Do you practise returning serves? If not, why not?

Photo courtesy of Pawel Meryn.

I recently ran a coaching day on the topic of returning serves. I asked the players in attendance if they practised returning serves. One player raised his hand. The other nine players did not. Interesting, but not entirely surprising.

This quick poll is fairly reflective of the amateur table tennis community as a whole. From my experience most players don’t practise returning serves. Maybe everyone is already very good at returning serves, so no extra practice is needed. Or maybe players are avoiding practising an essential – and very challenging – part of table tennis. I suspect it may be the latter.

How important is it to practise returning serves? Well, look at it this way … 50% of points in a table tennis match begin with your opponent serving. Along with your own serves, returning serves is at the top of the list of skills you most need to use in table tennis. You have to read your opponent’s serve, get the ball back on the table and hopefully put your opponent under pressure. If the skill is under-developed you can lose matches quite easily. In a game up to 11, if you miss 3, 4 or 5 of your opponent’s serves, you are at a massive disadvantage. From this perspective it would be crazy not to practise returning serves.

Returning serves was a major weakness of my game. I would lose so many points by mis-reading serves – dumping the ball in the net or hitting off the end of the table. Against some players it was carnage. It felt like I was giving them a 6 or 7 point head start in every game. It’s hard to win when you make so many serve receive errors!

As this was costing me a lot of points, I had to address the problem. I made returning serves a top priority to improve. The main issue was that I struggled to read my opponent’s service spin. If I knew what the spin was, I was generally OK at returning the serve. But the randomness and the spin variation flummoxed me. So this is what I focused on in my training sessions. The exercise I did was really simple. I would get a training partner to serve at me – any serve, any spin, to any position. Completely random. Again and again and again.

At first I made so many errors. It was really hard. But this was exactly the scenario I was facing in matches. But unlike matches where it’s easy to panic and get too stressed, in training sessions I was able to be more analytical. I was able to learn from my mistakes and talk to my training partner about the serves I was struggling with. Over time, little by little, I started to read the spin better and return more serves.

I would do this exercise with different training partners. Some were stronger servers, others more manageable. The purpose was to expose myself to different serves, different spins and different placements in a random pattern. With some players I would get used to their serves after a few minutes. With the stronger servers, I might need to do this exercise multiple times over a number of weeks or months before I really saw an improvement. 

I did this for a long time – we’re talking years, rather than weeks – but with all the practice I got a lot better at reading service spin. I saw fewer ‘new’ serves. I was able to take my experience of returning serves from one player and apply it to another. For example, I did a lot of practice with a player who had a strong tomahawk serve – varying backspin and topspin. I got used to the serve eventually. Then when I did this exercise with another player with a tomahawk serve, I knew what to do – how to read the spin and return the serve. I was developing my knowledge bank of different service actions.

Even with all of this practice of returning serves – over many years – I will still struggle against some opponents. The really, really strong servers. But I’m much better than I used to be. In most matches, returning serves is no longer the huge weakness it used to be. And it’s still one of my favourite exercises to do. I get a training partner to serve at me – any serve, any spin, any placement – again and again and again. I have to read the spin and make a good return. This is the key skill to develop. In a real match, an opponent will be varying his serves all the time. I want my training to reflect this.

Don’t shy away from this part of table tennis. Returning serves is hard. It does take a lot of practice to get better at it. But it’s such a crucial part of table tennis. 50% of points begin with your opponent serving at you.

Try my simple exercise and see how you get on. In a training session, most players will be very happy to serve at you, if you just ask. Your training partner gets to practise his serves. You get to practise returning serves. And if you really struggle with a training partner’s serves, have a chat about it. Say this to your training partner…

“Your serves are really good. I just can’t read them. How are you doing those serves?”

Usually your training partner will be so happy with the compliment, he will go into great detail about his serves. And you get a free coaching session!

Returning serves – online course

If you would like more help on returning serves, I recommend joining Tom’s TT Academy. I have a 10 lesson in-depth online course all about returning serves. The lessons include…

  • Returning backspin serves
  • Returning topspin serves
  • Returning sidespin serves
  • Reading service spin
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Where to stand when returning serves
  • How to apply pressure on your opponent when returning serves

You will also get access to a wide range of coaching content, including 

  • in-depth courses
  • training drills
  • fitness videos
  • robot training videos
  • member discussions
  • video analysis
  • skill challenges 
  • coaching clinic
  • and lot’s more!

You can access all this content for less than £1 per week. New content is added regularly. Join hundreds of table tennis players around the world today at

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