Tip of the Week

A Tip of the Week will go up every Monday by noon.

Coaches - submit your own Tips for publication!

Have a question about a Tip of the Week? Ask on the Forum!!!

(Want more tips? Here are 171 more, done for the USATT website from 1999-2003, by Larry Hodges as "Dr. Ping Pong." Want even more? Here's the complete USATT archive, with the 171 by Larry as well as ones by Carl Danner from 2003-2007.)




August 12, 2019 - Serving Short

Monday, August 12, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

One of the most fundamental rules of serving is that you have to be able to serve short. A deep serve may be effective against some players, and up to a certain level, it may always be, but if you cannot serve short, you will always be handicapped against most good players.

A short serve is a serve that, if allowed, would bounce twice on the far side of the table. Because of this, a short serve cannot be looped like a deep serve because the table is in the way. This forces the receiver to reach over the table to return the serve, which can be awkward, especially on the forehand side.

There are many types of short serves, with advantages and disadvantages to each. You can serve very short so that the ball bounces very close to the net. You can serve short so that its second bounce would be near the end-line, which is usually the best option. You can serve sidespin, spinning either right or left, combined with topspin or backspin, or else a pure topspin or backspin serve. You can fake spin but instead serve no-spin. You can serve to the wide angles, to the middle, or anywhere in between. There are endless varieties and you should be able to use most of them.

To serve short takes good touch. Get a bucket of balls and practice alone on a table. If you point the table into a corner, the balls will mostly stay in one spot, so you can practice without long breaks to collect the balls. Practice this until you can control the ball's spin, bounce, and placement.

Start off by serving backspin by brushing the BOTTOM of the ball with an open racket. Try to make the ball barely clear the net. It should bounce close to the net both on your side and your opponent's side. If you do it softly enough, it should bounce several times on the other side; it might even bounce backwards. Contact the ball just above the table level so that it will bounce lower. (Later you will want to be more aggressive with this serve, so that the second bounce is near the opponent's end-line.)

As you learn to control the short backspin serve, try putting sidespin on it by brushing the ball from side to side. Experiment until it feels right. Then practice it until you can do it consistently.

When you can do a short sidespin backspin serve, you're ready to try a short topspin serve. This time contact the ball with your racket going diagonally sideways and up. This action will make the ball pop up and go deep at first, but practice will give you control. Remember to keep the ball low to the net (on ALL serves). Experiment until feels right. Practice until you can put maximum spin on all types of serves and still keep them low and short. (Or fake spin but give no-spin - do this by contacting the ball near the handle, where the racket isn't moving much. You maximize spin by contacting near the tip.)

Generally, all short serves can be classified as either backspin, side-top, or no-spin. You can treat a sidespin-backspin serve as if it were a backspin since both can be pushed - you just have to aim a little to the side against the sidespin-backspin one. A pure sidespin can be treated as a topspin once you get used to it, so unless the serve has backspin, it can be considered a side-top or no-spin serve.

The advantage of the short backspin serve is that it is tricky to attack. The disadvantage is that it can be pushed back heavy or short and is easier to return safely. The advantage of a short side-top serve is that it can be awkward returning it, especially on the forehand, and many times is pushed off the end or popped up. The disadvantage is that it is easier to attack than a short backspin serve. But even if it is attacked, the return of a short side-top serve is easier to deal with because you know in advance the return will almost always be deep. A major advantage of a no-spin serve is that the opponent can't use your spin against you, so the receiver can't push or flip with as much spin. It's also tricky to drop short or keep low, compared to a backspin serve.

You will have to decide which types of spins work best for you. For example, if you like to loop pushes, serve mostly backspin. You will find that certain spins work best against certain players. Another thing to keep in mind is that it is often harder to return a sidespin serve spinning away from you rather than one spinning towards you. For example, a righty's backhand serve is usually more effective to another righty's forehand, and a forehand pendulum serve is often more effective to the backhand.

By serving wide to one side, you make your opponent reach over the table even more but you will also be providing him with the opportunity to hit an extreme angle against you. It is often best to serve to the middle and force the opponent to move both sideways and in, while also taking away the extreme angle. Again, this depends on the opponent as well as your own game.

A short serve can be effective even if done over and over as long as you vary the spin. However, a short serve is most effective when used in conjunction with deep serves, so the receiver has more things to worry about.

Finally, you should watch the good players whenever possible and copy their serves. Don't be afraid to ask questions – most players are glad to give you a lecture on their favorite serve. Best of all, work with a coach who can really help you with your serves.

Placement is extremely important. For example, very short serve can be awkward to receive for some, and draws him over the table, leaving him vulnerable to a deep return. But it can be returned at an extreme angle. See what gives your opponent the most trouble, both placement, depth, and spin.

Most importantly though, get out that bucket of balls and practice!






August 5, 2019 - Serving Long

Monday, August 5, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Serving deep has one major advantage and one major disadvantage. The advantage is that it forces an opponent to contact the ball as far from his/her target (your side of the table) as possible. The disadvantage is that it allows an opponent to attack more readily, especially with a loop drive. (Note – a short serve is a serve that, if given the chance, would bounce twice on the opponent's side of the table. Next week's Tip will be Serving Short.)

Before deciding whether to serve long or short, know the advantages of each, and match them up with both you and your opponent's strengths and weaknesses. For example, if you opponent does not attack deep serves well, and you are a strong counter-driver, you might want to serve deep topspin.

Here are four types of deep serves that are effective.

  • Fast and Flat
    A fast and flat serve is most effective served into an opponent's backhand. By having no spin, it "dies" when it contacts the opponent's racket, and goes into the net. Even when this serve is read properly, most players are forced to take the serve late and lift it, often setting the server up for an easy attack.

    Make the ball hit your side of the table as close to the endline as possible, and hit the opponent's side as deep as possible. This allows you to serve with maximum speed. It is especially important to serve this ball as deep as possible so opponent is forced to back up. Making the serve as fast and deep as possible, the opponent will have little time to make a backswing, which will make an effective return very difficult.

    All serves bounce on the table twice before the opponent contacts it. Each time the ball hits the table, it picks up some topspin. If this is not taken into account, a fast and flat serve will have some topspin, and the ball won't "die" off the opponent's racket. To counteract this, stroke slightly downward at contact, putting very slight backspin on the ball.

  • Deep and Spinny
    Deep spin serves are among the trickiest of serves to return. The receiver not only has to read the spin but is aiming for a target farther away than for a shorter serve.

    A deep spin serve is slower than a fast and flat serve, so an opponent has more time to attack. You have to judge whether the serve is effective against a specific opponent.

    If your spin serve breaks a lot, you might want its first bounce (on your side of the table) to be midway between the endline and the net. That way the opponent doesn't see the break for as long as possible, plus it gives a bigger angle into the receiver's backhand as it breaks sideways. You want it to land deep on the opponent's side so his/her target (your side of the table) is as far away as possible.

  • Fast Down-the-Line
    If you serve deep into an opponent's backhand, but he/she steps around and attacks it with a forehand, you might want to try a fast down-the-line serve. Most players who step around move too soon, so you can often get an "ace" or at a service winner. At the least, the opponent will hesitate about stepping around on the next serve.
  • Just off the End
    Here an opponent has to decide both what type of spin is on the ball and whether the ball will go deep or not. If given the chance, the ball's second bounce (on opponent's side) would be around the edge or just off the end. This serve combines some of the advantages of a short serve and a deep spin serve. It's called a "half-long" serve.





July 29, 2019 - Do You Want to Know an Opponent's Rating Before a Match?

Monday, July 29, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

If you know your opponent's rating before a match, you have several advantages:

  1. You can use tactics and techniques that will generally defeat that level;
  2. If the opponent is lower rated, you can go in with confidence;
  3. If the opponent is higher rated, you can go in feeling you have nothing to lose, and so play better than normal.

On the other hand:

  1. The opponent's rating might be inaccurate, and so the advantages mentioned above can all backfire;
  2. If the opponent is lower rated, you may feel pressure because of a possible upset, or just play down to that level, and lose;
  3. If the opponent is higher rated, you may feel intimidated, and so not play well.

I would say that far more players have lost matches because of the latter reasons than players who won for the former reasons. In fact, it's not even close. For most players, it's best to approach each match with your own game plan, and worry about the opponent's playing style, not his rating. If you execute properly, you'll beat most of the "weaker" players, and probably lose to most of the "stronger" players. But this is better than pulling off an occasional win by knowing the opponent's rating, and losing five for the same reason.

In most tournaments, an opponent's rating is usually listed on the draw sheet and match slip, and so you usually will know his rating; you'd have to make an extra effort to avoid seeing it. And, of course, you might simply know the player and his rough rating from the past. So what do you do?

Simply put it out of your mind. To reiterate, the opponent's playing style is what is important, not his rating. (Note that playing style includes his level at the various techniques. A rating doesn't give you that info.)

There are some players who do like to know the opponent's rating in advance, for the very reasons given above. As long as you are flexible in your thinking and tactics in the middle of a match situation - and most players are not - that's fine. It's usually better to figure out the opponent's level of play in the match itself, not hope his level matches the number next to his name.

Also, an opponent's overall level isn't nearly as important as what the opponent's level is for each technique. If his rating or level is 2000, but he loops like a 2200 player and blocks like an 1800 player, then your goal isn't to beat a 2000-level player; it's to avoid the 2200 looper, while going after the 1800 blocker.






July 8, 2019 - Take the Shot

Monday, July 8, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Many players hesitate in taking an aggressive shot because they are afraid of missing. On the contrary, if you are afraid of taking a specific shot, then (unless it's a championship match), any good coach will tell you that's a reason to take that shot, so you'll learn to do it under pressure - and especially when you need it when you do have a championship match.

The more you go for the right aggressive shot under pressure the better you'll get at it. In fact, an experienced player will be nervous about not taking the right shot, since he knows he's not playing the percentages, and so is literally playing to lose. This doesn't mean killing every ball; it means learning what the high-percentage shot is, and taking that shot whenever it comes up, regardless of the score. A great example of this is looping or otherwise attacking a deep serve. If you are afraid to do this in practice, then how will you do it when you really need the shot?






June 24, 2019 - Learning to Win

Monday, June 24, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

One of the most common problems players face in their table tennis is the inability to recognize the difference between learning the shots, and learning to win. There's a big difference.

Many players have a good idea of what to do out at the table - but just don't have the strokes. This article is not directed toward these players, who generally know who they are. These players need to see a coach to fix up their strokes, and will improve as fast as their strokes develop.

An equal number of players have good strokes, but don't know how to put them together to win matches. Players like this can spend years perfecting shots, but never improve as fast as they should - and often quit the game in disgust as others pass them in rating or ranking. This article is directed toward these players.

To get the maximum out of whatever shots you have, you have to combine the shots in various combinations. For example, a player with a great loop against backspin won't get the most out of his game if he constantly serves topspin. Similarly, a player who counter-drives well may not get the most out of his game if he mostly serves backspin. This is tactical thinking.

And yet a player who is weak at one area of his game should often play to use that weakness in practice matches to make it stronger - and develop a more powerful game. This is strategic thinking.

It goes beyond just serve and receive, of course. A player with a good loop kill may regularly go for a winner on the first shot in the rally, and although he may get away with it sometimes, he'd do far better if he set himself up better with other shots. He may end up winning by ripping every shot - but he'd be even a better player if he learned to pick his shots.

How does one learn to win? There are two main variables in this:

I. DEVELOPING THE RIGHT SHOTS

Many players develop their games with no real thought behind it. As mentioned previously, it doesn't make sense for a player who loops backspin well to constantly serve topspin. (Unless, of course, this player is trying to strategically improve that part of his game.) Instead, a player such as this should develop the shots that set up his loop against backspin - a short backspin or no-spin serve, perhaps a short push to force a pushed return. Similarly, you should develop your game to favor the shots you do well.

Take the time to think out what type of game you best play:

1. Strengthen Your Strengths

  • What type of rallies are you best at?
  • What shots and techniques should you develop to get yourself into that type of rally?
  • What shots and techniques should you develop to become even stronger in that type of rally?

2. Strengthen Your Weaknesses

  • What types of rallies are you weak at?
  • What shots and techniques can you develop that will strengthen yourself in the rallies that you are weak at?
  • What shots and techniques can you develop that will keep you out of the rallies that you are weak at?

II. KNOWING HOW TO USE THOSE SHOTS

Table tennis is very similar to chess. A top chess player can spot a weaker player a few pieces, perhaps even the queen, and still win because he knows how to use the pieces better. Similarly, a table tennis player will often win against a player with better shots if he knows how to use the shots he does have more effectively.

How many times have you heard someone say, "I could have won except for..." Shouldn't that player learn to handle or avoid that one "except for" shot?

BACK TO LEARNING TO WIN

How does one take what has been given above and apply it to match situations?

If you only play against stronger players, you will most often be forced to react to your opponent's shot, rather than forcing your shots and combinations on your opponent. On the other hand, if you play players who are weaker, you will force your game on your opponent - and instead of reacting to your opponent's shots, you will be practicing your own combinations.

Players who rarely have the opportunity to play stronger players are handicapped in their development. But so too are players who only play players who are stronger. To reach your maximum potential, you need both. A player with a rating, say, 100 points lower than yours is perfect for developing your own combinations.

So, develop the shots you need to win and learn how to use those shots. Develop your shots by playing stronger players when you can. But stop avoiding those weaker players. Turn them into practice fodder, rather than be fodder yourself.