5 Best Ping Pong Serves (With Professional Examples)
While smashing the ball back and forth is a hell of a lot of fun, you can’t do it all the time — you’re heavily restricted by the shots your opponent plays.
Do you know one time you have complete freedom? That’s right, you guessed it: serving.
The quickest way to enforce your game is by improving the quality of your serves, it helped me a crazy amount. But first things first, you need to understand serving and have decent serves to perform.
To help push you in the right direction, we’ll explain serving importance and cover some of the best ping pong serves we recommend learning.
The Importance of a Great Serve
Serving is the only time you have complete control of the ball, so you have complete freedom to dictate the beginning of the rally. This means you can selectively play to your strengths and your opponent’s weaknesses.
Facing an opponent with a poor backhand attack? A topspin pendulum serve deep to the backhand could be a good choice.
Up against a formidable looper with poor touch play? A short chop serve should do the trick.
Countering a player’s weakness with an effective serve gives you a strong start to a rally, so you’d be foolish not to make use of such a golden opportunity. But here lies the issue. For one, you need to be able to read the game to decipher which serves give you an advantage, and two, you need to be able to effectively execute said serve. Only then do you have one of the best serves in table tennis.
This means you need a lot of practice to improve the quality of each of your serves. You need to get factors such, as spin, placement, and deception just right.
Read More: Basic Table Tennis Skills
Professional Ping Pong Serves and Their Servers
Kenta Matsudaira — Tomahawk/Backhand Tomahawk
Kenta Matsudaira is a master of the tomahawk, which I feel is one of the best serves in table tennis if used correctly. Generally, playing repeated tomahawk serves is not advisable as they often drift long. Once your opponent makes the adjustment, the ball is there for a free attack.
However, Matsudaira keeps himself much safer by varying his tomahawk serve. He uses a combination of both the regular and backhand tomahawk. With opposing sidespin, and a near-identical setup, this makes it very hard for his opponents to commit to a strong attack. Instead, they often play more passively. This results in many points won outright from the serve, and many more from easy third-ball sitters.
How To Perform the Tomahawk Serve
Unlike most other forehand serves, you face the table rather than away from it for the tomahawk. The serving motion is very similar to throwing an actual tomahawk, hence the name. Once you have thrown the ball, draw your racket back beside your face.
You should then squat down and turn your racket externally a little to expose more of your forehand side. Then to strike the ball, extend your bat outward at the elbow and brush the ball on the side to create sidespin.
The backhand tomahawk is largely the same. The main difference is you turn your racket the opposite way to expose your backhand side before contact. You should also strike the ball in front of the body rather than to the side. Otherwise, you do not have the correct angle to play the serve.
Ma Long — Pendulum
Naturally, the greatest player of all time has a very proficient serve. Ma Long’s serve is nothing especially fancy — it’s just a regular pendulum serve. However, he has become a master at being deceptive. This makes his pendulum one of the best table tennis serves as it is also loaded with spin. A false read often leads to an easy point for the Chinaman.
If you pay close attention, you’ll also notice that Ma Long occasionally fakes a reverse pendulum serve. He does this by altering his racket motion after contact with the ball. He rotates his racket inwards so that his forehand is facing in front of his body instead of away from it. Furthermore, rather than stop his pendulum serve around his rib cage, he continues the motion but changes direction away from his body. This motion emulates the reverse pendulum serve.
How To Perform the Pendulum Serve
Almost all pendulum players serve on their backhand side. Position yourself next to the outside edge of the table, with your left leg forward and your right leg back (for righties). You should also face perpendicular to the table.
Bend forward and focus on transferring your weight from your back leg to your front leg on impact. In preparation for the stroke, you should bend your elbow and raise it to your side. You then lower your arm and close your angle at the elbow on impact, brushing the ball on the left-hand side. If you continue the motion after contact, your racket/hand should hit your rib cage.
You should also turn your body into the serve as you make contact with the ball. Step inward with your right foot so that you are facing the direction of play and in the ready position.
Ma Lin — Ghost
The perfect backspin table tennis serve has eluded most players. But not Ma Lin. Oh, no. This Chinese penholder has mastered the ancient art of the ‘flick of the wrist’. While he has an arsenal of tricky serves, it is ghost serve that we will be discussing today.
Ma Lin’s backspin serve is loaded with so much spin that the ball bounces on his opponent’s side, and the backspin draws the ball back to the net. This serve is commonly called the ghost serve. When discussing the best ping pong serves, the ghost is very rarely in the mix. This is because to perform the ghost serve consistently, you usually need to kill the forward movement of the ball to allow the spin to dominate. This means serving the ball high, which is bad when playing competitively.
It seems nobody told Ma Lin this because he is able to keep his ghost serve low so it is very difficult to attack. Undoubtedly, it’s one of the most remarkable serves in table tennis ever.
How To Perform the Ghost Serve
Fortunately, the ghost serve draws a lot of parallels from the pendulum serve. Your body positioning is identical, it is just the serving motion itself that differs.
Unlike the pendulum serve, you don’t raise your elbow, rather you keep it low and tucked in fairly close to your hip. Begin by having your racket in front of you with your forehand facing the ceiling.
Then draw your racket back behind the ball while maintaining a bent elbow. On contact, you are simply reversing this motion. Your serve needs to be perfect to get the ball to bounce back toward the net. For one, you need your racket angle to be completely flat. Even if you only close your racket angle slightly, you will give the ball too much momentum, and the ball won’t come back. This is the main difference between the chop and ghost serve.
You also need to have a solid brushing motion to impart heavy backspin and don’t bounce the ball too close to the net either. The closer to the net it bounces, the less time backspin has to draw the ball backward.
Xu Xin — Shovel
Xu Xin is a diverse server, much like Ma Lin. He also uses a penhold grip which gives him great wrist flexibility — perfect for serving. Like other deceptive servers, Xu Xin often fakes his sidespin motion to try and fool his opponents. He does this by performing a pendulum and faking a reverse pendulum serve.
However, Xu Xin also has a tendency for table tennis serving that you seldom see in other players. Sometimes when he performs his pendulum serve, he doesn’t try and fake a reverse pendulum. Instead, after hitting his pendulum serve, he draws his racket behind his body out of view. This is another way to obscure the spin he imparts on the ball.
Given that I have already discussed the serving motion for the pendulum serve, let’s take a look at the shovel serve. This is Xu Xin’s go-to serve recently.
How To Perform the Shovel Serve
Begin with your setup the same as the pendulum: left leg next to the backhand edge of the table with your right foot behind. You should also be facing perpendicular to the table (for righties).
Bend your elbow more than 90 degrees and have your racket angle fairly open. You should position your bat in front of your shoulder.
The shovel serve differs from the pendulum and chop serves in a fundamental way, and that’s wrist motion. Unlike these serves, you use very little or no wrist motion to generate spin. Instead, it’s strictly the movement of the racket itself.
As you throw the ball up, bring your shoulder back along with your racket. Following this, on impact, rotate your shoulder along with your racket and strike the ball in a left-to-right motion to generate sidespin.
Jan Ove Waldner — Pendulum/Fast Down-The-Line
Jan Ove Waldner is a fan-favorite table tennis player. He was an expert at reading the game and a master at producing spin. Back during his heyday, the serving rules were different. You were allowed to obscure the ball with your non-playing arm, which was a major advantage for technical servers.
Waldner exploited this rule to incredible effect in table tennis. His best serves were almost impossible to read, making him one of the deadliest servers of his era.
He used a variety of table tennis serve techniques, but fundamentally, the vast majority of Waldner’s serves were pendulums. Much like the modern Chinese players we have discussed thus far, he fakes his pendulum serve for a reverse pendulum fairly often.
However, one tendency Waldner had more than most was his quick down-the-line serve. Sometimes this was a pendulum, and other times it was more of a reverse pendulum. Neither had much spin, but both were fast and deadly accurate.
How to perform a fast down-the-line serve
Begin by setting up the same way you would perform a regular pendulum ping pong serve. And then when you strike the ball, rather than cutting it harshly on its side to impart heavy sidespin, hit the ball more towards the back and follow through and upwards. This will significantly increase the ball’s forward momentum, making it harder to return.
Remember, the key to an effective down-the-line serve is pace, accuracy, and conditioning. I recommend only throwing out a maximum of a few of these per game. The moment your opponent expects such a serve, they have the opportunity for an easy attack.
The best way to set up for this serve is to condition your opponent by serving both short and long deep to your opponent’s backhand.
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The Best Ping Pong Serve Tips
Before you embark on trying all of the serves we have discussed today, I thought I’d quickly produce a checklist of components for you to work on. Remember, take your time, and don’t expect killer serves overnight. It took me years to develop tricky serves, and I’m still improving them to this day.
- Focus on brushing motion — this is what produces spin
- Learn at least three serves — you need options against different types of players
- Vary your placement — to keep your opponent guessing
- Vary your spin — to prevent your opponent from getting into a rhythm and becoming confident
- Be deceptive! — try to fool your opponents, this will win you more points
As the only time you control the ball, serves are the most important shots in table tennis. You certainly need to if you’re not investing time into developing good ping pong serves.
What the best players in the world all have in common is that their serves are of very high quality. And what’s exciting is everyone’s serves are different. Even if players are technically performing the same serve, we all put our own spin on our serves (no pun intended).
So while the likes of the pendulum, tomahawk, and shovel are some of the best ping pong, you should practice as many different types as you can to see what works for you. It shouldn’t be long before you find a collection of serves you really connect with. Then it’s just a matter of practice, practice, practice!
What Is the Most Effective Serve in Ping Pong?
I feel that the pendulum ping pong serve is the best serve. Almost all players at an intermediate level and above use it, and for good reason. It’s easy to perform and easy to vary, which leads to a lot of successful points.
What Is the Hardest Serve to Return in Table Tennis?
Again, a quality pendulum service is very difficult to return. However, I’ve found that elite servers who use the reverse pendulum or shovel serve are more difficult to handle. It’s mostly down to personal preference.
Is the Ghost Serve Legal?
The ghost serve is 100% legal. It’s just few players use it as it is very difficult to keep yourself safe. Generally, the ghost serve is something a little flashy reserved for training.
What Is the Easiest Serve in Table Tennis?
The easiest serve to perform is probably either the backhand chop or corkscrew serve. They both have a far more natural feeling than other serves. Beginners pick them up a lot quicker than they do chop or pendulum serves.
Freelance writer. Table tennis enthusiast. Lover of all things online. When I’m not working on my loop game I’m probably binge-watching some fantasy show.