Of all the techniques in table tennis, serving is the one where playing level plays no part. What does that mean? It means that a high-level player doesn’t have any advantage over an intermediate player in developing great serves. When you serve, the ball’s not randomly moving or spinning – you just toss it in the air and hit it with your paddle. Anybody can practice that, and anybody can have great serves. It does take coaching to learn how to do it properly (with spin, deception, and control), and lots of practice time – but given those two, which is often what separates the elite from the non-elite, anyone can dominate with their serves.
And great serves are the best way to avoiding upsets, as well as the best way to put you in a position to compete with strong players. Great serves primarily do two things. First, they win you lots of points outright, either when the opponent misses them or pops them up, giving you an easy put-away. (This is especially true against weaker players.) Second, they set you up to attack in whatever way you do best. (This is especially important when playing stronger players, who won’t miss against your tricky serves as much.)
To use a personal example, last night I discussed this very topic with a student, who was about 1700 in level (making him a good intermediate player). Then we played points, where I’d serve, and all he had to do was get the ball back without popping it up. I threw every trick serve I had at him – fast no-spin at the elbow; reverse pendulum short to the forehand (breaking away from him); big breaking sidespin serves to the wide backhand (where I’d often fake a reverse pendulum serve, switching at the last second); side-top serves that looked like backspin (with my racket tip going down vigorously at contact, but the actual contact near the handle, where the racket was moving up); and others. He outright missed the first nine in a row before finally weakly popping one of them back. He’s now working on developing some of these serves.
But it’s not just trick serves. One of my regular “challenges” I do with students is where we play games where I serve every time, and have only one shot to win the point – serve and put-away. For these games, I mostly use straight third-ball serves, where I mix in very low backspin, sidespin, and no-spin serves, usually short to the middle (where second bounce, given the chance, would be near the receiver’s end-line, i.e. “half-long”), along with some of the trick serves above. Since I’ve been doing these serve and attacks for 41 years (I’ve played a long time), even at my relatively advanced age I get ball after ball that I can attack easily, and I’m primarily a forehand attacker. I don’t advice you develop a game where you have to put the ball away on the first shot after your serve, but you should develop serves that often let you do so, and regularly put you in a position to attack effectively.
Great serves also help you develop the rest of your game. They raise your overall level of play directly, and so you get to compete with stronger players, which pushes you to an even higher level of play. Plus they give you lots of practice following them up with attacks, which improves your attack and makes you even better. Develop your serves, and your whole game will spiral upwards!
As I often proclaim to students, the primary purpose of the serve is to set up your attack. This is even true for defensive players, who, if they develop good serves, should look to attack after their serve when they can, and fall back on defense if the shot isn’t there. This doesn’t mean serve and rip; it means following up the serve with a consistent attack, and putting the ball away only against weak returns.
The result of developing great serves? Using a mixture of “trick serves” and “third-ball serves,” you can play pretty poorly and still lock up weaker players, thereby avoiding bad losses that would normally be attributed to playing poorly. Good serves will also keep you in the game even against strong players, as you’ll at minimum get a few free points and get to start off half the rallies at an advantage. The rest of your game may have a bad day, but if you develop great serves and regularly practice them, you will never have a bad serving day – and with dominant serves, you’ll rarely have those bad losses from playing poorly.
So how do you develop these great serves? The same way you develop any technique – learn from coaches and top players with great serves, and practice, Practice, PRACTICE!