Sunday 20 January 2019

Receiving Heavy Spin Serves in Table Tennis

Received a great request to discuss in a little more detail the topic of returning serves with heavy spin. Of course I will try and focus on as many different examples as possible to give a broad overview of the various scenarios you may have to face.

Fan Zhendong Serving
Courtesy of ITTFWorld
Let's look at a number of different scenarios that we could face from a player with heavy spin serves and some different approaches to returning them. First here are some general tips to improve serve receive:

Be Decisive and Direct: You have to make sure you are not hesitant or not committed to your return, even when you are unsure of what spin is on the serve or how to go about returning it. A deliberate and planned return will increase the return quality if you make the right choice, or give you valuable information if you are not successful in returning the serve. Making a hesitant or unsure return usually forces an area and you gain no certain knowledge to help with the serve the next time around.

Watch the Contact Point Carefully: The moment of contact will always indicate what spin is on the ball. Try not to be distracted or confused by your opponents larger service actions or misdirection in their follow-throughs. This requires careful focus, watch for the direction that the racket tightens, wrist movement and where the momentum and acceleration is coming from into the ball.

Always Be Prepared to Attack Half-Long or Long Serves: When your opponent serves long or their short serves leak out you need to be prepared to initiate the attack, this is important for putting pressure on your opposition's serve and also in building your confidence/taking opportunities.

So let's take a look at some different 'heavy serve' variations:

Heavy Topspin Serve: It is important here to keep your racket angle closed.

- Long Serve: With a long serve you need to use the spin on the ball to your advantage, close the angle over the top of the ball and accelerate forward. Keep your stroke concise, use your waist to generate your weight transfer and look for good placement. It is important here to make sure you are quick to get into position and you stay relaxed during your stroke.

In this situation you want to reduce your back-swing and really focus on brushing the top of the ball in a fluid motion.

Common errors in this scenario are to get caught off balance, to tighten up, or to try and hit the ball too hard.

You also need to be careful and watch for kicks after the ball bounces on your side - topspin hook serves or pendulum serves can have topspin kicks or added sidespin to make the ball deviate sharply.

- Short Serve: For short topspin serve variations you can either opt for a simple or complex flick.

Usually the forehand is relatively simplified, again close the angle of your racket and try and generate acceleration marginally more on the top half of the ball using your forearm and wrist. It is also helpful to receive short getting your foot under the table and close to the contact, keeping your head and shoulder close to the ball.

With the backhand receive you can go for a simple backhand flick, following the advice above, or go for the backhand banana flick. When using the backhand banana flick against topspin it is again important to keep the angle closed and draw the racket back with the wrist. Be sure not to drop the racket head too much as this is more commonly used against backspin.

Main Pointers for Topspin Serve Return: With topspin serve return, even with heavy spin, there are plenty of options to initiate the attack whether by flicking or looping the ball (depending on the length of the serve). The main pointers against heavy topspin is to contact the ball more on the top and keep the angle more closed in order to control the rotation. Rely more on speed and conciseness in your stroke than power or big swings.

Receiving Against a Heavy Backspin Serve: With the backspin serve variations you need to keep the racket angle more open, this means touching more on the bottom of the ball when pushing, and more on the back of the ball when flicking.

- Long Serve: A long backspin serve is a prime opportunity to open and requires more use of the legs. Be extra careful of the length of the serve, as long backspin serves often go half long.

I wrote a blog here on 'Attacking the Half Long Ball in Table Tennis

It is important to keep your body low and keep the ball contact point in perspective. Make sure you relax and start your stroke with your racket and body weight below the ball and push up starting from your toe and through your legs, waist, core and finally your swing through the ball contact. You need to focus on maximizing acceleration on ball contact and brushing the ball for topspin.

Common errors with long heavy backspin serves are floating the ball back soft and allowing the opponent to attack, or trying to push the ball back short - this requires a great amount of touch and control and even then is a difficult return to keep consistent. You also must make sure that you produce heavy topspin on the ball, if you try and hit the ball back flat or without using legs then you are likely to put the ball in the bottom of the net.

- Short Serve: This is the bread and butter of any tight developed player. A good heavy backspin short serve can cause mayhem for your opponents.

When pushing long to return this serve, you need to keep your grip a little softer and touch the bottom of the ball. You need to be careful with this return, because if you push too hard or the angle is too vertical then the ball won't clear the net.

Receiving short is a very common option against this serve. Get your body close to the ball and keep your hands relaxed, you need to take the ball a little early in the bounce and just focus on touching the bottom of the ball. Don't think of the shot a a 'push' so much. This return requires a lot of practice to keep the ball short and low over the net.

When using the flick to return heavy backspin you need to brush more up the back of the ball to generate more topspin. This means your stroke needs to be a little bit more vertical and your racket angle needs to be more open.

For the backhand banana flick your racket head will need to be facing down at the start of your flick in order for you to get the most acceleration up the back of the ball, this acceleration is generated by using your wrist to spin the ball. This can be seen in the Pingskills video above.

Main Pointers for Returning Heavy Backspin Serves: Rely more on topspin and open racket angles. For topspin shots you need to contact more on the back side of the ball with marginally more vertical strokes. When receiving with pushing variations it is important not to be too hard or tight and to contact the ball more on the bottom, utilizing touch for the short push and the bottom angle and quickness for the long push.

Above is a comprehensive guide to using the short push in your game.

Dealing with Heavy Sidespin Variations: Sidespin is often combined with top or backspin and it is important to deal with that element of the serve when making the return. Sidespin however can cause added difficult in both returning the serve and also recognizing which primary spin is on the ball.

When receiving sidespin it is important to watch the trajectory carefully and to line up your contact where you believe the ball is going to be at the time of contact.

You also need to pay particular attention to deviation and kicks of the ball, these are often achieved through serving on the bottom axis of the ball.

A safe way to return sidespin is to direct the ball back towards its origin point, this means back towards the server, but you also need to close off the angle of your racket against the direction of the spin.

Your second option is to use the sidespin to your advantage. In this instance you will use the direction of the service spin to carry your stroke towards its destination, often giving the opportunity to play quick wide angles and take the opposition by surprise.

As with many technical aspects of the game, it is very difficult to convey ideas in writing, and as such I have tried to include videos which I think would be beneficial alongside the written parts of this blog.

If anyone has any further ideas or questions they can email me at



  1. Thank you Matt. I saw that many top players accelerate at the last moment, and it is very effective. However, at the low level, it is not easy to do that. Any tips?

    1. Do you mean with serve return or with strokes in general? Attacking strokes etc.


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