I have a player I coach who has very strong drives. He can hit the ball hard and with good ball placement with both his forehand and his backhand. He can also block well, when needing to defend. He likes fast, open rallies, where he can use his drives and blocks. If you play him at this sort of game, he really is quite dangerous.
However, this player has a service problem. His serves are decent. His serves are spinny. His serves sometimes win him points outright. There is no question about the quality of his serves. The problem is that his serves do not complement his playing style.
This player – who shall remain anonymous – almost always serves with heavy backspin. This causes him a problem, as he often gets stuck in pushing rallies. And whilst he can drive and block effortlessly, he struggles to loop backspin balls consistently.
He serves backspin and then starts pushing for five, six, seven balls. He is reluctant to loop, as he lacks confidence in using this shot. And he can’t use his drives, as the ball is too low with backspin. So he gets stuck and can only push. His backspin serve has set up the type of rally he doesn’t want to play.
I asked the player why he keeps serving backspin. He replied that he serves backspin to make it hard for the other player to attack. He also said that some players struggle to return his serves. So in his mind he has effective serves.
But problems arise when an opponent can consistently return his serves and is happy to keep pushing. Then he has gained no advantage. Worse still, he is playing the types of rallies (lots of pushing and backspin), which play to his weaknesses rather than his strengths.
The problem is further compounded if his opponent also serves backspin most of the time. This means almost every rally starts with backspin and pushing – the opposite of what the player really wants.
So what should this player do instead? For his long term development he needs to improve his ability to loop a backspin ball. Then he wouldn’t need to keep pushing. He could loop instead and turn each rally into an open topspin game, where he can use his drives and blocks.
But there is another solution, which may be just as effective. He could change the way he serves. Instead of using mostly heavy backspin serves, it would make much more sense to use topspin serves, side-topspin serves or even float serves. With these serves the ball is much more likely to be returned with topspin. This would set up the type of rallies he is best at.
If he serves with more topspin, his opponent will either block the ball back – giving him a chance to use his strong drives. Or his opponent will attack – giving him a chance to use his strong blocks. Either way, he will be using the shots which he is best at.
Set up the rally you want
A good serve isn’t only about trying to win a cheap point or making it hard for your opponent to return the ball. A good serve can also be a serve which sets up a type of rally which suits your style of play.
Here’s a different example. I have a teammate, Daniel, who also likes to serve with heavy backspin. In fact, almost every serve he does is heavy backspin. His serves are hard to attack, so most opponents push the ball back. But the difference between Daniel and the player I coach, is that Daniel is excellent at looping. He serves backspin, his opponent pushes and Daniel loops with very heavy topspin and controls the rally. His serve sets up his best shot. He gets exactly the type of ball he wants, so he can unleash his heavy loops. He uses the same tactic, again and again. At least half the points start in a way which allows Daniel to use his loops. If his opponent also frequently serves with backspin, then Daniel can loop even more. At local league table tennis Daniel wins most of his matches.
What about me? Well I like rallies to start faster, so that I can use my blocks and counter- attacks. So I use a lot of long, fast serves. The ball is usually returned deeper and with speed, which I find easier to deal with than a slower and shorter ball. I like pace to work with, so with many of my serves I inject pace into the rally straight away. When returning serves, I increasingly try to flick or loop, once again injecting pace into the rally. Therefore I can start most points in a way which complements my playing style.
This is a more strategic way of thinking about your serves. Your serves should not be isolated from the rest of your game. Yes, you can use serves to win cheap points and make it hard for your opponent to attack. But your serves should also set up the sort of rallies which you are best at.
So, have a think about your playing style. What type of rallies do you like – slow backspin or fast topspin? Do you play better when the ball is short or when the ball is deep? What serves can you use to set up the rallies you want? You may need to experiment with some different serves – or even learn some new serves – but if you can find a happy marriage between good quality serves, which set up the type of rallies you want, then you will have a very strong service game.