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One of the hardest aspects of ping pong to master is the serve. Many players have their own style of serve and it is almost impossible to find a clear-cut optimal method.
This is also a rather complex part of table tennis, as there are a few specific rules regarding serves that if you do not follow, it is easy points for your opponent.
For the remainder of this article, you will see these rules you’ll have to follow for a legal serve, some tips to help improve your serve, and answers to some commonly asked questions.
The Rules: What Makes for a Legal Ping Pong Serve?
To start, let’s go through the rules that constitute a legal ping pong serve.
#1: “Service shall start with the ball resting freely on the open palm of the server’s stationary free hand.”
This one is fairly self-explanatory. If you’ve seen a professional ping pong match, this is one of the most noticeable parts of the beginning of a serve.
Hold the racket in your serving hand while the ball is resting in the open palm of your other hand.
This is how you should begin all serves.
#2: “The server shall then project the ball vertically upwards, without imparting spin, so that it rises at least 6.3 inches after leaving the palm of the free hand and then falls without touching anything before being struck.”
A lot of players will find legality issues in this rule as it is a tough one to measure. In essence, this rule is so people do not put any spin on the ball using their hand rather than just the racket.
Also, this rule makes certain that a player does not just drop the ball and do a sort of “quick shot” to throw off the receiver. Basically, this rule is to make it as fair as possible for someone to be able to hit a serve back.
#3: “As the ball is falling, the server shall strike it so that it touches first his court and then, after passing over or around the net assembly, touches directly the receiver’s court.”
This rule is, once again, for the receiver in an effort to give them a fair shot at a return. It would be incredibly difficult if the server could just spike the ball over the net as hard as possible like in tennis.
The second half is of course to keep the serve within the confines of the table. If the ball bounces twice on the serving side and if the serve goes out of bounds after the first bounce, that is a point for the receiver.
#4: “From the start of service until it is struck, the ball shall be above the level of the playing surface and behind the server’s end line, and it shall not be hidden from the receiver by the server or his doubles partner and by anything they wear or carry.”
This rule is mainly so the receiver’s view of the ball will not be obstructed by the table, or the server themselves.
For similar reasons, another rule is that it is also necessary for the server’s free arm to be removed from the area between the ball and the net after the serve.
7 Tips to Serve Like a Pro
With the basic rules out of the way, let’s take it a step further and see how you can improve your ping pong serve.
#1 Get Comfortable Throwing the Ball Up
Throwing the ball up vertically from your palm is harder than it looks. Many beginning players will toss it up at an angle or not high enough, which will not fly in a competitive match.
Plus, if you are not sure where the ball is going when you toss it up, it is a recipe for an array of inaccurate serves and plenty of free points for your opponent.
This is easy to practice, however, and you can get comfortable at this action without even hitting the ball. Just simply toss it up and let it bounce, then repeat the process until it becomes consistent.
#2 Try a Short Backspin Serve
This type of serve is used to make it difficult for your opponent to use an attacking stroke on the return. It is great for getting them closer to the table so you can begin an attack after they receive.
You should stand close to the table and take a low stance, and when you strike the ball, do so with a brushing action underneath the ball. Be sure to use as short a stroke as possible, and keep your body movement to a minimum.
#3 Try a Backhand Sidespin Serve
This type of serve is used to force your opponent to return on one side or the other and is commonly used against those who have a weak forehand or backhand. This serve will force your opponent to return on their weaker side.
You should also stand close to the table and take a low stance on this one. When you strike the ball do so with a sideways and slightly forward action from the backhand side to the forehand side. Finally, strike the ball with a fast wrist action on the back/middle part of the ball for maximum sidespin.
#4 Start Off Slow, Then Hit Hard
Controlling your serve is more important than trying to hit an ace every time. Smacking the ball as hard as you can can easily lead to serves that fly out of bounds, or straight shots that can be returned just as hard.
This is a common mistake beginners tend to make, and it is something that can be fixed by simply not being too tense while you serve. Ping pong is a sport of precision and finesse over power.
Controlling where the ball goes to make your opponent off balance is a much better strategy then trying to overwhelm them with fast serves.
#5 Try a Half-Long Serve
This type of serve is meant to fool your opponent into thinking they have the opportunity for a powerful return or that the serve is going out of bounds.
For this serve, you will want a very long bounce after the initial one on your side of the table. The objective is to get this ball as close as possible to the end-line on the table and, if executed well, to force your opponent to hesitate and make a haphazard return.
#6 Make Sure You Have a Proper Stance
Having a proper stance will not only help your serve, but get you ready for the return as well. For the most part, you should try to stay in this stance all game.
Keep your feet spread apart a little wider than shoulder-width, with your body slightly bent forward towards the table. Keep your arms and hands relaxed and loose, as well as your knees slightly bent.
Keeping all this in mind, you should still play around with different stances and find what is most comfortable for you in the end. However, it is important to keep your fundamentals intact. Ping pong requires a lot of stamina and if you do maintain a good stance, it will wear on you during long games.
#7 Get Creative
Most experienced players are well aware of all the standard kinds of serves most players will throw at them. So it is important to think of different ways to keep your opponents off balance and use a variety of serves.
If you’ve mastered most of the common ways of serving, try and think of ways to create a different kind of spin on the ball that can surprise those playing against you. Serving is all about catching your opponent off guard.
Frequently Asked Questions About Ping Pong Serves
Finally, let’s answer some more questions that might be lingering in your head.
How Many Serves Does a Player Get in Ping Pong?
In a standard match, each player gets two serves and then there is a change of service. This routine alternates until someone scores 11 points.
However, if there is a deuce (10-10 tie), each player gets only one serve and it alternates until one of the players gets a two-point lead. In which case, the match will end because a two-point lead wins a deuce.
Is Forehand or Backhand Serve Better?
There are strengths and weaknesses to both kinds of serves, and being able to do both in different situations is the best option.
A forehand serve will typically be more powerful, while a backhand serve can put some interesting spins on the ball. All in all, it is really a matter of which serve you feel the most comfortable doing.
Being able to do a serve using both of these methods can create different spins on the ball that can make it difficult for returns, and what’s more, can get in your opponent’s head. Seeing someone change their serve in this way can certainly be jarring and is a great change-up you can add to your arsenal.
Which Player Serves in Doubles?
This can be one of the more confusing rules in ping pong, but it can be broken down simply, and once you get into the rhythm of changing service, it will be easy to follow.
Once it has been decided which team will serve first, that team will choose which player serves first and the other team will choose who receives.
After a change of service happens, the person who was receiving will be the next to serve and the other team’s partner will be the one to receive. This routine repeats until the next game, in which the teams can choose to mix up who serves to who.
Hopefully, you now have the knowledge you need to take your table tennis serving game to the next level. Serving is one of the most complex parts of ping pong but if you can master it, it can be a huge boost to your overall playing ability.
Always remember the rules of serving, for if you find yourself in a competitive match, making illegal serves is an easy way to lose the match and knock yourself out of your comfort zone while serving.
Be sure to try out the seven tips above and keep your fundamentals and basic serves strong. Variety is always important, and having an array of different serving tactics in your arsenal is always the sign of a great player.