How to return a sidespin serve

All of the time I’ve been coaching, there has been one problem I’ve been asked about more than any other. The problem? How to return a sidespin serve.

The player will usually say something like this…

“There’s this player who does this sideserve and I just can’t control the spin. The ball just keeps shooting off the table or it goes high and then he smashes the ball past me. I just don’t know what to do. I must have lost so many points from this serve. Help!”

If you have this problem, rest assured you are not alone. Most players have faced this problem at some point during their development.

In this blog post I will explain what I think is the easiest way of returning a sidespin serve. I have also created a video (scroll down the page to view) which demonstrates what to do, and what not to do.

Why sidespin serves are challenging

Let’s start with why sidespin serves are challenging. I remember one match I played many years ago, in my first ever season in London. It was a handicap match. I was in the lowest division and playing a top division player. He had a devilish sidespin serve and I really struggled.

What I found difficult was knowing exactly what spin was on the ball. Was it side-backspin, side-topspin or pure sidespin? Was it spinning left to right or right to left? And how much spin? Was it heavy sidespin or light sidespin? Should I hit it, push it, block it? There just seemed to be too many options. Too many things to think about. I had no confidence in what would happen to the ball when I tried to return it.

Because of this uncertainty, I returned nervously and passively. I tended to just prod at the ball. I’m sure you can guess what happened – the ball flew everywhere, long, wide, high. I don’t recall returning one serve.

After the match one of my teammates unhelpfully commented that I should have tried to return his serve better. Well duh, I know that. But how? At the time I didn’t have a clue what to do.

How to return a sidespin serve

So let’s get straight to the point. If prodding nervously at the ball is the worst possible way to return a sidespin serve, what is the best way to return a sidespin serve?

Different coaches will say different things. Some coaches will tell you to work with the spin on the ball, angle your bat and guide the ball back low and in an awkward position for your opponent to attack.

This is certainly an option, but a very advanced option. I think you need to have years of playing experience, great touch and a thorough understanding of exactly what spin is on the ball to return the ball consistently this way. The margin of error is small. If you get your bat angle wrong, you’ll mess it up.

For me, the easiest way to return a sidespin serve is to play a controlled topspin stroke. By adding your own spin to the ball (topspin), you override the server’s spin (sidespin) to a certain extent, so there is less chance the ball will shoot sideways. It doesn’t really which way the ball is spinning (left to right or right to left), if you topspin the ball, you can control the sidespin.

You also have a much bigger margin of error. When you topspin, the flight of the ball goes up, clearing the net, and the spin brings the ball back down. So even if you don’t get the contact or timing just right or you misjudge the spin slightly, you still have a decent chance of returning the ball.

By playing topspin (i.e. an attacking stroke), you can put your opponent under pressure straight away. Not only have you taken away your opponent’s strength (sidespin serve), but actually you have gained an advantage in the rally. You have got your attack in first, giving you a better chance of controlling the rally.

If you want a visual demonstration of how to return a sidespin serve with topspin, take a look at this video I created with Nila, a player who I coach and train with…

In the video, Nila makes it look quite easy to return my sidespin serve. It looks easy, because it really is easy! I’ve taught loads of players how to do this. They are usually amazed and delighted as they have never been able to do it before. In an instant, this topspin return has turned a losing situation into a winning one.

Of course, you need to be able to topspin the ball – a flat drive doesn’t work nearly as well. If you can’t currently play a forehand or backhand topspin, you must learn these strokes. Take a look at my ‘How to play’ section for more guidance.

Progression

To begin with, I definitely recommend returning sidespin serves with controlled topspin. This means: DON’T TRY AND BLAST YOUR OPPONENT OFF THE TABLE. Just get the feeling of spinning the ball with short, controlled topspin strokes.

This will help develop your consistency, which in turn will build confidence. When controlled topspin becomes easy, then try gradually returning with faster and more aggressive topspins. They key is to keep your technique the same, just play the stroke with more acceleration.

When you progress to play fast topspin returns, then you can really dominate your opponent’s sidespin serve. Hooray!

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About Tom Lodziak

I’m a table tennis coach, player and blogger based in Cambridge in the UK. Sign up to my popular FREE monthly newsletter and I'll send you tips, blogs, articles and videos to help you improve and win more points. You can also follow me on Twitter and subscribe to my Youtube channel.

13 thoughts on “How to return a sidespin serve

  1. Thanks Coach Lodziak. It’s been a helpful article but I have one more problem with the side spin serve return. What if the opponent serves sides spin but very short? Thanks

    • If the sidespin serve is short (as in the second bounce is close to the end of the table), you can still return these with a short topspin stroke, as described in the article. If the sidespin serve is really short, you could try and flick these ones.

  2. Great vid, but I struggle with side spin backspin. I think it’s much more difficult to do a simple controlled topspin and still make it over the net. Don’t you need to be able to read the serve if it’s side spin top, or side spin back spin to adjust the angle of your top spin or loop?

    • Hi Jim

      Yes, you are correct. You will need to adjust your stroke if the serve is side and backspin. For these serves you need to brush up more to lift the backspin. But you can still topspin these serves. For side-topspin serves, you need to brush over the top of the ball more. The challenge as you say, is to read the spin in the first place. I will write an article about this at some point.

      Tom

  3. Thanks Tom Lodziak. I heard rather much ways to return the sidespin serves, however this is the first time I find the effective return to this devilish serve. I think, the way we here use topspin drive playing off against sidespin serve, because there is no spin or just afew of spin at the top of the ball. Is that right?

    • Well, it’s not so much that there is a lack of spin at the tops of the ball. It’s more that you are adding your own spin to the ball, so can override the sidespin to some extent. Give it a go. I hope it helps!

  4. Hi Tom,

    How would you play a short serve with side spin that has either back or topspin on it as well ?.

    BTW, excellent site, thanks for spending the time to help us improve our TT.

    • Hi Mark

      If the serve is side-backspin, you can still return these with topspin. You just need to spin upwards more than forwards. If the serve is side-topspin, you need to close your bat angle and spin more forwards, rather than up. Hope this helps.

      Tom

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