By Larry Hodges, USATT Hall of Famer and Certified National Coach
There are five steps, roughly in this order. Serving takes practice, often alone with a box of balls as you serve, over and over. Take your time; don’t rapid-fire serve. Visualize what you want to do with each serve as you practice, and then try to match what you visualize. You might want to get a coach to help at the start, or watch what top players do, and perhaps get their help. Learn to follow your serve with an attack – often it’s the threat of the follow-up shot that makes the serve effective as opponents try to be too perfect with their returns. (Have a question about spin? Here’s my article Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Spin – But Were Afraid to Ask!)
1. Put great spin on the ball
There is no substitute for this. Spin comes from racket speed and grazing motion. Racket speed comes mostly from the arm and (even more) the wrist, which need to work together to accelerate the racket into the ball. (Contact should be near the tip of the racket, which is the fastest moving part of the blade in a normal serving motion.) Even more important, however, is the grazing motion, which is what takes so much practice. When you can graze the ball so that nearly all of your racket speed becomes spin, you are well on your way toward developing a great spin serve. You can practice this away from the table – get a box of balls and serve on a rug, and watch how the ball spins on the rug. Make the backspins come back to you, the sidespins break sideways, and the topspins jump away.
2. Put different spins on the ball
It’s not enough to just make the ball spin; you need to develop different spins. Most players start out by learning simple backspin and topspin serves. Next you should develop sidespin serves, and then combinations – sidespin-backspin and sidespin-topspin (usually called side-back and side-top serves). Then you should add a no-spin serves that looks spinny (called “heavy no-spin”), where you use a big racket motion but hit the ball near the base of the racket and so put little spin on the ball. Finally, you might learn to serve with corkscrewspin, where you’ll have to toss the ball up higher.
3. Put great spins on the ball and control it
Having all these great spinny serves isn’t so great if you are popping the balls up or can’t control the depth. High serves are going to get attacked, and consistently long serves will also get attacked by stronger players. Learn to serve so the ball crosses the net very low. (Do this by contacting the ball low to the table.) Learn to control the depth of your serve so you can serve it very long (so first bounce is near the end-line) and short (so that given the chance, the ball would bounce twice on the receiver’s side). Also learn to do “half-long” serves, where the second bounce, given the chance, would be right at the end-line, often the most difficult serves to return effectively. Learn to do these serves to all parts of the table – left, right, and middle.
4. Put different spins on the ball with the same motion
Serving different spins won’t always help if the opponent can easily see what type of spin you are serving. So learn to use the same motion for different spins. This means using a serve motion where the racket at different times is traveling down, sideways, and up, in one continuous motion. Then you can vary the spin by simply varying where in the service motion you contact the ball. For example, with a forehand pendulum serve (with the racket tip down), you would start with the racket moving down, then sideways, and then up. You can also rotate your racket as you serve, so you can vary the spin by varying the contact point on the racket.
5. Put different spins on the ball with the same fast, quick motion
Once you’ve learned to do all of the above, it’s time to ramp it up by doing it faster and faster. Instead of a leisurely down, sideways, and up motion, do the entire motion in a few inches in the wink of an eye, making it almost impossible for any but an highly experience receiver to pick up the type of spin from the contact point. Better still exaggerate the part of the motion where aren’t contacting the ball, so that if you are serving side-top, exaggerate the down motion; if you are serving side-back, exaggerate the up motion.