“Is it ok to use illegal serves?”

During a recent coaching session, a player asked me whether it’s ok to use illegal serves. He said very few players have a legal serve in his local league. And umpires, who are usually other players, rarely enforce the service rules. He said his opponents have an advantage because they can serve however they want. What should he do? Continue to serve legally or use illegal serves too?

My answer…He should definitely use a legal service action!

I agree, the use of illegal serves is widespread in amateur leagues and competitions. And I agree, most of the time players get away with it. But, and this is a “big” but, they don’t get away with it all of the time. And when they don’t get away with it – when an umpire actually enforces the rules – their game tends to suffer, sometimes quite dramatically.

Illegal serves in London

I witnessed this first hand when playing in the London league. One of my team-mates had a pretty solid all-round game and would win most of his matches. But when he served he would never throw the ball up high enough. He was pretty much serving out of his hand. Most of the time he would get away with it and dominate with his serve and a strong 3rd ball attack.

But sometimes an umpire would pull him up or an opponent would complain to the umpire. My team-mate then had to adjust his service technique by throwing the ball up. The problem was, his service was much weaker when he served legally. He just couldn’t generate the same amount of spin. It’s not that you can’t generate lots of spin by serving legally (of course you can!), it’s just that he had never learnt to do it.

So when he started serving legally, he wasn’t able to dominate with his serve and 3rd ball attack any more. His serve had gone from a strength to a weakness. This would affect the rest of his game too. As he relied on his illegal serves to win so many points, when this was taken away from him, he would often take too many risks with the rest of his game. He would make lots of unforced errors. His game would gradually unravel.

A poor performance, an unexpected loss, just because the umpire asked him to toss the ball when he served.

Illegal serves in Cambridge

In 2013 I moved to Cambridge. And guess what? There are lots of illegal serves in the Cambridge league too! Again, the most common transgression is failing to throw the ball up, i.e. serving straight from the hand.

My team-mate Yordan is forever complaining to umpires about opponents. It often creates bad feeling, but he is absolutely entitled to do this. The rules on service are very clear and every player who wants to play competitively, should learn to serve legally.

Yordan probably takes it a bit too far. Even if he has no problem returning an opponent’s illegal serve, he will still complain because he knows how much it puts his opponent off their game. It doesn’t sound very sporting, does it? But if the other player served legally in the first place, there would be no issue.

Player meltdown

In one league match, Yordan was playing an experienced player who also happened to be a respected Cambridgeshire coach.  This player sometimes served legally but sometimes served from the hand, hardly throwing the ball up at all.

Yordan complained. There was a frank discussion and the player completely lost the plot. His game went into meltdown. He couldn’t use his spinny illegal serves any more and had to use weaker serves. He started throwing the ball ridiculously high when serving to prove a point and was frequently lashing out at the ball in frustration.

Inevitably, Yordan won the match. This meltdown would have been avoided if the player was able to consistently serve legally. And the outcome of the match could have been very different.

Moral of these illegal serve stories

So what’s the moral of these stories? If you don’t serve legally, you will come unstuck at some point. An opponent will complain. An umpire will enforce the rules. And if you haven’t developed effective serves with a legal service action, your service game will transform from a strength to a weakness in an instance. Your entire game could suffer as a result.

There are no excuses. If you play competitively, you must serve legally. And if you don’t know the rules, you can read them on the ITTF website. Now you have no excuse at all!

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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.

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