The Importance of Perfecting a Serve
By Han Xiao
As amateur table tennis players, we often look at someones serve, see it working great, and think, Wouldnt it be great if I could learn his serve? Ive done the same thing many times. When I was younger I remember watching Waldner, Gatien, Rosskopf, Ma Wenge, all sorts of great players, and imitating their serves. Of course, I could never really replicate them, just the motions.
Sure, I was foolish, but many players still do the same thing. It applies not just for imitating the serves of others, but employing any new serve. Serves are not good inherently based on the type of spin and a general placement. Of course, there are always going to be opponents who misread a particular type of serve, but this does not mean the serve is especially good. Additionally, not every serve that is good for someone else is good for you. If you have a bad backhand, for example, serving backhand serves from the middle of the table is not going to be very beneficial, as that type of serve leads to two winged play rather than setting up a forehand attack.
A good serve is good because of its subtleties and the combinations of play that it generates. Anyone who has had trouble with a serve that they can read perfectly will know what I am talking about. You know it is a short dead serve, yet you cannot flip it without being attacked and you cannot control it well enough to prevent an attack either. The opponent has practiced this serve to the point where a player of your caliber cannot attack it or control it. The same principle holds throughout all levels. The best returners can minimize the attacking potential of the opponent, but cannot necessarily prevent attacks altogether.
How does one achieve this? Simple: practice. I do not mean a month or two of practice. In order to perfect even the simplest of serves, it takes years of practice and use of the serve in competitive situations.
It takes at least a year of practice and use before a serve is polished enough at high levels. Through years of practice and use of a serve, you can learn all sorts of things about the serve, such as the best placements for the speed and spin combination on the serve, the openings and combinations of play the serve is likely to generate, as well as subtle ways to improve the serve. The best players often serve the same spins as you or me, but they are able to produce a more awkward ball trajectory, better placement, more deceptive spins, all because of years of practice and an understanding of their own serves.
So, the next time you see a serve that looks cool or effective, or decide to experiment extensively with a new serve, think about whether your current serves are really a problem and a liability because of the serve itself, or whether because you need to serve it better. Chances are, the latter is true. I will leave you with a personal observation. If you havent seen Kenta Matsudairas serves, you can look him up on YouTube. Kentas tomahawk and backhand tomahawk serves are extremely unorthodox, with a mix of deception, pace, and spin that has been unseen in the mens game until now. They work extremely well for his particular playing style. I first saw the serve when I first saw Kenta play at a junior tournament. At the time he was at most 12 years old, when it was a fast tomahawk and backhand tomahawk serve combination that he used. They boasted a great deal of pace but seemed very gimmicky. Most people watching thought that for sure such a serve would not last beyond the junior level as they werent particularly short or orthodox. Seven years later, Kenta is still using pretty much the same serves with the same motion, and his serves are considered some of the best in the world, not because tomahawk serves are anything special, but because he has improved his own individual serve for so many years that he has a perfect grasp of its characteristics. In my opinion, more players, regardless of age or level, should copy Kenta not his serve, but rather his approach to service.