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Coaching Tip: The Decline of the High-Toss Serve and Why You Should Learn It

By Larry Hodges, USATT Hall of Famer and Certified National Coach

The high-toss serve used to be one of the most popular serves at high-level table tennis, and pretty common at the intermediate level as well. There are still plenty of players who use it, but it is not as common as before. Why is this? First, you should understand what the serve is, and its advantages and disadvantages.

A high-toss serve is just that – a serve where you toss the ball high into the air, often ten to fifteen feet up. They are the most spectacular of serves. They are also the hardest to control. If you want to learn a high-toss serve, watch how the top players do it, and practice a LOT. Here’s a video on the high-toss serve (2:22), featuring Japanese star Jun Mizutani.

Most players below the advanced levels can’t really control a high-toss serve, and so the serve tends to be easy to attack once you get used to it. But because the serve is “different” many players have trouble with them, even if they aren’t done very well. Most high-toss serves are done with a forehand pendulum serve. (For a righty, this means the racket is tip-down, and moves from right to left. For a reverse pendulum serve, the racket would move left to right.)

Advantages of a High Toss Serve
1. A higher toss means the ball is traveling faster at contact, which allows you to put more spin on the ball.
2. The higher toss throws off the timing of opponents.

Disadvantages
1. Less control of depth, making it more difficult to serve short.
2. Less control of height, leading to higher serves that are easier to attack.
3. Reverse pendulum serves are difficult to do with a high toss.
4. Faster-moving ball makes it harder to do as much deceptive motion as the ball passes by at contact.

From the advantages, you see that you can get more spin on the ball. This is especially effective when going for an extremely heavy backspin serve, which opponents will often put in the net since they aren’t used to such heavy backspin – but only if you perfect the serve. It’s not easy learning to throw the ball up way in the air and just graze it as it comes down! But if you learn to do so, the serve can be highly effective – especially if you also learn to vary the spin, with varying degrees of backspin, sidespin, and corkscrewspin, as well as no-spin serves that look like backspin. (Not sure what corkscrewspin is, or have other questions on spin? See my article “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Spin – But Were Afraid to Ask.”)

However, as you can see there are also disadvantages, and they outnumber the advantages 4-2. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t high-toss; it means you have a bit more practice to do. With practice, you can negate the first three disadvantages as you learn to control the depth and height, and perhaps learn to do a reverse pendulum serve with a high toss. (Some players simply use a lower toss for the reverse pendulum serve, and with a high toss only do normal pendulum serves. Not sure what a reverse pendulum serve is? Here’s a short article on it, which includes a link to a short video which shows both a regular and reverse pendulum serve.)

The key problem with a high-toss serve is the speed at which the ball falls at contact, which is both the strength and weakness of the serve. While it does allow more spin, the faster-moving ball means you have less time for deceptive motion as the ball goes by, as well as a loss of control. Most players find they get more deception and control with a shorter toss, which is why most serves toss the ball perhaps head high. However, the high-toss serve is still a great weapon to have, either as a front-line serve used over and over, or as a variation to throw an opponent off, which is how I use it. Many players will toss the ball head high over and over, and then, perhaps several times a game, using the same motion, they’ll suddenly go for a high-toss, which often leads to a completely befuddled opponent who simply isn’t ready for the extra spin (especially backspin) of a properly executive high-toss serve – hence advantage #3.

Another advantage of the high-toss serves is that since fewer players are using it than before, players are less used to it, and so have more trouble with them. So if you are looking for an extra weapon for your serving arsenal, get high with the high-toss serve.

3 Comments

  1. The Corkscrew-Spins are a suite of Penholder Grip only (requiring the human wrist doing near 270 degree rotation) techniques that guides the ball in the micro-environmet where the contact time is significantly extended because the rotation is not linear. The ball rotation begins when the penholder grip racket with the ball rolling at the left side of the handle grip and ends at the right side of the handle grip as the ball is released. Circumnavigating the edge of the racket- yeah that is the famous 270 degree wrist rotation and the linear distance travelled by the ball is from ten inches to twelve inches depending on the racket head size. that is alot of friction, spin and momentu at release time. The result is greater yaw, pitch, and row than any player will normally encountered. With these rarely displayed advantages a player can hide in plain view an “un-hackable” counterstrike.

    Not sure who invented this, but I first seen these techniques used in limited engagements by the South Korean players about the same time as the second generation of sticky spiny rubbers were sold.
    From an engineer’s analysis… using a ultra high speed analog ballistics camera about 38,000 frames per second- the viewer can see in slow motion playback the potentcy and ubiquitous nature of the corkscrew spins. The best advantage is that these direction, spin, and rotation remain consistent whether the player uses pips out rubber or smooth rubber surfaces. With spiny and sticky smooth rubber surfaces the floating effects are greatly enhanced. Of course this is better than re-gluing or having some super specialized equipment. This is advanced table tennis performance at its best– using techniques rather than letting the equipment do all the work.

    Anyone wanting to view these Corkscrew Spins technique in person close up should visit the extreme table tennis players in the USA, Canada, and Australia where there are cadres of senior fighter pilots employing these techniques in “marathon sessions”. These games are like the marathon runs– last for hours if not days. This was and continues to be practiced because most countries “pay” their table tennis players to win. Not so in USA, Canada, and Australia thus players in these countries must practice very long hours– sometimes as much as 48 to 72 hours at a time with only bathroom breaks and beverage breaks every two hours. No sleep because that is the only way to get in that endurance training. Remember many of
    the Asian teams are professionals, they are paid to train ten hours a day, seven days a week for a whole year before representing their country in international tournaments. The other benefits is these players burn about 400 calories each marathon hour played.

    The rules in extreme table tennis is very simple: They do not follow international table tennis rules because that would dilute the training. The players are expected to play at least a twenty one point game every two minutes. No cheating allowed as the player can only use a ball serve technique but once in each game meaning in a 21 point game he best to have at leat eleven different serves. And the player must return the ball differently with every stroke (in contact with) of the ball. This makes the extreme game interesting and ultimately frecht (fresh).

    Extreme Table Tennis is like the difference between fighter pilots flying in four dimensions (yaw, pitch, roll, and stall) versus commercial airline pilots in two dimensions. The corkscrew spin suite is best deployed with the penholder grip. Have tried it with the shakehand grip- can not be done without hurting wrist. The shakehand grip is rigid, hence the over effort body language projected at the other player. And because there is much movement the shakehand grip player can not last without lactic acid building up quickly in the muscle! Yeah using the shakehand grip I was able to play for about twenty hours before my shoulder gave up. Using the penholder grip is much more efficient and energy savings- producing as much if not more speed and spin because of the linear distance the ball travelled on the surface of the rubber just before its release from the racket. The ball actually travels the entire circumference of the racket in the penholder grip. Doing this with the shakehand grip the spin becomes only a two dimensional spin. Top-Spin, Back-Spin, Side-Spin, and smash are all two dimensional spins. The Corkscrew Spin is a genuine three dimensional spin with “variable speed” dwell time which gives its “four dimension” like effect.

    Just as a commercial airline pilot can not perform a “Inverse Immelmann” maneuver like a fighter pilot, the shakehand grip player can not perform a proper Corkscrew Spin without rotating the whole wrist like the penholder grip player. Because most Asian players are short in height and light in bone structure they choose the penholder grip like that of handling a paintbrush- an artist. Not like the shakehand grip being like a “butcher” grip (Remember Macy’s Butcher Shop in the 1982)

    The rules of International Table Tennis changes too much because of national politics. Therefore Table Tennis has become political much like soccer. And that hurts the sport and recreation worrying too much about the speed and size of the ball. The ITTF has diluted the game– fisrt 38mm ball then becomes the 40mm ball and now they want players to lower their expectations of the other players by employing the 50mm ball? The techniques should be taught properly and new techniques internalized unless the game becomes a monotonous rally, and brute force training session. Its a not to hard believe that table tennis players are leaving this sport to other more realistic pursuits- Fencing, Volleyball, Basketball, football, etc.

    Technical personnel play table tennis because it relaxes, thinking and playing becomes simultaneous almost second nature, or second wind. Keep the game fresh and fun, learn new techniques, do not be prejudice just because a player is left handed, right handed, shakehand grip, penholder grip, flicker, looper, or the “ultimate artist” with the racket used like a paintbrush.

    When a table tennis player uses 75% of his available energy- he outlasts the other player.
    He has less chances of injuries, and better able to respond adequately in a rally. Brute force
    response brings emotions to the game causing anxiety and loss of accuracy.

    Hints:

    Bulky muscle= More feeding time, weight gain, and faster lactic acid buildup.
    Lean muscle= Form fitting, no special sized clothing, less cardio liability.
    Yeah muscles need oxygen.

    After playing table tennis for more than sixty years, seen all kinds of grips
    other shakehand and penholder grips. Playing with handicapped players–
    No hands- yeah he used his mouth (all teeth) to beat me.
    No hands- she used her leg to vector the ball to the edge of table.
    A wheelchair player has beat me soundly, with a martigale to his ears he
    was able to use his mouth to secure the racket and hands free to move his wheelchair.
    These were some of the more fantastic players I have experienced- extreme certainly.
    You may be surprised at what is learned in playing with handicapped players.

    Remember:

    Corkscrew Spin techniques are best performed with a Penholder Grip
    because the racket and the wrist must be rotated near 270 degrees.

    Smashes are best performed with a Shakehand Grip because of the
    Top Spin nauture of rotation.

    Floating returns are best performed with a Penholder Grip because
    the wrist must rotate about 300 degrees to counterstrike the
    Top Spin and Back Spin gravity threshold. On appearence the other
    player sees only a “Flat Spin” returned ball.

    Net-Suspension>
    Returned ball floating on the net’s edge going from right side to left side
    just before expending all energy and then dropping over the other side of net!
    This is an example of the Corkscrew Spin technique deployed against Top Spin
    returned balls. (Like a good 700 Ampere jolt)

    Net-Stasis>
    Returned ball sliding on an imaginery “glidepath” and as the ball decrease
    velocity, the path angles out severely to either corner tip of the table.
    This is an example of the Corkscrew Spin technique deployed against Back Spin
    returned balls. (Like a good urethane bowling ball)

    Sissors (a.k.a. Aeronuatical Engineer Kelly Johnson>
    Returned ball wiggling along the either sides of the table’s white line hugging
    near the table surface (so low it seems to be touching) before ball pitches
    forward.
    This is an example of the Corkscrew Spin technique deployed against a strongly
    looped and flicked returned balls.

    LuftberryCircle (a.k.a. Major Thomas McGuire>
    Returned ball very shallow sliced into the air turbulence because gravity is
    the only force keeping the ball bouyant from touching the table surface, then
    eventually colliding with the center of the net.
    This is an example of the Corkscrew Spin technique deployed against a very fast
    and heavy stroked smash.

    Immelmann (a.k.a. Major Richard Bong)
    Returned ball vector seemingly from one side of table to other side of table while
    being laterally spun back towards the center white line of the opponent’s side of
    table. But when the ball is hit, the trajectory is forced into the net.
    This is an example of the Corkscrew Spin technique deployed against long range
    heavily spun ball.

    Yeah technique is more important than all the best equipment in the world.
    There were times when my equipment failed me. Going back to good
    technique has helped me survived my experiences.

    When fighter pilots are not on the flightline or duing anything else,
    its table tennis that takes the edge off.

  2. Is the Titan Beat racket blade still available?
    That was the only titanium mesh grid with carbon fiber embedded into the wood racket.
    Where can this be purchased and how much cost today?

    Thank you for your assistance.

    1. Paddle Palace 3

      Theodore, you’ll need to contact Paddle Palace directly at tt@paddlepalace.com for that. (I’m a coach and writer, but I’m not involved with equipment sales.) I did a quick search but didn’t see it.
      -Larry Hodges

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