January 21, 2011

Service Without a Smile?

I've had a problem with illegal serves while coaching at recent tournaments. Probably the worst was at the USA Nationals in December, where an opponent was serving illegally against a player I coached. You are supposed to pull the free arm back immediately after tossing the ball up, but this player kept the arm out until the last second. Then, as the ball was about to disappear behind the arm, he'd pull it back, giving the illusion that the ball wasn't hidden. But in pulling the arm back, he'd thrust his shoulder out, and contact was hidden by the shoulder, not the arm. The result is the player I was coaching never saw contact, and missed the serve over and over. From my vantage point behind my player, it was obviously illegal - I never saw contact either. Several others in the stands behind me also verified that contact was hidden. I complained to the umpire, but he didn't think the serve was illegal, and wouldn't even warn the opponent to pull the free arm out of the way more quickly. And so a match that might have been close became an easy 3-0 win for the opponent.

This is similar to what happened in Men's Singles at the U.S. Open, where Sharath Kamal of India used a serve where he'd toss the ball high over his head, and it would come down behind his head. He'd then contact the ball behind his chin, thereby illegally hiding contact. From behind the receiver, it was obviously illegal, but the umpires on the side claimed they couldn't tell from their vantage point. I disagree. While they can say they aren't sure if contact can be seen, the rule says it is the player's responsibility to make sure the umpire can see that the serve is legal. The umpires have to be able to see that it is close, and so should give a warning. In the semifinals, Chen Hao of China complained, but when the umpires wouldn't call it, he responded by hiding contact behind his back - and again, the umpires allowed it. So the whole serving rule became a charade. Here's a video of the Final - and I think Keinath is also hiding contact.

Here's a video of Kamal at the 2010 Grand Tour Finals playing Ryu Seung Min, the 2004 Olympic Men's Singles Gold Medalist. Both players are hiding contact with their head. Note how Ryu thrusts his head out at the last second, hiding contact with his chin? This whole match is an illegal serve festival.

So here's my question for you. Illegal serves are being allowed, and these serves are huge advantages. It's a copout to tell junior players to just learn to deal with them while not serving illegal back - you might as well say, "Kid, don't serve illegal just because your opponent is doing so, even though he's probably going to win because of it, and all those thousands of hours you've trained over half your lifetime are now wasted."

On the other hand, I don't want to start teaching kids to serve illegally. But if umpires are going to allow serves that give one player a huge advantage, then the only possible answers seem to be:

  1. Do your best, but accept the fact that you will lose to players your level and even weaker ones; or
  2. Serve illegal right back.

What do you think?

Larger trophies at Nationals this year!

Anyone notice the much larger and high-quality trophy cups given out at the Nationals? Look at the size of them!!! These were given out for just about every event. They weigh a ton.

New Stuff

  • In the Video page, I've added a link to Coach Li's video on "How to loop a dead ball."


  • Table Tennis, the brain sport, with a touch of Susan Sarandon.
  • I'll be gone all day Saturday at the Writer's Digest Conference in New York City, and probably won't be online much, if at all. Besides some workshops, I'm mostly there to meet with potential agents, where I'm pitching both a possible new table tennis book as well as my recently finalized science fiction novel, "Campaign 2100: Rise of the Moderates." (Yep, I write SF in my free time.) Be nice to each other while I'm gone! (I'm gone much of Sunday as well, as that's my main coaching day. That's why my blog is Mon-Fri - I'm often busy or traveling - often to coach at tournaments - on weekends.)

Send me your own coaching news!

At my level (USATT 1200+) the problem of illegal serves is rampant. I face many players coming back to the sport after decade-long layoffs who still use finger-spin, no-toss, below-the-table, etc...clearly illegal serves. My serves are certainly not perfect but I do try to serve within the rules. The problem is when and how to ask my opponents to serve legally without causing offense! (They shouldn't be offended, but that is sometimes the reaction.)

This is a social and "political" issue since I play these same people all the time and I don't want to cause unnecessary conflict in my club. I try to tactfully point out the problem and sometimes it helps for a game or two but then usually on critical points they revert to their illegal serves. Argggh!


Hi Willis, yep, pointing out to an opponent that his serve is illegal can be a touchy thing. Many don't take it well. I've seen grown men reduced to screaming tantrums when an opponent asked them to serve legally. In tournaments, as a player or coach, I've had dozens of experiences where I'd ask the opponent to serve legally, they'd go bananas, I'd call an umpire, and the first time they serve, they'd be warned or faulted. This usually led to another fit.

In reply to by Larry Hodges

I played in a tournament this weekend. In a U3000 doubles match one of our opponents started the first game by giving his partner the serve "signal" below the table then started his service motion from there (that is, from below the table). Both of our opponents were about 15-16 years old and rated about 1500. Since it was an official tournament I caught the ball in my hand and told him he had to serve correctly. He was confused and apparently no one had ever called him on his serve before. His partner actually knew the rules and explained it to him. It did seem to rattle him a lot. He served OK for the next two serves but then when it rotated back around to him the second time he served incorrectly again and I caught the ball again. He got really huffy but did serve correctly after that. Didn't help my team though as they kicked our butts 3-1. :-)