What can a player do if he is having trouble reading the spin on the opponent’s serve? At the lower levels, this usually means the opponent’s serving motion is too quick for the player to pick up contact. At the higher levels, it’s often because the opponent is hiding his serve, a serious problem since many umpires do not enforce the serving rules and allow players to illegally hide contact, making it difficult to read the spin on the ball. However, the techniques for returning these hidden serves are essentially the same for those at lower levels who struggle to read the spin off any serve. So what can you do when you have trouble reading the spin, whether against a good server or against an illegally hidden one?
At the elite levels, deep sidespin and topspin serves mostly get looped, and are mostly used as occasional variations. But at lower levels they are often the bane of players who hit or loop them off the end over and over. Why do they do this? There are three main reasons.
One of the trickier things in table tennis starting at the intermediate level is how to return short backspin serves without giving the server an easy ball to loop. The easiest return is a long push, but then the server gets to loop. You can also flip the short serve, but that can be tricky, and many servers can loop that return as well unless you flip very aggressively – and if you do that, you lose consistency. So what to do?
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.
I am often left in open-mouthed astonishment when watching matches as players will return short backspin serves the same way, with simple long pushes to the opponent’s backhand, over and Over and OVER!!! There is little attempt to vary these returns or do much of anything to mess up the server. And yet they seem surprised that the server is ready for these simple pushes, usually with a big third-ball loop attack. If the opponent serve and pushes, then perhaps pushing the serve back long over and over will work. But that’s mostly at the lower levels. If you want to reach the higher levels, you have to do a bit more with the receive.