Surviving With a Less Than Spectacular Serve

Your table tennis serve is one part of your game that you can truly be creative with. You can do backhand serves, forehand serves, pendulum serves, reverse pendulum serves, high toss serves, topspin serves, backspin serves, sidespin serves, no spin serves, long serves, short serves, half long serves, illegal serves, tomahawk serves, serves with pips, serves with heavy spin, serves with light spin, fast serves, slow serves, corkscrew serves, et cetera. Some players use a variety of serves, and some rely on just a few. Some serves are aesthetically pleasing, and some are somewhat less than spectacular. New players are often intimidated by the serves they see from more experienced players. But, there is no need to think that you can’t serve effectively, even if your serves don’t look like the pros.
Coaches are often asked to evaluate their students serves. When I get this question, my answer is typically quite cryptic. It’s not my intent to confuse new players, but I want them to start looking at their serves differently. It’s a good serve if it did what you intended it to do. Did it have the type of spin you were attempting? Did the ball land where you were looking to serve it to? Does the serve allow you to get into the types of rallies that you are most comfortable with? 
Obviously, some serves are poor under any circumstances. It’s almost never a good idea to serve a ball that bounces high. It’s best to avoid serving into obvious power zones, where serves are easily attacked. My own approach to serving is to determine what type of spin I’m going for, where on the table I want to aim for, and whether I want to do a forehand or backhand serve. It doesn’t have to be much more complicated than that. No one has ever said my serves were spectacular, but they are frequently efficient, and certainly well thought out. Experienced players develop serves that work for them. They also know that they will have to mix them differently for each new opponent.
I introduce service strategy with a little different twist on the four basics of speed, spin, placement, and deception. With the caveat that serves do need to be practiced, and that improvement of serves is one of the quickest ways to improve, consider that even unremarkable serves can work, if used intelligently. At different levels of play, some things are simply more important than others.
Speed – Speed is important, but not in the way that some players think. Racket speed is more important than the speed of the ball. A fast serve is almost always long. A long fast serve is most effective if it is unexpected. Racket speed can create spin and a degree of deception, which is far more effective than merely trying to hit fast serves.
Spin – Spin is more important than speed, placement, or deception. Being able to impart different types of spin, as well as differing amounts of spin, is the key to effective serves – and to success in table tennis.  
Placement – Don’t forget about it. A good serve can end up being a bad one if it’s poorly placed. There are plenty of options, but if you don’t think about placement, balls tend to become predictable, and frequently end up in the middle of the table.
Deception – For beginners and novice players this is the least important. Even new players can use strategy, but don’t think that always attempting to trick your opponent is a long term recipe for success. The best way to keep your opponent off balance is to mix your serves, and focus on spin and placement. Serves don’t have to be elaborate. They don’t have to look spectacular. They don’t have to look like Ma Long’s. They just need to work. 

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