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.)

March 14, 2011 - Why You MUST Attack the Deep Serve

Monday, March 14, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Against a short serve, you can take the ball quick and rush the opponent, you can go for angles, and you can drop the ball short. So have a number of ways to mess up an opponent without actually attacking the serve. This is where you can get really creative.

Against a deep serve, you don't have these options. You can't rush the opponent with a quick shot, go for extreme angles, and you can't return it short. If you return the deep serve passively, you are giving your opponent lots of time to set up his best shot. So don't.

Instead, get in the habit of attacking deep serves. Ideally you should loop them. If you make mistakes at first (you will), then that's the best reason to keep attacking them - to learn to attack them. The more you do it, the better you'll get at it, and your level will go up.

The key is to practice attacking them, generally by looping, both in games and in practice. I've seen many players lose a match because they couldn't return serves effectively - and later they'd be off practicing their strokes rather than practicing return of serve. If you have trouble attacking a deep serve (or any other serve return), find someone who can do the serves that give you trouble, and practice against them, either in a practice session or matches.

There will always be exceptions to the "rule" of attacking deep serves. For example, some players have trouble against backspin, and against them you might want to push deep backspin serves. Or you might want to roll back a serve with soft, defensive topspin if the opponent has trouble with that. But these are generally tactics for lower-level play, and if your goal is to win at a lower level, then by all means continue to return deep serves passively.

At higher levels, there are players who do return deep serves defensively, such as choppers, who may return a deep serve with a defensive backspin, but even here the backspin returns may be fairly aggressive, i.e. heavy, deep, and angled. And there are high-level players who are not good against backspin, and so relatively passive backspin returns might be effective, especially as a changeup. And if you are attacking most serves, then an occasional defensive return is a good changeup against some players.

But these are the exceptions. A player may get away with passive returns of a deep serve, but the key here is they are getting away with a weakness when they could be better players if they returned the serve by being aggressive. Rather than cover for a weakness, why not make attacking deep serves a strength?

March 7, 2011 - Do You Hit to the Three Spots?

Monday, March 7, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Table tennis is chess at lightning speed. Imagine that split second as you are about to hit the ball. Do you hit wherever, or do you pick the placement like choosing a move in chess? There are three main spots to choose from (plus a huge number of other variables, i.e. speed, spin, depth, which stroke to use, etc.). Pick the best move! When attacking, most opponents don't have all three spots well covered - wide forehand, wide backhand, middle (playing elbow). Most have the backhand covered, at least at the start of the rally, and maybe one of the other spots. Most players just go to the backhand, the place the opponent almost always has covered. Pick your spot, don't telegraph it, and perhaps fake one way and go another at the last second.

February 28, 2011 - A Forehand Stance While Blocking

Monday, February 28, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Many players go into a backhand stance when blocking. This is fine for the backhand, but it weakens the forehand side. Even worse, it makes smashing or counterlooping on the forehand much more difficult. You may find that you can block backhands almost as easily with a slight forehand stance, which also puts you in a position to block, smash, or counterloop if the ball goes to the forehand. (Also, a forehand stance makes it easier to step around the backhand if you see a weak ball to crush with your forehand.) Try experimenting with this. Many a player has won a match by standing in a forehand stance and just blocking backhands until the ball goes to the forehand, and then Whammo!

February 21, 2011 - Wait a split second longer when looping a push, then change directions

Monday, February 21, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Most blockers develop timing to react to your normal loop. At the instant they think you will contact the ball, they commit to blocking either forehand or backhand. So set up to loop crosscourt, and make no attempt to hide this. At the instant you normally would contact the ball, watch the opponent move to cover the apparent crosscourt loop. Wait a split second longer than normal, letting the ball travel perhaps an six inches to a foot, and then go down the line. (This is especially effective when looping from the wide forehand.)

You can do this the other way, faking down the line and then going crosscourt, but it's not usually as effective, for two reasons. First, since most players tend to loop crosscourt far more often than down the line, blockers tend to move to cover the crosscourt angle. Second, down the line is a shorter distance, and so the opponent has less time to recover for that shot.

February 14, 2011 - What To Do With Problem Serves

Monday, February 14, 2011
by: Larry Hodges

Everybody has at least one serve that always gives them trouble. It might be a certain sidespin, or a deep serve, a short serve, a no-spin serve, an angled serve, etc. (For example, you can almost divide players into two groups - those who have fits with forehand tomahawk serves to the forehand, and those that loop them with ease. Which are you?) The question is what to do against these problem serves?

First, focus on control. Place the ball, usually at a wide angle and deep. Often this alone will solve the problem. You don't need to dominate on an opponent's serve (though it helps); you need to break even, and dominate on your serve.

If you are still having trouble, analyze the problem. If you keep popping the ball up, or hitting it wide, adjust. If you keep making the same mistake, and don't adjust your return, you'll keep making the same mistake.

Against some serves, you might try a "scare tactic." If there's a single serve that really bothers you, attack it relatively hard one time. Loop it or flip it aggressively! Scare the server. Even if you miss it, most often he won't use it again, at least very often. If he does keep using it, then you'll just have to figure out how to return that serve because you're up against a smart opponent. (I know I have far more difficulty looping a deep serve that breaks away from me, like a deep backhand serve or tomahawk serve. I have little trouble looping ones that break into me, such as a regular forehand pendulum serve. Guess which one I tend to be more aggressive with the first time I see it? The last thing I want to do is be too soft against a serve that breaks away from me, which is practically telling the opponent to keep giving me that serve since I have trouble with it.)

Conversely, is there a serve that you are very good at receiving? One that you can really loop or flip aggressively, for example? Don't go overboard attacking this serve too much early in a game or you'll never see it again. Consider slowing down your attack of this serve, being consistent with good placement, and slowly building up a lead. Instead of one-shot winners, return the serve to take the initiative - play the percentages.