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 19, 2019 - Strategic Tactics

Sunday, August 18, 2019
by: Larry Hodges

Tactical thinking is what you do to win now; Strategic Thinking is what you do to develop your game in the long run. You need both; here are two articles on this:

But there is also what I call Strategic Tactics. What are they? Suppose, in the first point of a match, you push the opponent's serve back, he loops slow and super-spinny, and you block off. You could think, "That's spinny! I better avoid it." And so, tactically, you decide you have to attack his serve or push short over and over, even when you aren't comfortable doing so - which puts you in a weaker tactical situation, since you are afraid to push long, even when the situation calls for it. Instead, perhaps intentionally push long on the second point, so that you can adjust to his spinny loop. If you do this, then you can get used to his spinny loop - and then you can go back to avoiding it when you can (attacking serve or pushing it short), while still having the option of pushing long when you need to. (Here's How to Punish those Slow, Spinny Loops.)

There are many examples of this. If your opponent has a surface you aren't very good at, or a very flat backhand, or very heavy push, rather than avoid it, play into these shots at first so that you get comfortable against them, and then go back to more tactical play.

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?