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.
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!