Dominate With Serve & Receive
By Masaaki Tajima, USATT
Certified National Coach, Butterfly
In this article, I will go over the importance
of serves and the receiving of serves as two of the top technical training
priorities for future Champions.
In virtually every racket sport, serves and the
ability to return them effectively are dominating factors in the outcome of
any match. Besides table tennis, tennis is another example of a sport where
this is true. Whether it is the men’s or women’s division, the big serve
sets the tone of the match; if you serve well, you play well. On the other
side, the player who can receive well can stay in the point until it is his or
her turn to serve.
Conceptually, the serve and return of serve is
the same in our sport as it is in tennis except, I maintain, it is more
difficult to receive in table tennis because of the complexities involved. In
tennis, the variety of serves is limited to such elements as speed, variations
of topspin, placement and cross-court serves only. In table tennis, in
addition to the above, there is variation of spins, dead balls, all of the
court being open and most deadly of all, deception — the disguising of the
type of spin and speed generated and the placement of it.
Ever since the sponge revolution in table
tennis in 1952, the basic tactic of the serve has not changed: to gain an
immediate offensive advantage. The most effective deception technique which
transformed tactics of serving started about 30 years ago when Cai Zhenhua’s
(1975-77 World Men’s Team Champion) executed racket flipping serves using
anti-spin on one side and inverted rubber on the other. The two-color rule was
not in effect at that time.
During that period, the use of combination
rackets was not new, but he was the most effective in using the tactic of
disguising which side was being used and how to gain an immediate offensive
advantage. The two-color rule for rackets was enacted soon, when powers that
be deemed the technique more trickery than skill. But coaches and players
continued to find new methods of deception. In the 1980’s, the "hidden
serve" came into play: in which the body or the arm tossing the ball
hides the point of contact with the ball. The player who first developed it is
debatable, but Swedish players during their domination in the late 1980’s
through the 1990’s were very effective in its employment and they influenced
generations of new players.
In table tennis, as in tennis, the impact of a
strong serve is undeniable. Tennis also struggles with the consequences of
"big" serves leading to shorter matches, a direct result of the
technological evolution of stronger and faster rackets and athletes’
physical development through strengthening programs. This trend, whether in
tennis or table tennis, will not change. Overall tactics, equipment and even
rules regarding the serve have been evolving, but the basic tactic of the
third ball attack remains constant – first ball is the serve, the second is
the return of serve, and the third is attacking that return with some
variation of strong topspin or speed to establish an offensive advantage. Some
of the best exponents of this, and my favorites, are GuoYuehua, Cai Zhenhua
and, of course, Jan-Ove Waldner.
Recently, the service rule changed again to
outlaw the "hidden serve," ostensibly to improve the image factor of
table tennis by allowing longer rallies. But the reality is, and statistics
most points are over by the fifth ball. If history is an indicator of the
future, coaches and players will continue to find other means, within the
rules, to execute the goal of the server. The loss of the hidden serve doesn’t
mean you lose deception. You need to get creative in your execution of
The key point is in the execution of deception.
Disguising what serve and where you are going to place it, freezing or causing
a hesitation by the receiver with sudden change of spin, direction, depth and
speed. As an example, for one style of serve like forehand serve from your
backhand court, contact should be made at the last split second after you
decided on a particular serve, keeping your service motion exactly the same
Return of Serve
The consequence of the inability of a player to
return deceptive and innovative serves is obvious from bottom levels of play
to the top. Events at beginner levels to world championships are often won or
lost by margins of just a few points, and these points are won and lost mainly
by effective serves or returns of serve.
The significance of the ability to effectively
return serves was demonstrated clearly by Sweden’s domination of China (Men’s
division) in the late 1980’s through the 1990’s. China, with their massive
talent pool and infrastructure, has a history of producing innovative serves,
playing styles and tactics when faced with challenges. When Stellan Bengstan
won the world championships in 1971, they came up with Huang Liang. When
Hungary won the teams (1979), they came up with great servers in Guo Yuehua,
Cai Zhenhua, and the acrobatic Chen Zenhua, followed by the team of Jiang
Jialiang, Teng Yi and Chen Longcan, and won the next four championships.
However, Sweden in the ensuing period found a
technique to overcome then world champion China’s mainly short pips players
Teng Yi (who used pips on the forehand and inverted on backhand), Jiang
Jialiang and Chen Longcan, who are all close-to-the-table hitters, by
attacking their short serves with quick flips and countering their attacks by
using shorter looping strokes then before. The other contributing factor was
the introduction of speed glue and Sweden’s new generation of talented and
diverse-style players exemplified by Applegren, Waldner, Persson and Lindh.
Sweden went on to win the next three world championships.
anything else in life, prioritizing the training program is a critical factor
in maximizing one’s available time. An accurate and realistic assessment of
a player must be done before any formation of a training regimen. For
important elements, such as serve and return of serve training, there is a
need for much dedication and discipline, because these drills are not fun like
some of the others.
intricacies of serve and return of serve require absolute timing. It means
developing the ability to time contact with the ball and consistently execute
basic shots, like flipping or rolling and loops, along with enhanced
anticipation to read the serve and have the physical flexibility,
adaptability and the technical skill to cope with the ensuing sequence of
Here are some basics: the goal of the receiver
is to take the initiative away from the server and gain control of the point.
The major method to gain control is to attack the serve whenever possible,
usually by looping long serves and flipping short serves. Another method is to
push and jockey for position. Tactically, pushing can be safe and also used as
an advantage if done tactically. For example, push short if their short game
is poor, or push deep with heavy backspin to invite them to attack if you know
their loop is weak and you have a good counter-attack or block.
These are basic fundamentals. Serve and return
of serve must be a training priority because the basic offensive-oriented
strategy in our sport will not change in the foreseeable future. At higher
levels, it is the player who is able to attack first and establish the
momentum and the receiver who has the know-how and the courage to use
offensive tactics who determine the outcome of these matches.
Ways to Dominate with Serve & Receive
motions that disguise the type and amount of spin, freezing an opponent and
forcing mistakes or passive returns that can be attacked.
• Sudden changes of spin, direction, depth and speed
that catch opponents off guard.
• Short sidespin/topspin serves that force an opponent
to return serves deep, letting the server attack.
• Short backspin serves that are difficult to attack,
forcing passive push returns that the server can attack.
• Short no-spin serves that are difficult to either
flip aggressively or push short, giving the server the attack.
• Deep serves that break away from the opponent,
catching them off guard as they reach for the ball.
• Fast down line serves that catch an opponent who
tries to use the forehand from the backhand corner.
• Fast, dead (spinless) serves to the middle and wide
backhand, catching opponents off guard as they put the ball in the net or
weakly lift the ball up.
• "Tweeny" serves where the second bounce is
right at the endline, so receivers hesitate, not sure if they can loop it
or have to go over the table to return it.
control against deep serves by looping.
• Taking control against short serves by mixing up
various returns, including:
them short, stopping the server’s attack.
either aggressively or deceptively, with good placement, catching the server
off guard and giving the receiver the initiative.
quick, deep pushes, catching server off guard.
• Keeping the server off guard by varying the type of
• Aim one way, go another.
• Placement, placement, placement!