vs rightie is not the same as it is when it is a rightie vs rightie or leftie vs rightie. At lower levels lefties actually have a built-in advantage because of tactical deficiencies of players at lower levels and given that lefties are used to playing more righties and may have a bag of tricks against righties but the opposite is not true for righties since righties may not face that many lefties. Nevertheless if you are a rightie just do not serve to  same service  points against a leftie that you would to a rightie. Because for example if you serve to your wide right serving from your deep left it goes to deep backhand of another rightie and may be harder to attack but a leftie may loop the hell out of that serve.

12.                        You want to use the complete width and length of the table in mixing up your serves with maybe one backspin with sidespin to left serve to very short and far right with next serve being  a topspin with sidespin to right to very long deep and far left and a third serve a no spin serve disguised as heavy spin to the middle very short or very deep etc etc.

13.                        Most players make the mistake of serving always from their deep backhand side only. You need to able to serve from deep forehand side & from middle as well (especially if you are a rightie playing a leftie and vice-versa).

14.                        For maximum spin during serves, ball contact  must be made towards the top edge (farthest away from your hand) of the racket with maximum “brushing” of the ball and minimal “hitting” (probably more but not always necessarily of your wrist than your arm). Conversely, for minimal spin as in a no spin serve, contact the ball on racket closest to your hand with minimal “brushing” and maximum “hitting” at the ball (probably more but not always necessarily of your arm and less wrist).  

15.                        One can write a book about what to serve & what not to serve against long pips players (especially at beginner & intermediate levels and this is why many frustrated non-long-pips players develop mental problems and become robotNazis and need to be institutionalized….and this happens to many exceptionally high IQ individuals otherwise highly accomplished in other day to day endeavors) . This is because long-pips behave & act differently at lower levels of play compared to higher levels of play where the traumatizing of superior athletes is not happening and all the principles I stated in previous 9 sections are out the window and it is a totally different ball game at lower and intermediate levels of play.

16.                        Generally if you have good serves and good return of serves and also understand how to play against long pips players, you should be at least an advanced player if not more because you can usually “excuse”  most beginners & intermediate players just with your serves and serve returns. Because many beginners & intermediate players overlook the simple fact that in table-tennis, the serve is not for just putting the ball in play but for either acing the point or for forcing the opponent into weak returns, more than in any other racket sport especially at lower levels of the sport.  This is why there had been discussions about reducing the potency of serves in table-tennis to lengthen the rallies to make the sport more presentable to non-table-tennis spectators.  But for now serves are huge part of this sport at all levels and more so at lower levels. So you must focus lot more on your serves & serve returns if you want to get to advanced level.

17.                        Many players make the mistake of contacting the ball during the serve at a level way above the table (Contacting the ball below table level during serve is illegal). This causes the serve to bounce higher and also harder to control. For best serves contact the ball (for all your serves) as close to the level of the table as possible without going below . This would prevent the ball from bouncing high and can be easily attacked.  There are some crazy situations where you may want to serve the ball very high and deep to a long pips player (below professional level) but this is unique.

18.                        Keep in mind that the ball must also be behind the server’s endline or extension thereof (but the ball need not be with within the  extension of sidelines as many think).

19.                        Due to higher rate of change of momentum, high toss serves are always better than lower toss serves for obtaining more spin. But you need to practice a lot more to be less error prone. Regardless even if you use mostly low toss serves if you can suddenly pull out a high toss serve even if not powerful, may still be very effective as it may throw off the opponent due to very difference.

20.                         The six inches (or 15 cms) of toss required for minimum legality is a confusing issue because most folks do not have a visual reference as to what this really is. This is somewhat similar to prople suddenly slowing down when they see a traffic sign that say the lanes merge one mile down the road. One mile is quite a long distance as is 6 inches a very very low length. Six inches is only the height of the net or approximate width of a racket. Yet most players may complain just to confuse you and even umpires may not understand this short length and while it is your responsibility to serve legally , you also are not at all obligated to toss the ball 12 or more inches when 7 or 8 inches is more than sufficient than the legal 6 inches. If your opponent and umpire give any problems you may want to explain to them that the legal length is just the height of the net.

21.                        If you are not ready 100% to receive the serve, then don’t .  Many players will try to quick serve you and some may serve even without coming to a full stop as required by rules. Just raise your hand and hold it till you are fully ready. Because you cannot play the ball if you are not ready and miss it and then claim you are not ready.   I have actually seen many players with poor sportsmanship use this excuse of not ready after playing it, especially worse say at match point .

22.                        Unlike tennis there is no clear time limit for starting a new serve. I have been told you are ok as long as you are not disturbing the flow of the match and this is somewhat ambiguous. Anyway there is no need to rush your serves.

23.                        Can you stomp your feet while you serve ? It used to be legal then was made illegal and then explicit requirement in the rules not to stomp the feet had been removed but I have been told by referees that you cannot still stomp because it is disruptive  which again makes it ambiguous.

24.                        Tossing angle for legal serves is considered to be approximately within 10 degress to vertical. This seems to be one of the biggest problems at professional level where players will toss the ball right towards their body with the ball going as much as 50 to 60 degrees from a prefect vertical toss. And players will look confused when faulted because in their minds they have tossed at least 6 inches which is a completely different issue or requirement. So learn to toss the ball up near vertical within 10 degrees as well as at least 6 inches

25.                        Another big serving violation is not having the ball in the flat palm of your hand with the ball fully visible at all times. Many players will start fully cupped with ball totally hidden; others will have the ball in the fingers; others will start ok with ball in flat palm but while tossing quickly move the ball from palm to fingers with many imparting spin thereof. All these are illegal. The ball must start from being a stationary position in the flat palm of you hand. Slight cupping reasonable to keep the ball on a flat palm but not excessive cupping of the ball to hide it.

26.                        Summing up, learn to serve legally and this will actually make you look like a professional as well as giving an intimidating effect and an advantage. But is you start serving as you walk to the table (without being stationary) with a cupped hand well over into the baseline, you will look like a basement ping-pong hacker rather than a serious table-tennis player

27.                        Doubles serving strategy is very different from singles. This is mostly because you are limited to using only one half of table on each side. If you serve long or with the ball coming out crossing the sidelines, you are likely to be attacked mercilessly and the only situation when this can be good is if your partner is a (and maybe you as well) is defensive player  and you both prefer to play defense mostly. Even short serves are useless in today’s age of backhand banana flip-loop attacks ( by your opponents). Therefore the best option is to keep the ball extremely short and unattackable in anyway. However you may want an occasional long serve to keep your opponent honest. At the lower levels you can serve both long and short depending on weaknesses of opponents.

28.                        One can write a book on doubles strategies but not attempted here. However it is better to have a leftie , rightie combination for a doubles team if both the players are attackers.

29.                        If you are an attacker you always want to send the ball fast towards the player on the receiving team who just returned. This would cause him / her getting in the way of the partner. It is especially useful if both partners are righties or both are lefties.

30.                        You and your partner need to have (dynamic) plans as to which direction you will move after you return. This involves BOTH to your left or right or just move back. But this plan should be dynamic and should be signaled (under the table) to your partner clearly every point because if you keep moving say to your right every time, the opponents will recognize this and attack you there.

31.                        It is better if the non-server on the team signals (under the table) what they want the serving partner to do.

32.                        If you and or your partner or using LongPips it is important to understand the strong residual effect of your partner’s LongPip serve in the push or block returns from your opponent even if the opponent used a non LongPips rubber.  If the opponent also returned with a LongPips rubber this may compound the result on incoming return to your partner.

33.                        Except in very rare cases of opponents who are extremely difficult to read, you train yourselves to react quickly to most serves.

(i)                if you can see the logo on the incoming ball, it has very little spin

(ii)              if the server is pulling the RacketTip upward or (on top of the ball and forward) at the moment of contact , it is a TopSpin serve. if server pulls RacketTip downward (or under and forward) at the moment of contact it is a BackSpin serve.

(iii)            Of course what complicates matters a lot is that the TopSpin or BackSpin serve also has a SideSpin (or CorScrewSpin) component.If the server is pulling his/her RacketTip from left to right and upwards at the moment of contact , angle your closed racket towards opponent’s leftside. If the server is pulling his/her RacketTip from left to right and downwards at the moment of contact , angle your somewhat mostly open racket towards opponent’s leftside. If the server is pulling his/her RacketTip from right to left and upwards at the moment of contact , angle your closed racket towards opponent’s rightside. If the server is pulling his/her RacketTip from right to left and downwards at the moment of contact , angle your somewhat mostly open racket towards opponent’s rightside. The term RacketTip and the the word racket is used here because this is the key in returning serves, because in a tomahawk serve for example the RacketTip is moving left to right which has the same SideSpin effect as the Reverse Pendulum serve in which case the RacketTip is moving right to left. ( Conversely the pendulum serve & reverse tomahawk serve have the same result) .  Thus the RacketTip direction (and not the hand or racket direction) at the moment of ball contact is your magic mantra in returning serves

(iv)            What this boils down to is that most players (especially amateurs) are creatures of habit. If a righty player takes a backhand serve stand you can be 99% sure this is a serve that will break towards your right (which is the same as a tomahawk serve or reverse pendulum serve, which is also quite obvious). The only variation that can be is either TopSpin or BackSpin. (I have developed an effective backhand serve that does the opposite. I pull across the back of the ball right to left. I am yet to see a player use this. It has been effective when players expect the usual backhand serve).  Only on the forehand, some players have serves that go either way and this probably why most professional players always serve from deep backhand with a forehand serve. But at lower levels, if a righty server takes a forehand stance , for instance, you can be reasonably sure that it is a simple pendulum serve, with the serve breaking towards your left (and if you instinctively return to your opponent’s backhand, it is likely to sail out to your opponent’s left baseline or land very close to his/her left sideline) and so on & so forth.

34.                        On a related note, here are some rules many players are mistaken about :-

(i)                Many players seem to think you cannot touch the table with your RacketHand. This is incorrect. You can touch the table accidentally with your RacketHand as long as you do not move the table while the ball is still in play. But on the other hand (LOL) , you are NOT allowed to touch the table assembly at any time with your freehand. 

(ii)              You do not replay the points when an error in receiving order is discovered (in singles or doubles). All points stay and you correct the receiving order (& server) to be what it should be for that score in the match & continue on.

(iii)            Sandpaper has NEVER been legal in ITTF play. Hardbat is legal, as are any type pips rubbers with no sponge (known as OX); however, smooth rubber MUST have some sponge of any legal thickness below the TopSheet (You cannot just use an inverted top-sheet only) 

(iv)            There is a 4 mm limit to the total thickness of the rubber( top-sheet+sponge below it) but there is no legal limit to the thickness or diameter of the RacketHead (only). Only limitation on the blade is the content of composite materials (like carbon, glass etc) which cannot exceed 15% of the blade, rest 85% needs to be wood.