Tip of the Week

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

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(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.)

May 14, 2012 - Returning the Tomahawk Serve (or a Lefty Pendulum Serve)

Monday, May 14, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

This is the forehand serve where you serve with the racket tip up, and contact the ball on the right side so it curves to the left, and the spin makes the ball come to your right off the opponent's paddle. (This is for a righty. It's the same breaking spin as a lefty's forehand pendulum serve.) The serve normally has a combination of corkscrewspin and sidespin. 

It's awkward for many to take a ball spinning away from them on the forehand side and aim to their right, especially if the ball is short - try it and you'll see. Until you reach the advanced levels, nearly everyone returns this serve crosscourt toward the opponent's forehand side, and often they miss by going off the side to their left, or they allow the opponent to camp out on the forehand side.

Now think about this. Have you ever missed returning this serve by returning off the right side? Probably not. So just take it down the line, to the backhand, knowing the sidespin will keep you from going off the side. Contact the back of the ball, perhaps slightly on the left side, so that the ball goes to the right, down the line.

Keep the racket relatively high - don't lower it as you chase after it as it bounces and spins away from you, or you'll end up lifting the ball high or off the end. Better still, don't chase after it - anticipate the ball jumping away from you and be waiting for it, like a hunter ambushing his prey. It's often this last-second reaching for the ball that both loses control and forces the receiver to hit the ball on the right side, thereby making down-the-line returns impossible, with many returns going off the side to the left.

When the tomahawk serve is deep, it is often easier to loop down the line because by doing so you don't have to overcome the incoming sidespin so much.   When looping this type of sidespin crosscourt you contact the ball somewhat on the far side (the right side of the ball), going with the incoming spin, and so you have to overpower it. It's almost like looping against a backspin. If you take it down the line, you contact the ball more on the back, and so you are going against the spin, and so it's like looping a topspin. Just as when looping against topspin you don't have to lift the ball much when going down the line, so the table isn't in the way, and you don't have to overcome the incoming spin as you'd do against a backspin.

Because the table is in the way, many players compensate by rolling the ball back softly. If you place it well, you can get away with this. However, another way to handle this is to loop it aggressively, so you don't have to lower the racket below table level, so the table isn't in your way. This especially works if you loop crosscourt, since you may be able to backswing from the right side of the table. If you loop down the line the table may get in the way a bit more. As noted in the previous paragraph, the key when going crosscourt is that you have to overcome the incoming spin with your own topspin.

Finally, if you simply can't do anything aggressive with this serve, use placement and deception. Aim one way, and at the last second return the serve softly (and perhaps quicker off the bounce) the other way. For example, aim to the server's forehand, which is where he expects it, and then at the last second just pat the ball down the line. This pretty much takes the server's forehand out of play. If his backhand is stronger, try the reverse.

Note that the tomahawk serve is rarely used at the higher levels. (Though there are a few who specialize in it.) There's a reason for this; it's generally easier to read the spin off this serve (the wrist motion is more limited) and there's generally less variation than from other serves. Sure, you might have trouble with this serve the first few times an opponent pulls it on you. But after you've seen it a few times, and made adjustments, you should be able to take the initiative off this serve, and force most servers to use other serves.

Comments so far:: 2

May 7, 2012 - How to Play and Practice with Weaker Players

Monday, May 7, 2012
by: Larry Hodges


In some table tennis club in Lake Wobegone, all the players are above average and you never play a weaker player. But the rest of us have to make do playing and practicing with whoever is at our club. And often that means playing and practicing with weaker players.

Some recoil at the idea. It's almost a mantra for many to say, "I want to play stronger players." And it helps tremendously to play stronger players if you want to improve rapidly. But you also need to play matches with weaker players, and you can get good practice with them as well. Here's why.

Stronger players tend to dominate the points, and if you only play them there's a tendency to develop a game that reacts to what the opponent is doing rather than forcing your game on the other. (This can be true for both matches and practice drills.) It's also harder to try new things against a stronger player since new things aren't usually developed yet and so don't work too well against better players. It's against weaker players that you can try out new things before they are ready to try against stronger players. Sure, you can try out new things against stronger players, but since you are new to these new things, you won't be very good at it, and may not get very good feedback since the stronger player will likely dominate against it.

For example, suppose you want to develop your short push against an opponent's short serve. Against weaker players you'll see weaker serves whose spin you can read, and develop control in dropping them short - and soon you'll be ready to try it out against stronger serves. If you start out against stronger serves you'll have more trouble reading the spin, and so rather than focusing on developing your ball control, you'll be forced to do two things at once - read the spin and control the ball. When developing something new, you want to focus on the new thing so you can perfect that aspect.

Or suppose you want to work on your loop. Against weaker players you can focus on good technique. Against a stronger player, any loop that's not strong might get smashed, counterlooped, or jab-blocked for a winner, putting pressure on you to go for stronger loops when you aren't ready to do that yet.

The other thing you can do in a practice game against a weaker player is to pit the weaker aspects of your game against their strengths. Or use simple serves and receives and try to win strictly by rallying or by attacking without the benefit of your better serve & receive. Or play nearly everything to their stronger side. In all these ways you create a stronger, more competitive opponent, and can get better practice.

You can get good drilling practice with weaker players as well. Rather than working on speed, focus on consistency and good technique. Do longer drills at a steady pace as you develop and hone your shots. Do drills that take advantage of the weaker player's strengths. Keep the drills simple so your opponent can focus on a few things and better react to your shots. Many players improved dramatically this way despite drilling mostly with weaker players. I know - long ago I went from 1850 to 2100 in two years practicing regularly with 1800 players, and rarely getting to play anyone stronger. It's a matter of making the most of what you have - and you'll be surprised at how much a practice partner or playing opponent has if you take advantage of their strengths rather than harp on their weaknesses and lower level of play. 

April 30, 2012 - Chalk Up Wins with Chop Blocks

Monday, April 30, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

What is a chop block? It is a block with backspin. Since long pips and (usually) hardbat automatically returns topspin as backspin, it is the norm for those surfaces. But with inverted (as well as short pips to a lesser degree), a topspin ball is normally catapulted back with some topspin.

But what if the inverted blocker were to chop down on the ball at contact, thereby returning the incoming topspin as backspin? That is a chop block, and it can cause havoc with an opponent's timing.

Many players thrive in fast topspin rallies, using your own fast topspin balls to loop, counter-hit, or block back everything aggressively.  A sudden chop block against a topspin ball can completely throw off their timing. Instead of a fast ball jumping out into their hitting zone, the ball dies in front of them, and there's no topspin for them to counter against. The shot is especially effective against loopers who back up from the table a lot, since they are often uncomfortable looping closer to the table, and this brings them out of their comfort zone.

To do a chop block, simply chop down lightly as you block the incoming topspin (usually against a loop), holding the racket loosely. Your shot should go out low and soft, almost like a push. Place the ball to the corners to force the opponent to use his weaker (or more awkward against a soft ball) stroke, or to the middle to cut off angles. The shot is usually done on the backhand side, but can be done on the forehand as well. (One reason most chop blocks are done on the backhand is it is assumed you can do more effective counter-attacks on the forehand, but that's mostly true at the higher levels.)

A variation is to sidespin block, where the racket moves sideways (or sideways and down) to create a sidespin or sidespin-backspin block. This is usually done on the backhand, with the racket moving right to left (for a righty), but can be done in both directions and on the forehand as well.

One word of caution - you should rarely chop block twice in a row. The first one throws off an opponent's timing and catches him out of position (too far off table). The second one doesn't change the timing and the previous one already brought the opponent in. So normally follow up your chop blocks with aggressive blocks or counter-attacks. Players with long pips and hardbat often chop block over and over, but their surfaces are deader than inverted, and so they can really deaden the ball and keep it short. With inverted, it's tougher to do this over and over, and so it's usually best to use it as a variation, not the normal block. 

April 23, 2012 - Reverse Forehand Pendulum Serve

Monday, April 23, 2012
by: Larry Hodges

The most popular serve in table tennis is the forehand pendulum serve. (Here's a 55-second promo video from PingSkills that show both the regular and reverse pendulum serve.) With this serve, the racket tip is down as you contact the ball with a right-to-left motion (for righties). And it's a great serve - but it can be even more effective if you can vary it with the reverse pendulum serve variation.

The most under-used serve in table tennis is the forehand reverse pendulum serve. This is the reverse of the normal forehand pendulum serve, with the racket moving left-to-right at contact. It seems awkward at first, but is surprisingly easy to learn.

The big advantage of this serve is that your opponent doesn't know which type of sidespin you will be serving when you set up. For most players, if they set up to do a forehand serve, it's going to be one sidespin; if they set up to serve backhand, it's the reverse sidespin. Now your opponent doesn't know until just before contact which way you are going. This is a huge advantage. As they develop the serve, advanced players learn to hide which version they are going to use later and later in the serve, giving opponents more and more trouble.

When you develop the serve, start with straight sidespin - it's easier. Vigorously rotate the body into the shot, and then snap the wrist just before contact. Then learn to do side-backspin and side-top, and even no-spin (which, if you have a big motion, looks spinny, causing just as many mistakes as actual spin). The serve is often most effective short to the forehand, but vary it all over the table and see what works against different opponents.

Here are three tutorials on the Reverse Forehand Pendulum serve.

April 16, 2012 - Where to Place Your Spin Serves

Monday, April 16, 2012
by: Larry Hodges


While you should vary your spin serves to all parts of the table - at least until you find out what gives your opponent trouble and what doesn't - there are certain spin serves that are generally more effective when done to specific parts of the table. 

The main principle to remember is that, in general, opponents will have more trouble returning a serve that spins away from them than one that spins into them. For example, when a righty serves a forehand pendulum serve to another righty (so that the ball breaks to the server's right, the receiver's left), if the ball is served to the wide backhand, the ball spins away from the receiver, and is usually harder to receive than the same serve to the forehand, where it breaks into the receiver. Similarly, a backhand or tomahawk serve to the forehand is generally more difficult to receive than one to the backhand, since it also breaks away from the receiver (to the server's left, the receiver's right). There are three reasons for this.

First, a receiver has to move or reach for a serve that breaks away. This makes it trickier to control as he may be hitting on the move.

Second, while the receiver may set up with his racket at the right height to receive the serve, when the ball breaks away and he moves or reaches for it there is a tendency to lower the racket. This means he will likely lift the ball too much, and either go off the end or receive soft and high.

Third, to counter the incoming spin the receiver has to aim to the left to receive a ball breaking away on the backhand side, and to the right to receive a ball breaking away on the forehand side. In both cases it's more natural to aim the other way, especially on the forehand side. So countering a sidespin that breaks away is usually more awkward.

Here's a simple way of visualizing this third reason. Imagine a forehand pendulum serve short to your forehand. To counteract the spin, you have to aim to the left, i.e. a normal crosscourt forehand, which is not difficult for most players. In fact, if you wanted to place this ball crosscourt you would want to aim to the left of the table, which isn't that difficult with a little practice. Now imagine a backhand or tomahawk serve short to your forehand side, so the ball is breaking away from you. To counteract the spin, you have to aim to the right, down the line - see how awkward that can be? If you wanted to take it down the line, you'd have to aim to the right of the table, even more awkward. Even advanced players often have trouble with this.

There are always exceptions. Some players are good against balls that break away, and are awful against ones that break into them. Or perhaps you simply are better at one type of sidespin serve, and the opponent will have trouble with it on both sides (especially if you vary the placement), while having little trouble when you use your other, less effective sidespin serve. So experiment - but do so with the knowledge that sidespin serves are usually more effective when placed properly. (And if you haven't yet developed these spin serves, there's no time like now to start learning them!)