By Larry Hodges
What type of serves should a player use to close out a close match?
Before we get to the serve itself, let's look at the mental aspect. A good serve probably won't help you if you are a nervous wreck. (Not unless you can get an outright miss or a ball so easy even a nervous wreck can't miss.) So first thing to do is learn to play relaxed at the end of a close match. That's sports psychology, which is outside the scope of this article.
As to the serves themselves, you have two basic choices. Should you go for a serve where you're pretty sure you'll get a ball you can attack, or get into the type of rally you want to get into? Or do you want to go for a "surprise" serve, and perhaps get an easy point? Let's look at surprise serves first.
The advantage of a surprise serve is it's basically a free point. It's supposed to force an outright miss or an easy pop-up. The down side is that surprise serves are generally all or nothing - either you get the easy point, or the opponent takes the initiative off it, usually attacking it. For example, a fast, deep serve can often force a miss, but it can also be looped. A short side-topspin serve can be popped up, but it can also be flipped aggressively.
There is a place for surprise serves, and you are handicapping yourself if you don't use them. But use them sparingly; overuse allows an opponent to get used to them. At the higher levels, surprise serves become less and less effective as stronger opponents are less often "surprised."
So what about your other serves? A major task for you during a match is to find out what serves you can use effectively against the opponent. If you like to loop pushes, and your opponent pushes your backspin serves long, then at the end, when it's close, guess what? Serve backspin and loop! If you like to serve and hit, perhaps serve topspin or sidespin. Others like to serve short, low no-spin serves, which are surprisingly difficult to flip or push effectively. Everyone's different; find out what serves work for you in general, and what serves work in the match you are playing. Develop confidence in following up these serves, and soon you'll not only be closing out those close matches, but you'll be winning easily where before you had close matches.
So closing out a match is a combination of sports psychology (playing relaxed and loose at the end) and knowing what tactics to use and having confidence in those tactics.