By Larry Hodges
The most fundamental tactical decision a player makes when playing a match is deciding what serves to use. There are a wide variety to choose from – far too many to cover in this article. But they can be divided into six basic types, based on the types of return expected. The basic types are long and short backspin serves, long and short sidespin/topspin serves, fast deep serves, and no-spin serves.
Deep Backspin Serves
At the beginning level, this can be a good serve simply because your competition hasn't learned how to attack it yet. But against better players it is not a particularly good serve except in special cases. A deep backspin serve is very easy to loop, especially with the forehand, and because backspin serves travel slowly, it is easy for your opponent to get into position to do so. Generally, if your opponent pushes your deep backspin serve back, then use it. If not, try another serve.
Against a defensive player with a weak attack, deep backspin serves can be used, although it rarely gains you anything except an additional serve variation. It can be used effectively against a non-looper – such as many pips-out penholder – who may have difficulty attacking it and may be forced to push it, letting you loop. Assuming you have a loop! A blocker may also use it, hoping the opponent will go out of position to use the forehand out of the backhand corner. Then a simple block to the wide forehand corner might win the point. The danger, of course, is that the opponent might loop the winner, you might miss your block, or the opponent might be quick enough to cover the wide forehand corner with a strong forehand shot. Of course, the blocker can then block the ball back to the opponent's backhand corner to regain the advantage, but the rally might not ever get that far.
Short Backspin Serves
A much better serve than deep backspin is short backspin. It cannot be looped because the table gets in the way, and it forces your opponent to reach over the table to return it. Your opponent will have to decide whether to push it long, push it short, or go for the aggressive flip.
The safest and probably the most common return will be a deep push. This is not always the most effective return, and at the higher levels it is risky unless done very well at the right time. A deep push is often too easy to loop. Basically, your opponent will rarely make a mistake in pushing deep but you will get the initiative in the rally each time if you have a good loop. Up until a relatively advanced level, however, most short backspin serves will be pushed back long.
The disadvantage of serving short backspin is that an advanced opponent can push it back short. This takes quite a bit of touch, and many mistakes are made in pushing short. Done correctly, your opponent will take away your service advantage. Do not get in the habit of always pushing the short push back or you will be giving up your service advantage. Instead, learn to flip against short balls, and get ready to attack the next ball.
The other option your opponent has is to flip your serve. It can be a risky shot if done too fast, but it can give your opponent the attack. To avoid this, make sure your short backspin serves is very low and has good backspin. Varying the spin (sometimes serve sidespin or topspin, vary the degree of backspin, or serve no-spins) might through off the flipper's timing. If it still gets flipped, and you can't handle the flip well, use a different serve.
One way to handle the flip well is to serve to the middle of the table. This way your opponent can't flip to a wide angle. He gets two angles to flip to, but neither is so extreme as to make it difficult for you to cover. Your opponent will also have to decide very quickly whether to return the serve with a backhand or forehand shot, which can cause errors. Of course, if your opponent is weak against a short serve on one side (often the forehand), then serve to that spot as often as possible.
Deep Sidespin and Topspin Serves
Sidespin and topspin serves – and combinations – are usually returned similarly and so they are covered together. They are usually attacked, either with a normal drive or with a loop.
There is more variation possible in sidespin and topspin serves than in backspin serves. Therefore, you can get away with serving deep more often. Often they will be attacked in some way, but you can fool your opponent into missing more often than with a backspin serve.
Against an opponent without a good backhand loop or fast enough to use a forehand loop from the backhand side, deep sidespin/topspin serves into the backhand corner are effective. They will either set you up to attack or get you into a backhand exchange. They will also force many mistakes as a deep serve makes your opponent's target (your side of the table) as far away as possible, and sidespin/topspin servers are easy to misread and miss.
If your opponent attacks effectively against these serves, stop using them. At the higher levels, almost all deep serves – except fast ones, covered below – are risky, and as you get better and better you usually will find them less and less effective except against certain opponents.
Short Sidespin and Topspin Serves
The basic rule on these serves is simple. If your opponent flips them effectively, stop using them except as a variation. If your opponent does not flip well, use them over and over. Mix in other serves just to keep your opponent from getting too used to them.
The weakness of short sidespin/topspin serves is that they can be flipped easily. As with backspin serves, try to keep them as low as possible to prevent this. Increasing or varying the spin will also cause many mistakes. To keep the serve from being flipped at a wide angle, you might try serving to the middle of the table. As with short backspin serves, this will give your opponent two angles, but no extreme ones. Your opponent will also have to decide whether to return the serve with a backhand or a forehand shot. If your opponent is weak on one side, serve to that side as often as possible. Serve to the strong side only as a variation.
Fast Deep Serves
Fast deep serves are effective for hitters, counter-drivers, blockers, and as a surprise serve for all other styles. They will usually either force an easy ball to smash (or an outright miss!) or get you into a countering/blocking rally. If that is what you are good at, then these may be the serves for you.
Of course, if your opponent also likes to counter and block, then all you've done is gotten yourself into a neutral rally where both sides are comfortable, which means you've lost your serve advantage. Think about it carefully before making it your front-line serve. At the world-class level, only all-out hitters use these serves regularly, and even they mostly serve short.
Note that a fast deep serve is often more effective if flat (spinless) rather than with spin. This is because your opponent has little time to react to the serve, and often puts les power into the return. If the ball has topspin or sidespin, the spin jumps off the racket, giving it extra pace. (If it has backspin, the ball travels slower, giving your opponent time to react to it.) A flat serve will often go into the net, or off the end if your opponent overcompensates. Do use some spin variations if you find them effective.
The serve should most be done into the backhand corner to avoid the stronger shots more common on the forehand side. Of course, some players are stronger on the backhand side, so feel free to serve fast and deep to their forehands. Some players will try to step around their backhands to use their forehands against many deep serves. If your opponent does this too often, then whip the serve into his vacant forehand side for an ace.
These serves can be pushed short or long, or they can be flipped. They are a good variation and often force mistakes. Most players are so used to handling either backspin or sidespin/topspin serves that when faced with a spinless ball, they treat it like it has spin, usually backspin. They often either push high or flip off the end. Or, if they handle it passively, they put the dead ball into the net. Of course, if used too often, an opponent will adjust. Most top players use no-spin serves as a variation to their other short serves, but some use it more than spin serves.
Against an opponent with long pips, serve no-spin into the pips (either short or long) and your opponent will have trouble with it, often popping it up, but always returning without spin. Handling spinless balls is a weakness of the surface, since long pips cannot produce much spin on its own, and so you should take advantage of this.
Remember that choosing your serves is a tactical thing, and you should pick them according to your style and your opponent's style. Be flexible – if something that worked stops working, change. Every rule has its exceptions, and you will find players whose returns go against every idea mentioned in this article. Ultimately it is up to you to find the serve that sets you up to use your strength against your opponent's weakness. If you find it, you will have a big advantage.