Butterfly Online

Strengths and Weaknesses of the Four Major Serves

By Larry Hodges

First, it's important to understand the concept that it's generally easier for a receiver to handle a sidespin serve that breaks into him then one that breaks away. There are two main reasons for this. Let's imagine a sidespin serve to the forehand that breaks away from you.

  1. When you hit the ball, it's going to jump to the left. (Lefthanders reverse everything.) To counteract that, you have to aim right. But when reaching for a ball, it's more natural to get outside the ball and aim left than trying to get inside the ball and aim right. Get a racket and experiment, and you'll see this. This is true on both the forehand and backhand side, though probably more so on the forehand side.  
  2. As the ball breaks away from you, a player tends to reach for the ball. But as he does so, his racket naturally drops lower as it goes after the ball, which is spinning away and down. Plus, if you are looping the serve, you lower the racket anyway, and so when you reach for the ball, you lower it further. The result is the racket is lower than it should be, and so you lift the ball off the end.

To counteract both these problems, focus on stepping toward the ball instead of reaching, and keeping the racket relatively high, even when looping. You also might find it easier to go down the line (to a right-hander's backhand). When you go crosscourt against this sidespin, you have to overpower the spin - it's sort of like looping against a backspin. If you go down the line, you are no longer fighting the sidespin as you now are going across it. If you do go crosscourt, you have to use a bit more power to overcome the spin when looping.

A second concept to understand is that you should attack spinny sidespin serves, and any serve that goes long. This doesn't mean you have to rip them, but you need to be aggressive. If you return a sidespin serve passively, the spin will take on your racket much more than if you attack it, and will generally both pop up and to the side. Against a long serve, if you don't attack, the opponent has all day to set up their attack, so you must be aggressive. (Obviously, choppers and some blockers can get away with more passive returns, but it's a disadvantage, and even if they push or chop the serve, they should do so aggressively - deep and with heavy backspin.)

A third concept to understand is that receive is all about placement and consistency. See the Tip of the Week from Jan. 24, 2011, "When Receiving, Emphasize Placement & Consistency."

A fourth concept is that with all serves, you can do spin/no-spin combinations. Most popular are backspin/no-spin serves, where you use the same motion and either serve backspin (or side-backspin), or no-spin. You get the no-spin by using a regular spin motion, but contact the ball near the handle, which isn't moving very fast at contact.

Now let's look at the actual major serves. At tournaments, at nearly all levels right up to world class, there are four service motions that dominate. They are the forehand pendulum, the reverse forehand pendulum, the forehand tomahawk, and the backhand sidespin.There are other service motions, but these four serves cover the overwhelming majority of what you'll face in serious matches. (We're going to focus here on spin serves, not fast serves.)  Let's examine these four serves. (Descriptions are for right-handers; left-handers reverse.)

Forehand Pendulum

Description: You do this serve with the racket tip down, moving from right to left. The sidespin breaks away from the receiver's backhand as the ball breaks left to right. This is by far the most popular serve in the world. One reason for this is that it was the easiest serve to hide contact from the receiver, before that became illegal a few years back, and so there are still generations of players who learned that serve for that reason. Another is that it is the easiest to do right-to-left sidespin (so the ball breaks to the right). You can do left-to-right sidespin (that breaks left) with any of the other three "major" serves, and so those who favor that sidespin are split among those three.

Variations: Many players do this with a high toss. The higher toss means the ball is traveling faster when you contact it, allowing more spin. The disadvantage of a high-toss is it is harder to control. Also, with a lower toss, the ball is traveling more slowly at contact, allowing you more motion at the last second for deception. Also, as noted below, you can use this motion and at the last second switch and do a reverse forehand pendulum serve.

Advantages: Because the spin breaks away from receiver's backhand, it's awkward to receive with the backhand. It is especially difficult to attack down the line with the backhand (except at the advanced levels), and so the server can almost give up that line, since most returns will be to the backhand or middle of the table. This is a great serve for those who wish to serve and forehand loop, especially if you like to loop forehands from the backhand side. (This allows you to be in forehand position for the next shot as well.)

You can easily create the full range of spins with this serve, from pure backspin, side-backspin, sidespin, side-topspin, and topspin. It's also easy to do backspin and no-spin combinations.

Another advantage of this serve is you can set up for this serve, and at the last second do a reverse forehand pendulum serve instead. 

This serve, when done long, is often done with more "corkscrewspin" than sidespin, with the axis of spin pointing toward the opponent, which is what causes the big jump when it bounces on the table. A pure sidespin has an axis that's up and down. (Topspin and backspin serves have an axis that's left to right.) However, when you serve a pure sidespin, after it bounces on the table twice, the axis changes some and the ball tends to have some corkscrewspin, giving the big break. This tends to be especially true of the forehand pendulum and forehand tomahawk serves, with opposite spins.

Disadvantages: There are two main weaknesses of the serve. First, this type of sidespin is easier to loop with the forehand, and so it might risky serving to the forehand side, or long to the backhand if the receiver can step around and loop a forehand. Second, because it's the most popular serve in the world, everyone is used to it.

How to Return: Ideally, loop it with the forehand. Alas, you can't do that if the serve is short, or if it's to the wide backhand and you don't have super-fast feet.

With the backhand, you need to attack it if it's long, usually with a backhand loop, but a backhand drive will do. Remember the problem of lifting too much when reaching for the ball! So don't drop your racket too much except against heavy underspin. If you can attack this serve down the line, you'll mess up many servers. If you find that difficult, then at least return it deep and very wide to the backhand. And remember to hide your placement until the last second, especially against the many forehand loopers who use this serve. Don't let them know where your return is going or they'll have little trouble using their forehand. They may get their forehand on any of your returns, but they'll make more mistakes and weaker loops if they don't know where you're going, and so have to rush at the last second.

In theory, it should be easier to loop this serve down the line with the backhand. When you go crosscourt against this sidespin, you have to overpower the spin - it's sort of like looping against a backspin. If you go down the line, you are no longer fighting the sidespin as you now are going across it. If you do go crosscourt, you have to use a bit more power to overcome the spin. However, in practice, because of the more limited hitting zone on the backhand side, most players find going down the line more difficult.

Forehand Reverse Pendulum

Description: This is the same as the forehand pendulum serve, except now contact is left to right, and the spin breaks into a receiver's backhand as it curves to the left. This serve isn't seen as often until the advanced intermediate level.

Variations: You can use this motion and at the last second switch and do a regular forehand pendulum serve. It's also often done with a high toss, just as with the regular forehand pendulum serve.

Advantages: It's a great variation from the regular forehand pendulum serve, and so many advanced players do both. Since it's seen less often, players often have more trouble with this serve, especially as they first reach the advanced levels, since they haven't spent years facing the serve as most players do against the regular pendulum serve.

The serve is especially effective short to the forehand, since you can create tremendous sidespin that breaks away from the receiver. There's often a last-second lunge as the receiver reaches for the ball, leading to many mistakes. When done short to the forehand, some players have great difficulty in taking this serve down the line, and so you can serve and expect a return to the forehand over and over.

The serve can also be highly effective done fast to the backhand since many players simply aren't used to that spin into the backhand, especially from what looks at first like a regular forehand pendulum serve.

It's also easy to do backspin and no-spin combinations.

Disadvantages: Because it breaks into a receiver's backhand, once they get used to it, it's generally easier for them to attack it, especially with a backhand loop. It's also generally tougher to serve heavy underspin with this serve. The service motion can be awkward when you are first learning the serve, and many players tend to serve with less than maximum spin as they find it hard to control otherwise. However, at the higher levels, this serve is done with great spin and full variation.

Since pendulum serves are mostly used by forehand attackers, they are done out of the backhand corner. So you have less angle into the forehand with this serve, and so it's trickier doing it so that really breaks away from the receiver. You can experiment by serving it more from the middle or even from the forehand side, but it's often more effective to simply do a tomahawk serve from there. (See below.)

How to Return: You should be able to attack this serve more easily with the backhand, if you read the spin properly. Since the spin will tend to put your return toward the server's forehand side, you need to aim to the backhand side more. Many servers expect a return to the forehand or at most middle backhand with this serve, so a return to the wide backhand can mess them up.

Backhand Sidespin

Description: Just as the name says, it's a backhand serve with the racket going from left to right. (Despite the name, the serve can be done with pure backspin or - less frequently - pure topspin. The racket still goes from left to right, but you contact it very early or very late in the motion, before or after it is moving sideways.) This is the same spin as a reverse forehand pendulum serve. It's the second most common serve used, especially at the beginning and intermediate levels.

Variations: You can also do a reverse backhand serve, as the great Chinese player Kong Linghui used to do, but many players find this tricky, and so it's not done often. It's a pity as having a regular backhand sidespin serve and a reverse version is a great one-two combo for those who master it.

Advantages: Like the forehand pendulum serve, you can easily create the full range of spins with this serve, from pure backspin, side-backspin, sidespin, side-topspin, and topspin. It's also easy to do backspin and no-spin combinations. (You do the no-spin version by using a regular spin motion, but contact the ball near the base of the blade, which isn't moving very fast at contact.)

Like with the reverse pendulum serve, this serve is especially effective short to the forehand, since the spin breaks away from the receiver. There's often a last-second lunge as the receiver reaches for the ball, leading to many mistakes. When done short to the forehand, some players have great difficulty in taking this serve down the line, and so you can serve and expect a return to the forehand over and over.

This serve is often the easiest to control, allowing you to serve lower more easily than with other serves. A key to this is to minimize the toss to as close to six inches as possible.

It's also easy to do backspin and no-spin combinations.

Disadvantages: Because it's such a common serve, many players are used to it. Since so few master a reverse backhand serve, the sidepin is always the same. It's tricky doing a fast and deep serve with this motion, taking away a major variation.

Since you do the serve with a backhand stance, it leaves you in a backhand position, so it can be harder to follow with a forehand.

How to Return: You should be able to attack this serve more easily with the backhand, if you read the spin properly. Since the spin will tend to put your return toward the server's forehand side, you need to aim to the backhand side more. Many servers expect a return to the forehand or at most middle backhand with this serve, so a return to the wide backhand can mess them up. (Note that his is the same as returning a reverse forehand pendulum serve.)

Forehand Tomahawk

Description: Done with the forehand, tip up, with a right-to-left motion, creating a spin that breaks to the left.

Variations: You can also do a reverse tomahawk serve, but many players find this tricky, and so it's not done often. It's a pity as having a tomahawk serve and a reverse version is a great one-two combo for those who master it.

Unlike the other major serves, this serve is often done from the forehand side as well as from the backhand side.

Advantages: More than most serves, this serve is done with the intent of winning a point outright on the serve alone. A lot of players, especially at the intermediate level, use this serve from the forehand side into the receiver's wide forehand, causing mayhem as the ball breaks away and the receiver messes up. Done from the forehand side, the motion allows maximum angle that really breaks into the receiver's wide forehand.

Done from the backhand, it's similar to a backhand serve. It's most effective short to the forehand, but a deep one to the backhand can also cause some players difficulty.

This serve, when done long, is often done with more "corkscrewspin" than sidespin, with the axis of spin pointing toward the opponent, which is what causes the big jump when it bounces on the table. A pure sidespin has an axis that's up and down. However, when you serve a pure sidespin, after it bounces on the table twice, the axis changes some and the ball tends to have some corkscrewspin. This tends to be especially true of the forehand pendulum and forehand tomahawk serves, with opposite spins.

Disadvantages: Starting at the advanced intermediate level, players can loop this serve consistently if it's deep to the forehand. It still might be a good surprise variation, but only if used occasionally.  Against stronger opponents, the serve becomes effective only if done short.

It's a bit harder to get the full range of spins with this serve, and many players find it difficult to serve a truly heavy underspin with this serve. So while the serve creates havoc by going long to the forehand to many intermediate players, against more advanced players the long serve is looped, and the short serve doesn't have as much variety as a simple backhand serve. So this serve is used less and less as you reach the higher levels. But it's still a great variation to throw at many opponents for a few free points.

How to Return: If the serve is short, it's pretty much the same as returning a reverse pendulum or backhand serve. The main difference is it's more often done from the forehand side short to your forehand. This means you can return down the line to take out the opponent's forehand.

The most common difficulty with this serve is how to return it when it's done so it breaks wide and deep into the forehand side. I covered this at the start with the first concept covered, but since this is such a huge problem for so many players returning this serve, I'm going to repeat it here, word for word

To counteract both these problems [ball jumping to the left when it contacts your racket, and the ball curving away from you], focus on stepping toward the ball instead of reaching, and keeping the racket relatively high, even when looping.

You might also find it easier to go down the line (to a right-hander's backhand). When you go crosscourt against this sidespin, you have to overpower the spin - it's sort of like looping against a backspin. If you go down the line, you are no longer fighting the sidespin as you now are going across it. If you do go crosscourt, you have to use a bit more power to overcome the spin.

Learn to Do These Serves

Mark also wrote, "I know the standard answer is 'Go learn how to do the serve and then you will understand how to deal with it.'  That is not going to work for me because at the rate it is taking me to learn one serve I will be dead and buried before I come close to understanding the many variations out there."

Alas, it is true that one of the best ways to learn to return a serve is to learn the serve itself, both so you understand what it does, and because you'll then see how others return the serve against you. I strongly recommend players learn the basics of all these serves. You might not use them in tournaments, but you'll learn a lot about dealing with these serves in the process. Once you've learned one good spin serve, the others are easier to learn since you've already mastered the hard part - putting spin on the ball. Plus, you might end up developing a new tournament serve!