Many beginner and intermediate players often dread having to practice their serves, often viewing it as a boring and overly repetitive exercise. I mean it is only one shot, so it can’t be that important right?
The reality is quite the opposite, service remains one of the most important shots in table tennis and a player can never have enough practice in trying to improve their service game. In fact, a player’s service is the only shot in which they will have complete control over in a point and consequently it is essential to utilise this opportunity. Just to highlight how important service really is in table tennis, it is worthwhile to briefly consider the development of service rules in table tennis.
A Brief History
The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) has made a number of amendments to the rules of service in the past 100 years. These have been in an attempt to reduce the effectiveness of serves, as over time players had developed certain actions to gain an advantage over their opponents.
The most recent example was in response to techniques which became popular in the 1980’s and 1990’s, where players began to completely block the opponent’s view of the ball by using their free arm or upper body. This meant that the opponent could not see the ball being struck, making it very difficult for the receiver to judge the type and amount of spin on the ball and accordingly play a good return.
“From the start of service until it is struck, the ball shall be above the level of the playing surface and behind the server’s end line, and it shall not be hidden from the receiver by the server or his or her doubles partner or by anything they wear or carry.”- ITTF Regulations, Rule 2.06.04.
To give the opponent a better chance of receiving the ball, the ITTF made these type of “hidden serves” illegal.
Benefits of a Strong Service
As discussed earlier, service is the only shot in which a player will have complete control over in terms of spin, speed and placement. This can be used to your advantage, as you will be able to dictate the play by forcing your opponent to play specific shots.
Short Heavy Backspin Serve
The best example is the use of a short heavy backspin serve, as it ideally leaves your opponent with only one shot to play if executed perfectly. If your serve is short enough, your opponent will be unable to play an attacking loop shot as the ball will bounce twice before carrying off the end of the table. Also, getting enough backspin will mean that it will be very difficult for the opponent to flick the ball, meaning that they must return the ball with a backspin push. The server now knows that a backspin push is the most probable return, and can then accordingly set themselves up for their next shot.
Force Opponent to Make an Error
The other benefit of a strong service is that you can force your opponent into making errors when returning your serve, allowing you to win quick and easy points. If your opponent is struggling to read the type of spin which you are putting on your serve, this often results in the opponent completely missing their shot or a weak return.
Even if you do not win the point immediately from the serve, a weak return immediately puts the server on the front foot by allowing them to play the first attacking shot. You can see this in action frequently at the top level, as these players are always looking to play an attacking shot off of the opponent’s receive of serve whenever possible.
Change Type of Serve
However, if you do realise that your opponent is struggling to return a certain serve this does not mean that you should continue to do this serve every point. The key is to variate your service as much as possible, as this means that your opponent will be constantly unsure of what serve you will be doing. A good tactic is to save the serve you know your opponent struggles with for points that are crucial in the game such as at 10-9 or when your opponent has gained a slight lead over you.
Ultimately, the points which you win as a result of your service can often be the difference between you winning or losing a match. It is important that you devote time in your training sessions to service practice, and use this time purposefully to practice variating the spin, speed and placement of your serves.