By Larry Hodges
During the hardbat era, serving was generally not a major weapon. Service technique simply had not been developed to the degree that it has in the sponge game. This makes sense, since you can’t get as much spin with a hardbat, and so you are more limited in what you can do. However, in the sponge era, service techniques have reached an extremely high level, and these techniques are only now beginning to spread to the hardbat game.
First, a reality check. Unlike the sponge game, you aren’t going to dominate with your serve against players your own level. However, you can use modern serve techniques to both take the initiative when serving against your peers, and to dominate against many weaker players, thereby avoiding upsets.
It’s assumed, for this article, that you know how to serve with spin, and have some knowledge of modern serve techniques. If you don’t … well, you can always emulate the great hardbat masters, and serve just to get the ball in play! However, if you want to use your serve to take the initiative against your peers, and dominate against weaker players, learn some modern serving techniques, and then follow these tips.
Contact: with sponge, the key to spin is to just graze the ball with a grippy surface, knowing that the surface will grab the ball. If you use the same technique with a hardbat, the ball will slide some, and you’ll get less spin. With a hardbat, you need to contact the ball with the racket moving slower – and then accelerate through the ball. It helps to slightly push the rubber into the ball to lengthen contact and increase grippiness so you can maximize the spin.
Spin vs. Deception: Since you really can’t get nearly as much spin with a hardbat as with sponge, it is often more important to be deceptive than to go for pure spin. Right at contact, change directions, so the opponent has trouble figuring, for example, if you are serving light sidespin-backspin or light sidespin-topspin. Hardbat is a game of precision, and it only takes a little to throw the opponent off enough to force a slightly high ball to attack and take the initiative.
Height: Many sponge players have lost the art of flipping short balls, since inverted is not the best surface for doing that. However, hardbat is the best surface for doing this. Therefore, it is extremely important to serve low in hardbat. To do so, contact the ball low to the table. If you contact the ball too high, the ball will bounce high. Many players serve too high and don’t realize it until they find their serve getting attacked in a tournament.
Depth: Very short, low serves are very effective, both with spin and with no-spin, with a fake spin motion. However, many players find fast & deep serves even more effective, especially if mixed in with short ones. Some players can go after fast & deep serves, but not most. By serving deep, you have more time to see the incoming ball, more time to react, and there will be less angle on the return. Plus, you don’t have to worry about inverted loops! By serving fast, you rush the opponent, and force him to return with his weaker side if you choose. Be ready to follow a fast & deep serve with a strong drive or smash.
Look for Weaknesses: In sponge, you can cover for a weakness with other shots. It’s harder to do that in hardbat, which by its very nature forces longer rallies, allowing you to probe for and find opponent’s weaknesses. The same is true of serve return. Most players have at least one type of serve that they aren’t particularly comfortable returning (as well as at least one that they are very comfortable against!), so find what serves give your opponent trouble – and find it as early in the match as possible.
Choppers: Choppers often make the mistake of just serving to get the ball in play. That’s throwing away an advantage. Instead, put pressure on your opponent with tricky serves, and never let him know if you are going to chop or attack. If you can’t react or move fast enough to be able to choose between attacking or chopping depending on the return, decide before serving, and be decisive for that one shot. (Then fall back and chop if you don’t see a quick putaway.)