This article is taken from my book ‘Spin: Tips and Tactics to win at Table Tennis‘
To return serves well, you need to read the spin. It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But you’d be amazed how many players don’t really focus on reading the spin on the serve. If you have no idea what the spin is, then you have to guess. You might guess right. You might guess wrong. Either way it will be a guess, and guessing doesn’t usually end well.
So, reading service spin is essential. How do you do this? The first step, and the most important step, is watching your opponent, like a hawk. More specifically, you need to watch your opponent’s bat. Even more specifically, you need to watch your opponent’s bat as it contacts the ball.
This is the key moment. This is where you have the earliest possible clue as to the spin on the ball. It’s this fraction of a second which gives you the maximum amount of time to react. Blink and you’ll miss it.
Backspin & Topspin Serves
You need to maintain an intense focus on the player on the other side of the table. If your opponent’s bat is moving down as it contacts the ball, then the serve will be backspin. If the bat is moving up as it contacts the ball, then the serve will be topspin. A simple approach, but surprisingly effective. Bat down = backspin. Bat up = topspin.
With some opponents, the service spin is very obvious. There is no tricky service action. No attempt at disguise. Just a straightforward backspin or topspin motion. By watching the server closely, you can easily pick out what the spin is.
With better players, it can still be hard. The up or down movement may be very subtle. There may be a lot of distraction with an exaggerated service action. Or there might be some clever deception to confuse you. Even though it is harder, by watching very closely you can still pick out the up or down movement when the server contacts the ball. If you don’t watch, you have no chance.
The secondary visual clue is observing how the ball moves. In general, backspin serves will have a lower bounce, stay lower over the net and slow down. Topspin serves will have a higher bounce, jump up more over the net and kick towards you. It is risky to attempt to read the spin on the ball bounce alone. You give yourself very little time to react. By the time the ball bounces for the first time and moves over the net, it is almost upon you. Your decision-making has been reduced to a fraction of a fraction of a second.
Watching the server’s initial contact with the ball gives you the most amount of time to react. Watching how the ball moves gives you additional information. Put the two together and you should have a decent idea of what spin is on the ball.
How about sidespin serves? These cause a lot of problems. Some players tend to panic when they receive a sidespin serve and tentatively prod at the ball, sending it wide off the table. So, what is the best way to return sidespin serves?
I don’t actually treat sidespin as a separate category of serve. Why is this? Well, many serves will have an element of sidespin, but it is sidespin with something. It will either be sidespin with backspin or sidespin with topspin. It’s rarely the sidespin part of the serve which catches a player out. It is usually that they have misread the backspin or topspin part.
For example, I often serve sidespin with topspin. If the player misreads and pushes the ball, the return will be nice and high for me to attack. I also often serve sidespin with backspin. If the player misreads and drives the ball, the return will go into the net. The player has not misread the sidespin. The player has misread the backspin and topspin. The sidespin motion just adds in some extra deception and confusion.
If the bat moves sideways and down, then it will be sidespin with backspin. If the bat moves sideways and up, it will be sidespin with topspin. You just need to focus again on whether the bat is moving up or down on contact with the ball. Keep it simple. Reduce how much information your brain needs to process.
You can return these side-topspin and side-backspin serves in the same way you would return a backspin or topspin serve. You will need to make a small adjustment to account for the sidespin, by aiming the ball into a different part of the table. If in doubt, just aim for the middle of the table and the ball will land somewhere, even if there is a lot of sidespin.
Reading the degree of spin
To progress even more, you need to be able to read the degree of spin. This is definitely a more advanced skill, but something you should aspire to. A backspin serve could be heavy backspin or light backspin. A topspin serve could be heavy topspin or light topspin. A serve could have very little spin at all, something we call a no spin serve or a float serve.
Watching the bat is once again vital. As well as looking for the up and down motion, you also need to judge the bat speed. A very fast bat and a whipping motion when the server contacts the ball will result in more spin. A slow bat with a more fixed wrist will result in less spin. If you watch the ball very closely, you can see how much it is rotating. Every ball has a brand label on it. If the label is a blur and you can hardly see it, then the ball has lots of spin. If the label is more visible, there will be less spin.
Expand your service knowledge bank
Reading spin is hard, but it is reassuring to know that you can improve significantly with practice. Certainly, from my experience, the longer you play – the more you focus on reading spin – the easier it becomes. I recommend making reading spin and returning serves a regular part of your practice sessions.
You can do specific receiving practice. Your partner serves again and again and you return the serves. Make sure the serves are random, so you really have to focus on reading spin. Or if you are doing drills focusing on a different skill, e.g. footwork, you can still start the drill with a return of serve, rather than just putting the ball into play. The more you are exposed to serves, the quicker your skills will develop.
Practise with different players. Seek out players with tricky serves. By doing this you will gradually build up a mental knowledge bank of different types of serves. Over time, you will see less completely new serves. All serves will become more familiar and more comfortable to deal with. Reading spin will become much easier.