By Larry Hodges
Serving is both the simplest and most complex of shots. It's your front-line shot, so you want to make the most of it. How can you do that? How can you be sure you are getting the most out of your serves?
Ideally, this is a question for your coach, if you have one. However, below are ten principles that should help you develop your serving game. Read them, and then get a bucket of balls and practice!
Step One: Serve with a Plan
Too many players just grab the ball and serve. Serve with a plan as to what you will do with the next shot. If you like looping against backspin, you should probably favor serving backspin serves, hoping to force a push return. If you like to counterdrive or hit, you might favor serving topspin.
Step Two: Serve Legally
Many top players have horror stories of being faulted at a key time--don't let this happen to you! The service rules are simple to follow.
Step Three: Maximize Spin
Serving is not a passive shot. You must accelerate your racket to full speed, and then just graze the ball for maximum spin. Strive for as much spin as you can on each serve, and you will find your serves getting better and better. Faced with great spin, your opponent will be on the defensive right from the start.
Step Four: Vary Your Spin
Don't get into the habit of serving the same way over and over. Mix up your serves--use all variations of topspin, backspin, sidespin and no-spin.
Step Five: Hide Your Spin
An obvious backspin serve is not going to fool many players, but if you can disguise the spin somewhat, it will be far more effective. Your racket should travel in a semi-circular fashion, so that during the serve it goes down, sideways and up (or up, sideways, then down). Use a fast motion so your opponent can't pick up whether you contacted the ball on the downward, sideways or upward motion of the stroke.
You might also contact the ball on the throat of the racket sometimes, which gives less spin. If your opponent thinks there is more spin on the ball than there is, you've fooled him, and he's going to make a poor return!
Step Six: Speed
A fast deep serve is only effective if it is truly fast. Don't chicken out--learn to serve fastballs, both with or without spin, and serve them so they bounce near opponent's endline. It's not as hard as it looks, but it can give an opponent fits. Especially try fast & flat serves--fast but with no spin, or even a light backspin. And don't forget to serve fast to an opponent's forehand sometimes!
Step Seven: Low bounce
Too many players let their serves bounce high, giving an easy attack to the opponent. A low serve not only is harder to attack, but it forces the opponent to lift up some, which can lead to pop-ups. To make the ball bounce low, contact the ball as low to the table as possible--within six inches at least.
Step Eight: Direction
There are three directions you should be aiming your serve: wide to the forehand, wide to the backhand, and to an opponent's middle. Serve mostly to the opponent's weaker side, but if he steps around and uses the other side (usually the forehand from the backhand side), a sudden fast and deep serve to the other side will often win a quick point--and make the opponent think twice about stepping around.
A fast, deep serve to an opponent's middle will also cause some trouble if the opponent doesn't make a quick decision as to whether to use the forehand or backhand. Also, serves to the middle cut off the wide angles on the returns.
Step Nine: Depth
Deep serves should be very deep, with the first bounce landing close to the endline. Short serves should be able to bounce twice on the opponent's side of the table, given the chance, which stops your opponent from looping. A third option is to serve so that the second bounce would be right near the endline, so that the table gets in the way, yet the serve is relatively deep. Your opponent then has to decide whether the serve is long or short, and the table may cramp his stroke. This also makes it difficult to return the serve short, and so often sets the server up for a loop.
Step Ten: Follow-up
Don't just stand there after serving--follow your plan! Get into a ready position, but don't over-commit. Be ready to attack if given the shot--or to use whatever arsenal of shots you have, if necessary. But the whole advantage of serving is to set you up for your best shot or type of rally, so make sure to use that advantage.