/ Table Tennis

Developing the Perfect Serve

> Tom,
> ...Wanted to let you know I have been practicing on the new
> serve you taught me. It works wonderfully. I played a 1600 player from our
> club while using it and spanked his tail. He used to always beat me before.
> We played this time and I beat him 2 straight. ...
> Ralph

Hi Ralph,

Congratulations! With your current USATT rating at 1177, that's impressive! It's true, working on serves makes it possible to beat players at a whole new level. In fact, I thought I'd share what I taught you, so I've written it down here, and now I've put it on my website. Here it is.

The Perfect Serve

I'm thinking about high-level, world-class skills in the table tennis service game. I don't know very many players in the US that have fully optimized on these characteristics, including plenty of US 2400 level players. But if you watch Liu Guoliang on a tape in slow-motion, you'll see what can be done. He has the best serve in the world, as far as I'm concerned. His bread and butter are serves that are all completely hidden through-the-armpit serves, (illegal since the 2002 rule change, which has led to his retirement as a player) with lots of variation in speed and spin-direction, and lots of mixed-spin serves, primarily corkscrew mixed in with topspin and chop. Even his follow-through remains hidden on the service because he stays fully counter-rotated through the follow-through -- and that doesn't affect his 3rd-ball return, because he has a two-footed hop-rotation, where he lands both feet in his ready position. Over and over the same general structure, but what comes out, his opponents can't guess, can barely detect the primary corkscrew spin direction in time, and definitely can't see the subordinate topspin and chop spins mixed into the corkscrew, which are what mostly ends up popping the ball up or dropping it into the net.

Technically, having a perfect serve means that you have perfect consistency with serve shots covering the entire range of extreme properties. The extreme properties described here begin from obvious ones of maximum and minimum distance, angles that are sharpest or most effective, and different kinds of simple spins; then we move on to the bread-and-butter of unreturnable serves -- the invisible, unpredictable high-toss serve mixing corkscrew with topspin or chop; and finally we end with strategic thinking: probe, watch, and think, to find and then pound on their weaknesses.






So in your repertoire you need serves that can be long or short; to the opponent's far left, body or far right; with topspin, chop or neither and either pure or combined with left or right sidespin and especially also combined with corkscrew; all done without the opponent being able to predict it (because you mix them up well); or (most especially) to see what the spin is except by watching the ball itself. Your job is to be as aggressive and unpredictable as you can while remaining consistent, and focussing on their weaknesses, so that they either pop up your service for a kill, or miss the table entirely.

How to Develop the Perfect Serve

Develop Heavy Spin

Practice alone in your kitchen or on a table someplace to FIND YOUR OWN HYPER-SPIN STROKES, using a whippy, slicing motion until it seems really intuitive and natural to you, how to get a real tug feeling where the paddle slices and the ball spins. That tug feeling is what spin is all about.

Concentrate on the bounciness of the ball's contact with the tackiness of the rubber, and feel it tug at your paddle as the tackiness bites into the side of it. Enjoy the miracle of spin, and play with it until you feel you know intuitively how to produce it.

When working on heavy spin, don't worry about where the ball goes, just think about the power and tackiness and spin and the whippy, tugging, slicing action through that contact point. Only after you get good spin should you think about pointing it in the right direction. Then you can use that slicing motion to really put the juice on it.

Then once you get a good set of hyper-spin-generating stroke motions, you won't need any more advice from me to figure out for yourself how to control shots that hit the extreme distances and angles. It's just a matter of practice. Fortunately you can practice all you want, even with no practice partner: I've gotten a lot from hanging a blanket around a kitchen table, to catch the balls as I spin them.


You can train away from the table without worrying much about your posture, but when you serve at the table, posture and stance are important.

It can be an adjustment to get the feeling of a hyper-slicing, spin-tugging stroke in a new posture.

For forehand serves, use a wide stance perpendicular to the table, and weight-shift your body sideways over your feet in the direction of your opponent, shifting a good 8-15 inches during the forward stroke. This will improve your power and consistency.

Pingpong is a hand-eye coordination sport. Therefore getting your eyes close to the ball will improve your quality of play. This means bend your knees, bend your hips, because if you're 6'2" like me, you can't get your eyes close to the ball if you're standing straight up. Stand like an athlete, playing a sport: bend your knees!

When serving, bend your knees and hips enough to bring your eyes close to the level of the table. You'll feel like this is silly, it's only pingpong, how can I do that, but it's a sport, so bend down and get your head at the level of the ball.

Think about your grip.

Super-short serves

Practice a CHOP DINK serve, where you really get 3 bounces on the other side of the net. I'm serious! You should be able to make it bounce 5 times if you really want to, and without a lot of height on the bounce. This requires a medium-high toss and a quite horizontal blade at contact point. Practice this a lot till you have it down, several minutes straight in each of many sessions! And use it in matches after a few long serves and your opponent will collapse on their face. It is very funny when they're standing back expecting a power blast and your dink chop serve leaves their paddle clattering on the table.

After you get that, do it with side contact to produce a dink corkscrew serve, and after that with side-back-lifting contact to produce a topspin-corkscrew dink serve.

Pound those popups

Whenever you receive a high-bounce return, more than twice the height of the net, kill it. You need to develop the ability to put away popup returns and to become very confident about it. Even if you miss badly for a while, make it a rule to always kill them, every time, and then gradually you'll get so you start putting them away. Don't sweat the errors, your job is to learn something and get better, and you have to try it if you want to learn it. So just go for it and whallop them.

The serve-and-kill game is extremely effective: if you have a super service game, then even if you can't get them to miss every shot, you can often get them to pop up a high percentage of those they do return. So if you have a really great serve, you need to also develop great consistency in killing easy pop-up returns, otherwise all your service skills will go to waste producing squandered opportunities.

This section teaches the now-illegal hidden serve

Read it for the information in it, but learn the semi-hidden serve described in the next section.

Develop the Hidden Serve

At a certain level, maybe 1700 or so, players get so they can read visible spins from the sight of the ball contact and can respond correctly no matter how heavy it is; you can really only beat 1300-1500 players with plain heavy spin, even if it is unpredictable, because if they can see it, they can respond to it. So if you want to really advance farther, you need to develop your ability to make INVISIBLE SERVES. Even the top American players have not really optimized this, unlike the top international players. There's a huge amount of potential advantage that you can develop by building up your skills at the hidden serve.

Develop the Visible/Invisible Serve

The new service rules have made important changes, including both relaxing as well as tightening the rules. These changes imply certain modifications in the optimal service repertoire.

The optimally-hidden serve is now the serve in which the paddle and paddle motion are invisible or disguised during as much as possible of the stroke.

I consider Ma Lin to be the master of the visible/invisible serve. He contacts the ball with the paddle horizontal, and either it cuts heavily producing strong underspin, or it touches flatly producing no spin. The movement of the hand and paddle in the direction of the line of sight of the opponent make the movement essentially invisible. Therefore it is possible to put either heavy underspin or no spin on the ball without the opponent being able to tell what happened.

I have developed a visible/invisible serve similar to Ma Lin's, with some changes:

In this service, because the opponent cannot see the hand and paddle movement before or after the point of contact, he or she is much less able to read the spin. Because the essential spin/no-spin movement is in the line of sight between the opponent and the ball, it is even harder to read.

On the down side, the point of contact must be farther away from the table in order both to sweep under the table in this forward stroke and to contact the ball high enough that it can bounce gently over the net in the usual two-bounce dink serve. This gives the opponent a little bit more time to see what's coming and to respond.

Another problem of this serve is that it requires a lot of practice to get it right: heavy underspin while stroking from high to low is a harder than if stroking entirely horizontally. If you want, use the Ma Lin technique of horizontal stroke above the table level, but the opponent will be able to see your follow through. Eventually, though, it is possible to do a strong spin / no spin alternation which is very difficult to see.

Develop Skill in Strategy

The perfect serve is the serve your opponent misses. Extreme characteristics help, and you have to have consistency with those skills to be able to win by stretching your opponents to their limits, but really the main part of the game is to discover and use specific knowledge about what your opponent can't handle. To win, you have to probe, watch carefully, and think hard. You have to be a strategic thinker.

Ralph, I think that's everything I taught you. If you can do these things, and then make them consistent, then you should be able to play a close to perfect service game.



Copyright © 2000-2003 Thomas C. Veatch All rights reserved.
Last Modified: March 12, 2003.