Coaching Tip: Should you Choose Serve, Receive, or Side at the Start of a Match?

By Larry Hodges, USATT Hall of Famer and Certified National Coach
[Note – the first half of this is from my book, “Table Tennis Tactics for Thinkers,” in the chapter on Conventional Tactics, page 70. I may add the second part, about choice of sides, in a future update.]

The time when a player is most likely to miss easy shots is at the very start of the match. That’s when a player may not yet be fully warmed up or used to his opponent’s shots yet. So it’s often best to let the other guy serve first, let him mess up on his serve & attack at the start, and then get your chance to serve, when you are more into the match.

There’s another, more mathematical way of looking at this. Suppose in a given match, the server will score 60% of the points. (In reality, it not that high in competition matches—more like 55% or so.) So you figure every time you serve a point, you should score an average of 0.6 points. That means if you mess up on your serve and lose two in a row because you aren’t yet warmed up, you’ve mathematically lost 2 x 0.6 points, or 1.2 points. If you do so when receiving, you’ve only lost 2 x 0.4 points, or 0.8 points. In other words, you can more easily afford to lose a point on the other guy’s serve than on your own—so let him serve when he’s not warmed up, and put off your own serving until you are slightly more warmed up.

The exception, of course, is the player who needs to get a quick lead to build up confidence. If you lose confidence when you fall behind and don’t play as well, then by all means serve first. But in this case, you need to work on your mental game.

Addendum (not in the book): What about choice of sides? At the start of a match, whoever wins the coin flip (or the hiding of the ball under the table) gets choice of serving, receiving, or side to start on. (You change sides after each game, and as soon as someone scores five points in the last, deciding game if it goes that far.) What if on one side it’s harder to see the ball (because of the background), or the floor is slippery on that side, or something like that? There are two ways of looking at this.

A close match will go into the final game. In that final game you’ll switch sides as soon as someone reaches five points. But that means that you’ll likely play more points after switching sides. If you switch sides at 5-4 and the game goes to 10-10, at that point you’d have played nine points on the bad side, eleven on the good side – plus you’ll be on the good side for the points at deuce. (If you switch sides at 5-3 then it’s twelve on the good side, eight on the bad side.) So if you choose the bad side at the start, you’ll start the fifth game on the bad side, and end up playing more points on the good side.

However, some find it harder to get into a match if they start on the bad side. So that player may want to start on the good side, so that when he does move to the bad side he’ll be more into the match, and less likely to be bothered by the bad side.