By Larry Hodges
Most players serve with a purpose. They are trying to get you to return their serve in a specific way so they can attack it. So . . . don't.
The classic case is the forehand looper who serves backspin to your backhand, anticipating a push to his backhand. He steps around and forehand loops. If he's got good footwork, he'll usually follow that shot with at least one more forehand loop unless you make a great return. So he's getting two forehand loops in a row, exactly what he wants.
Why not do a quick push to the wide forehand instead? If he's looking for a return to his backhand, you might catch him going the wrong way; many players have stronger forehand attacks from the backhand side (since the table isn't in the way); and if he does loop it, you can block to his backhand, and so he only gets one forehand attack. You've take his game away from him and so have a much better chance of winning.
Or you could push the ball back short, and take away his loop altogether. Or you could attack the short serve. The key is to find something to do that he is not comfortable with.
If your opponent likes get into backhand exchanges, and so serves topspin, why give in to him? Learn to vary the return. Go to his forehand first, then quick to the backhand, so he has to both play his presumably less comfortable forehand, and then his backhand on the move. Or chop the serve back, which he doesn't want you to do, or he'd be serving backspin.
Suppose your opponent has tricky serves that you keep pushing and popping up, and he keeps smashing your returns. Why is your ball popping up? Because you're pushing against a ball that doesn't have backspin! (It could be topspin, sidespin, or no-spin.) He loves it when you push it since it sets up his smash. But since it's topspin, it should be easy (with practice) to return with a simple topspin shot. Shorten your stroke, control the shot back, and you'll take away what your opponent wants you to do. (Sounds easy, doesn't it?)
Corollary: Once you've established you are not going to give your opponent what he's looking for, a smart opponent will anticipate that, and expect you to do something different. That's when you cross him up with the return he was expecting before, but not now.
So next time you play, figure out what your opponent wants, and give him something else.