Developments in Serve Return Among Top Players
Serve return among top players has gone through many trends in the last few decades. Most intermediate and advanced players have been taught similar things and have developed their serve returns in similar fashions. Intermediate players generally rely on attacking long services while pushing short serves deep, and flipping no-spin and topspin serves in order to not pop them up. This works for quite some time, but the problem with this is that long pushes are too easy to attack for high level players, even if the push is extremely heavy. Therefore, at advanced levels, players begin to develop more drop shots in order to attempt to control the serve. This has been the main trend throughout the 80s and 90s, with players attempting to drop shot serves whenever possible.
However, the drop shot is still not a perfect serve return. Even at the highest levels, the best serve returners can never quite always return the best servers’ offerings reliably, especially when it comes to crunch time. Because flipping at high levels is easy to attack and can only be used as a surprise tactic, servers begin to re-incorporate more short topspin and no-spin serves, as well as very difficult to attack medium length serves into their repertoire. This makes dropping the serve a risky proposition. Chuan Chih Yuan has been exhibit A in terms of a player who prefers to attack off topspin and serves almost no underspin whatsoever. Although Timo Boll was able to innovate and control Chuan’s serves using unorthodox drop shot techniques, this is a very rare talent and quality that Timo has, so not all players were able to adopt this strategy against new serve-attack trends.
What has happened in the last few years I believe is a combination of things. First of all, certain players have begun to heavily incorporate spin into their “flips.” Backhand flips that are highly effective can now be used without an element of surprise, especially against underspin serves where more topspin can be imparted without losing control. These backhand flips have essentially become sidespin loops over the table. Watch Wang Hao or Ovtcharov as the prime examples of this. Younger players are also starting to incorporate this into their arsenal, but it takes an incredible amount of forearm and wrist strength to generate the racket head speed necessary because the flip’s effectiveness is dependent on the inability of the opponent to attack it with power. This is directly related to the amount of spin that the player can generate using the flip.
On another front, which is simpler but arguably more interesting, long pushes are making their way back into the game. Previously, long pushes were seen as a weakness because it was easily attackable. However, similar to the changes the flip has undergone, the long push is now focused on allowing the opponent to attack weakly. Slow, spinny, pushes are no longer viable because opponents can attack strong all around the table due to advances in footwork and technique. Instead, deep pushes are timed well and extremely fast. The reason this works seems to be a focus by the newer generation of top players on counterattacking rather than opening on every ball. The Chinese players especially have turned from blocking and countering to counterattacking outright off of almost every opening offered by the opponent, which allows them to take the initiative even though they pushed deep. Recent play by Ma Long and Xu Xin are good examples. With their level of footwork and counterattacking prowess, they have re-incorporated deep pushes back into their game to great effect.
What does this mean for the rest of us?
For some of us, not much at all other than a trend to watch for when watching high level players play. It also means, however, is that we should never stop questioning basic assumptions that we hold as we develop our games. Many players are taught that shorter serves and shorter returns are better because they are hard to attack, but this assumption is now coming under fire as top players add more variation to their serve and receive games. Serve short and receive short used to be a basic assumption that almost every top player and coach accepted. As we watch top players play, keep an eye out for other trends that look out of the ordinary and ask yourself whether there are other assumptions that you should discard or experiment with in order to take your game to the next level.