How many different serves should you use?

I have been experimenting with my serves for the past few months. During the summer I only used my pendulum serve in matches. This is probably my best serve. With a similar action, I can serve sidespin with backspin or sidespin with topspin. And I can serve into different positions on the table. So I am able to get plenty of variation.

But over the past few weeks, I have switched to a multiple service action strategy when playing matches. I still use my pendulum serves, but also reverse pendulum, tomahawk, backhand sidespin and my own weird action which I don’t think has a name. Maybe we can call it the “Lodziak”! This has massively increased the amount of service variations I can do.

But which approach is best? One service action or multiple service actions? Here’s my latest thinking…

One service action

For three months – June, July and August – I focused entirely on my pendulum serve. I was having plenty of success with the serve, so I thought why bother with my other actions?

And initially, I actually think this approach improved both my service game and the rest of my game too. Why would this be?

Well, by narrowing my focus, I could really improve the quality of my pendulum serve. I could work on my spin generation, my spin variation, my placement variation and my disguise. Simply by repeating the same serve again and again and again, I think the serve got much better. When serving at my best, I was starting to give many players, even those better than me, all kinds of problems.

But it wasn’t just the serve which improved. My recovery after my serve also improved. I gained a better understanding of how my serves were likely to be returned. Therefore I was also able to improve my 3rd ball attack, which meant I was able to be the dominant player in the rally more often, and win more points.

Initially my entire game improved, against all opponents. But, as July turned to August, I began to experience the downside of using only one service action. 

I could still dominate weaker players with only one service action, but some of the stronger players were starting to adjust and get better at reading the different spin and placement variations. 

No matter how well I served, my single service action was having less of an impact. More balls were being returned well, into awkward positions. I was losing my advantage. With no back-up plan, I felt a bit frustrated and a bit restricted. 

Multiple service actions

So like my two-year-old toddler, I decided to throw all my toys out of my pram, destroy everything and start again. It was time to try a completely different approach. 

For the past few weeks, I have switched to using multiple service actions. This is Project Maximum Disruption.

My list of service actions now include:

  • Pendulum
  • Reverse pendulum
  • Tomahawk
  • Backhand sidespin
  • The “Lodziak” – my own special forehand sidespin serve

All of these serves can be done with side-backspin or side-topspin. All can be served deep (backhand corner, middle, forehand corner). All can be served short (forehand, middle, backhand).

Overall this gives me a whopping 60 service variations. This is more service variations than I could actually use in a best of 5 match. I could potentially do a different service variation every time I served.

In reality, I have not tried to be so extreme with my variations. I will repeat service variations if I sense an opponent struggles against a particular type of serve. But I have many more options available than just relying on one service action.

And I have had quite good success with this approach so far. The use of multiple service actions is causing increased uncertainty in some opponents. If one type of service action is not so effective, I can do it less and use others more. I can usually find a few service variations which cause every opponent a few problems.

And most interestingly of all, I have found that my favourite pendulum serve has become more effective again when using it against those stronger players who had started to adjust earlier in the summer. By using the pendulum serve less frequently, these opponents have less opportunities to get comfortable with it. So when I do use it, it still has some of it’s ‘surprise factor’.

But there are some downsides with using multiple service actions. I now have to practice and master more service actions. Am I doing the required amount of practice? Of course not. I aspire to do so, but I never seem to find the time. This means I’m probably not doing any of my serves to the best of my ability. If my serves aren’t as spinny or well placed as I intend, then of course they are easier to return. So by increasing the amount of service actions, there is the danger that I don’t focus on any of them enough and none are as strong as they could be.

Another downside is that I sometimes confuse myself, especially with the recovery after the serve and attempted 3rd ball attack. As each service action is different, I get different types of return for each, which require a different recovery position after the serve, and a different type of 3rd ball attack. If I get these elements wrong – which I often do – then I make mistakes.

And a final downside of using multiple service actions is that it may be a little easier for an experienced player to read my serves. Since each service action requires different swing mechanics, I may be giving away too many clues before I even serve –  “Oh look, Tom is squatting down to do his tomahawk serve. I know what’s coming next”.

Which approach is best?

Should you use a single service action or multiple service actions? I swing from one end of the spectrum to the other. I have tried both approaches and have experienced the pros and cons of both. 

I am currently leaning towards the multiple service action approach. So far it is proving to be effective and I like to have these extra service options available. If one service action is less effective against an opponent, I can focus on the others. Plus, it is a lot of fun trying to mess opponents up with lots of variation. Sometimes I can see an opponent mentally crumble. I find this very satisfying. Yes, I am a cruel so and so.

But what works for me may not work for you. There is no right or wrong approach. I have seen players have success with both approaches. And maybe you might sit somewhere in the middle. It doesn’t have to be one or five service actions. You could use two or three different service actions. 

What I do encourage you to do is experiment. If you currently use only one service action, maybe you could experiment with adding another one or two service actions. Does this create new options for you to win points?

If you use multiple service actions, maybe you could reduce the number for a while and focus on really improving the quality of spin and placement of one or two serves. Does this improve your overall service game? 

Experiment. Try something different. See if it has a positive outcome.

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