The Best Ping-Pong Serve

Serve Up a Killer Ping-Pong Game

Midsection Of Man Serving While Playing Table Tennis
Olaf Herschbach / EyeEm / Getty Images

Ask just about any high-level player what the most important shot in table tennis is, and the chances are pretty good that they will tell you it is the serve. What's the best ping-pong serve? 

First, let's take a look at why the serve is such an important stroke. Reasons include:

  • Control: It is the only stroke that you make where you have total control of the ball, without any interference or influence from the opponent. As such, you should be able to do exactly what you want with the ball.
  • Frequency: Every point starts with a serve. And considering that the average rally length at higher levels is often only three to five strokes, that means the serve makes up a pretty high proportion of shots played during a match.
  • Setup: Good use of serves can strongly influence the stroke played by the receiver, allowing a good server to predict the return and play more of his favorite third and fifth ball patterns.
  • Pressure: A player who knows his opponent has better serves than he does will feel under pressure right from the start of the rally. Conversely, a player with better serves than his opponent will usually feel a bit more relaxed, knowing that he has an important edge every time he gets the serve.
  • Knowledge: The better you are at serving yourself, the more you understand about how certain serves work, and the best ways to identify them and return them.

What Makes a Good Serve?

This is a trickier question to answer because what could be a good serve under one set of circumstances could be a bad serve under another. So instead of giving a hard and fast definition of a good serve, these are several factors involved in serving that work together to make a serve good or bad depending on the situation.

Double Bounce Serves: The correct use of

Long Serves: These serves bounce once on the opponent's side of the table, typically within six inches or so of his endline. The emphasis is on surprise and speed to force weaker returns from opponents, which can then be counterattacked. If your opponent is not caught off-guard, you may be getting a very strong attack coming back at you, so use with care!

Placement: The placement of the ball when served to the opponent will have an effect on whether the serve is a good or bad one. What makes for good or bad placement will depend largely on your opponent -- different players stand in different positions when receiving serves, and also hold their bats differently in preparation for their receive. They will also have different strengths and weaknesses in returning serve (some will be better at flicking than pushing, some might be great at looping long balls on the forehand but weaker at long balls on the backhand).

Some things to be aware of in terms of placement are:

  • Don't serve half-long serves (by my definition, these are serves that bounce once around the middle of the opponent's side, and then go over the endline). A good opponent will be looping or driving these back at you, putting you under pressure right from the start.
  • Don't serve half-long serves to the opponent's power zones (where he or she can hit a forehand or backhand loop or drive without having to move sideways at all). A half-long serve that avoids the power zone at least makes the opponent move and hit, which is tougher to do.
  • Aim at the crossover point.

Deception: Deception has always been an important part of serving. With the recent rule changes designed to end the practice of hiding the ball during the service, deception in serving has changed as well. Nowadays, players focus on deceiving their opponent by:

  • Type of Spin: Players use serves that look similar to each other, but actually have slightly different spin. For example, this can often be a serve that looks like light backspin and sidespin but actually has only a sidespin. An unwary opponent will play the ball expecting backspin and will return the ball high enough to allow the server to attack.
  • Amount of Spin: The server attempts to deceive the receiver about how much spin is on the ball. For example, the server tries to make the serve look like it is light backspin and sidespin, but in actual fact puts a lot of backspin on the ball. He or she is hoping that the opponent will treat the serve as a light backspin and put the ball in the net.
  • Placement: A player makes it obvious he is serving in one direction, but at the last split-second he turns his bat a fraction to change the direction the ball is going. This tends to be used more on long, fast serves, where the receiver does not have much time to adjust to the change in direction.
  • Faking: More advanced servers can swing the bat back and forth near the time of contact, making it very difficult to see just when the ball was contacted. This is not an easy technique to master, but it can be very effective.
  • Sidespin: Many good players incorporate sidespin into almost every serve. Using sidespin gives the opponent one more thing to worry about, and it also helps to make it harder to tell what amount of backspin or topspin has been put on the ball. Don't forget to use different amounts of sidespin as well!

Considering how important the serve is, how often and for how long you should practice it? Try at least 10 minutes of serve practice for every hour spent training. You have to do enough to keep your serves sharp - there is not a lot of room for error when double-bounce serving or serving long and deep.

Also, try to find some time where you can just serve with a bucket of balls and no opponent. When you play against someone else it can often be hard to know whether you really are double-bouncing the serve, or is your opponent pushing or flicking balls that he really should be looping back?

Make a point of having a working knowledge of all the serves. You don't have to master each one straight away but you should know the theory of how to execute them. This will also help you when it comes time for you to return someone else's serves!

You will need to master at a minimum the forehand pendulum serve (with backspin/sidespin, sidespin only, and topspin/sidespin) and the standard backhand serve (again with backspin/sidespinsidespin only, and topspin/sidespin). More exotic serves such as the forehand tomahawk, reverse pendulum and others can be mastered later.

Your Best Ping-Pong Serve

Use serves that tend to complement your best third ball and fifth ball attacks. If you are better at opening your attack from a backspin ball, use double-bounce serves with heavy backspin and sidespin that are difficult to flick in order to encourage a push return. If you are better at counterattacking, you would be justified in using more long serves with varied spin and placement, to allow your opponent to attack, but to make it hard for him to attack well, so you can make a strong counterattack on your third ball.