Coaching Tip: Where to Serve Short?

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

Many players understand the need to serve short (in addition to long serves), since short serves stop the opponent from looping. More advanced players learn the control to serve “half-long,” so the second bounce, given the chance, would be right about the end-line. However, many players who serve short do not think about the placement. There are five: short to the extreme forehand, middle forehand, middle, middle backhand, and extreme backhand. Here are the advantages and disadvantages of each. (Some of these are written as if both players were righties. It would be a long article if I covered all possibilities.)

Every opponent is different, so test each of them out on these five types of placements and see which one works best for you.

Extreme Forehand

  • Advantages: It makes the receiver reach way over the table, often leading to awkward returns. To guard against this the receiver often has to stay close to the table, making him vulnerable to deep serves, especially to the wide backhand. After returning these serves the receiver may have trouble getting back into position.
  • Disadvantages: It gives the receiver a big angle crosscourt, and also gives maximum table as a target, since there is more court diagonally then down the line. To guard against this angle, the server might not be able to effectively cover down-the-line receives. For a righty serving to a righty, this means the receiver can flip to the wide forehand, and to cover this, the server may have to move to his right, leaving the backhand side vulnerable.

Middle Forehand

  • Advantages: It takes away some of the angle into the forehand and gives less table to flip into. It also forces the receiver to move in differently than against the wide angle – often having to step slightly to the left (for righty versus righty) – and some players have trouble doing this.
  • Disadvantages: The receiver doesn’t have to move as far in, so can get in and out more quickly. The receiver also now has a slight angle into the backhand as well as into the forehand. It also allows a receiver with a strong backhand flip (especially a “banana flip,” a heavy topspin/sidespin attack against a short ball with the backhand) to more easily step over and use the backhand.

Middle

  • Advantages: Receiver has to decide in a split second whether to receive forehand or backhand. Serving to the middle takes away the extreme angles in both directions, and leads to the least amount of table the server has to cover. It gives the receiver the least amount of table to receive to since there are no long diagonals from the middle. This is the most popular location for elite players, though of course they vary it.
  • Disadvantages: Receiver can more easily use their stronger side for receiving, forehand or backhand. The receiver can angle the ball equally to both sides.

Middle Backhand

  • Advantages: Only gives a slight angle into the forehand side, so the server can often follow the serve with a forehand from the backhand side. If the serve goes slightly long, he might still get a backhand return instead of a forehand loop.
  • Disadvantages: It allows the receiver to receive backhand without having to reach too much over the table. It gives an angle into the backhand and some angle to the forehand. It’s the most common serve at the beginning and intermediate level, so those players are used to this.

Extreme Backhand

  • Advantages: It takes away any angle into the wide forehand (for righty versus righty), and so the server can try to cover the backhand side with his forehand, knowing that if the receiver does get an extreme angled return, the receiver can always switch to backhand. It brings the receiver well over the table, making him vulnerable to deep ball on the next shot. If the serve goes slightly long, you’ll most likely get a backhand return instead of a forehand loop.
  • Disadvantages: It gives the receiver an extreme crosscourt angle. It takes away any indecision from the receiver since he’ll almost always receive backhand.