How to Serve in Table Tennis

Learn How To Serve In Table Tennis – Beginner Skills Series

The serve is the single most important table tennis stroke. It is the only time when we have full control of the ball, without any influence from our opponent.

Our serves determine whether we enter the rally in an advantageous, neutral or disadvantageous position. 

If you apply the tips we’re going to explain in this article, chances are that you’ll have the upper hand in most of your service points.

Next, we’re going to share valuable tips about serving in general and go over the most effective serves in table tennis.

This article is part of our beginners skills series, designed to give beginners the best resources for learning how to play table tennis. Check out our other guides:

What are the main service rules in table tennis?

We have a full article on the specific rules every table tennis player must follow when serving. If you just want a quick refresher, here are the 5 rules you should know:

  1. Serve from behind the table.
  2. Start the ball flat in the palm of your hand.
  3. Throw the ball vertically upward at least 16cm.
  4. Never hide the ball from your opponent.
  5. The ball must hit both sides of the table.

There are few official rules around who serves first in table tennis, which is often left down to a coin flip or guessing which hand the ball is in. If you’re not feeling like following the rules, you might like to check out some amazing illegal serves.

5 tips to get the most out of your serving game

Before explaining the most effective serves in table tennis, we’ll first go over our general tips about serving you need to consider if you want to carry out an effective service strategy.

1) Variation

Variation is crucial if you want to have a high-level serving game.

If you want to learn a new serve, make sure to learn all its variations. 

Let’s say you want to learn the forehand pendulum serve. We recommend you learn the back/sidespin variant, the pure sidespin variant, the top/side variant, and the no-spin variant.

Once you know all the variations of a serve, try to make the serving motions of every variant look the same.

This is what most high-level players and professional players do and this is how they win most of their serving points.

We only contact the ball for a fraction of a second. If you can serve using the same motion for each variation but only change the moment in which you hit the ball, all of your serves will look the same but they’ll have different spins.

You see, the power of a serve doesn’t lie in its spin, it lies in its deceptiveness.

If I served a heavy backspin ball that looks like heavy backspin, then people won’t struggle to receive it. Maybe they will dump one or two serves in the net, but that’s about it.

However, if I had a heavy backspin serve and a no-spin serve that had the same motions, then both serves would be super effective.

Let’s say my first serve of the match was a no-spin serve that looks like backspin. 

My opponent would probably push it and the ball would pop up, or they’d flick it with an upwards motion to counteract the supposed backspin and send it long.

After that, they’d make a mental note to themselves: “these serves look like backspin, when in fact they have little to no spin”.

We serve again, and our serve is now a heavy backspin one that looks like backspin. Now our opponent has to make a decision.

Is this another no-spin serve? Is this really backspin?

The variation in our serves is the real weapon, not just the sheer spin they carry.

Here’s a fragment from MLFM table tennis’ video that illustrates the power of a backspin and a no-spin serve that look the same:

Notice how the server also stomps when contacting the ball. This is done to hide the sound of the ball hitting the racket, as the no-spin serve would make a louder sound than the heavy backspin one.

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2) Synergy with your style

A very important thing to keep in mind when analyzing a given serve is how well it works with your style.

For example, most backhand dominant players prefer backhand and reverse pendulum serves, while forehand dominant players like pendulum serves better.

Serves like the reverse pendulum make it near impossible for players to target the server’s wide backhand. 

This allows backhand dominant players to position themselves more towards the middle of the table and move their opponents around with their snappy backhand attacks.

On the other hand, serves like the pendulum serve make it very difficult for opponents to target the server’s wide forehand.

A very heavy pendulum sidespin serve will result in a ball returned towards the server’s backhand/middle.

Forehand dominant players will know in advance that the ball will not go towards their wide forehand so they can pivot and score a 3rd or 5th ball attack with their forehands.

Defenders really like backhand serves because they end up with them in the middle of the table facing forward, giving them a higher chance to return the opponent’s attacks.

Rally players in general like serving long and getting into the rally straight away, where they have the advantage.

It’s very important that you analyze whether you’re better when executing set plays such as 3rd or 5th ball attacks or if getting into the rally straight away benefits you. This also depends on who you’re facing.

If you’re playing against someone who you can beat in a rally, I’d say you could serve topspin serves or long serves more often than usual to get in an advantageous position straight away.

Conversely, if you’re playing against someone who’s more consistent and better than you in rallies, I’d say your best chance is to serve back/sidespin serves and set up open-ups where you enter the rally in an advantageous attacking position rather than a neutral one.

3) Spin

The spin you put on the ball is obviously super important.

When practicing serves, try to brush the ball as fast and thinly as you can to get maximum amounts of spin.

If you know how to serve with tons of spin, your serve variations will be even deadlier.

Say for example you’re serving variations of no-spin and backspin.

If your backspin serve is weak, then this combination of serves won’t be effective.

Chances are that your opponent will be able to get away with attacking both the slight backspin and the no-spin serve. 

Conversely, if your backspin serve is heavy backspin, then the combination becomes super effective.

Your opponent won’t be able to treat both serves the same way and they’ll make tons of mistakes judging the spin on the ball because the backspin serve will have tons of spin, especially when compared to the no-spin serve.

4) Placement, angles, and depths

Every serve you make should be placed in a position that’s awkward for the opponent. The ball should come at them at an angle they find hard to deal with.

We recommend focusing on serving to the wide forehand, the wide backhand, or the crossover point.

Also, make sure that short serves stay really short, half-long serves don’t bounce twice on the table, and target the end line with your long serves.

You can also use the side of the table to your advantage. 

If you serve half-long and near the side of the table, your opponent will be forced to attack the ball, or else their push will drift long.

However, the side of the table will get in their way, making that ball a lot more difficult to loop.

5) Practice

Our last tip is to dedicate time to your serves.

Serves are the single most important stroke in every player’s arsenal, so make sure to practice them often. 

You don’t need to practice serving for very long. Just 5-10 minutes per training day will work wonders.

It’s a lot better to practice serves frequently for 5 minutes at a time than to practice your serves once per month for 30 minutes.

The 13 Most Effective Table Tennis Serves

Having told you our best serving tips, we’ll now focus on the 13 most effective table tennis serves you can learn to take your serving game to the next level.

1) Short backspin serve

This is the basic and most common table tennis serve.

The short backspin serve is a very powerful serve. A short, heavy backspin serve will almost always prevent the opponent from attacking.

If your opponent never gets the chance to attack your serve, you can play points out very differently.

Also, chances are that if your serve is heavy backspin and well placed, your opponent’s push will drift long, granting you opportunities to attack.

This serve synergizes well with most playing styles as it’s very versatile. 

Pushers can serve heavy backspin and get in a push-push rally. Attackers can serve heavy backspin and open up the following ball. 

Here’s a video tutorial by Nick Rudd explaining how to perform the backspin serve:

2) Long backspin serve

The long backspin serve is a more aggressive version of the short backspin serve.

This is one of the most effective serves to pull off at the beginner and intermediate levels. It’s a deadly serve in amateur play.

The reason for this is that you will be able to put a lot more spin on a long serve than on a short serve.

If you contact the ball with more acceleration, your serve will be deeper but it’ll also be more spinny.

If you serve long and heavy backspin to your opponent’s backhand, they have 3 options. 

Either they push it back, they try to open up with their backhands, or they pivot and try to open up with their forehands.

Most amateur players won’t be able to open up consistently with their backhands against very heavy backspin.

This means they’ll push the ball back to you more often than not.

Because it’s a long, heavy backspin serve, they won’t be able to touch the ball short, granting you a free opportunity to open up every time you serve.

Also, in the beginner and intermediate levels of play, if you open up grazing the ball upwards, chances are that your opponent will make a forced mistake when blocking, granting you tons of consistent points if you can get spinny open-ups on the table.

3) Short no-spin serve

The short no-spin serve should be used in conjunction with the short backspin serve.

If you disguise it as backspin, most players will push this serve and it’ll pop up, granting you an easy chance to attack the following ball.

To execute this serve, you have to use the same serving motion of your backspin serve. However, you should not accelerate the moment you contact the ball.

Think of a backspin serve and a no-spin serve like a loop and a drive.

The loop carries lots of topspin because you’re meant to accelerate the moment you hit the ball. 

The drive is a very similar stroke but it carries little topspin because it lacks the acceleration at the moment of impact.

It’s the same story with the no-spin serve. You have to pretend like you’re serving backspin but you should not accelerate the moment you contact the ball so that you don’t generate much spin.

4) Long no-spin serve

The long no-spin serve is one of the most underrated table tennis serves.

If you serve long, fast, and no-spin to your opponent’s backhand, you’ll score tons of points off of your serve.

This serve is very effective because if your opponent pushes the ball, it’ll pop up, and if they try to loop it, it’s very hard to get it on the table because it’s a fast “float” ball.

Most amateur players will either overshoot the table, dump the ball in the net, or pop it up if they try to push it.

This serve is also very hard to return with a drive as the ball will tend to go into the net.

It requires players to either loop it with perfect timing or push it with a very open angle, which is nearly impossible to do if the serve is fast.

Here’s a video of Coach Ti Long explaining the fast no-spin serve. You’ll be able to appreciate just how deadly this serve is. 

5) Half-long serve

The half-long serve is another killer serve that’s often used by professional players.

This serve looks like it’s short but it’s actually long. 

Most players won’t recognize half-long serves and they’ll often push the ball. However, their pushes will drift long because the serve is actually long.

Most players won’t try to loop this serve because they run the risk of it being short and bouncing twice on the table. Most players will push these serves and their pushes will drift long, granting you the opportunity to attack.

In a sense, they grant the safety of a short serve but the long return of a long serve.

The downside to the half-long serve is that the depth is quite hard to master.

If your half-long serve drifts too long, your opponent will be able to attack it easily.

A very good idea when serving half-long is to use the side of the table to your advantage.

Professional players do this serve very frequently. It makes it so that your opponent has to attack the ball because it’s half-long but the table gets in the way.

This serve is also a very good way to limit your opponent’s placement options. 

If you do a half-long backhand sidespin serve, your opponent will only be able to play cross-court because of the sidespin and the table getting in the way. It’s near impossible for them to play down the line.

Here’s a video of Ti Long explaining the no-spin serve in great detail:

6) Short pendulum serve

The short pendulum serve is the most common serve among forehand dominant players.

The #1 player on our list of greatest table tennis players of all time, Ma Long, is famous for his killer short pendulum serve.

The short pendulum serve is very effective because the sidespin it carries prevents opponents from playing to the server’s wide forehand.

The spin on the ball directs the ball to the server’s backhand corner, granting easy chances to pivot and get forehand attacks in.

Here’s a video of Ti Long explaining the pendulum serve:

7) Short reverse pendulum serve

The short reverse pendulum serve is one of the most popular serves among backhand dominant players, and forehand dominant players are starting to use it as well.

In my opinion, the short backspin reverse pendulum serve is one of the most effective serves in table tennis, even more so if it’s placed towards the opponent’s forehand.

This serve makes it so that it’s very hard to target the server’s wide forehand. 

If you serve to the opponent’s forehand, it’s nearly impossible for them to play towards your backhand, and most players will push cross-court, granting an easy chance for a forehand open up.

Here’s a video from Dan and Tom from TableTennisDaily explaining the reverse pendulum serve:

8) Hook serve

The hook serve is a very effective serve. 

It carries the same spin as the reverse pendulum serve and the backhand serve.

The hook serve is also very famous for its deception. It’s quite easy to make topspin serves look like backspin.

Topspin hook serves also “kick” once they bounce on the table and they’re super hard to return. 

Par Gerell was famous because of his deadly hook serves.

9) Backhand serve

The backhand serve is one of the most effective table tennis serves.

The backhand serve is different from most other serves because you end up facing the table after serving. 

This gains the server some crucial extra time to look at their opponent while they’re setting up their receive.

Backhand dominant players, defensive players, all-round players, and blockers really like this serve.

One of the deadliest serves in all table tennis is the half-long backhand sidespin serve, especially if you mix backspin serves with topspin serves.

A side-top half-long backhand serve is very difficult to return, especially if you aim it towards your opponent’s forehand.

Your opponent will have to decide whether they forehand flick a heavy sidespin serve or if they wait and loop it on its way down.

Looping a side-topspin serve on its way down is quite hard and so is flicking it. Most amateur players will just drive or block the ball back to the server’s forehand, granting a free chance for a forehand attack.

The side-back half-long variation is as effective as the side-top because pushing it will result in a long push to the server’s forehand and looping it is also quite hard.

Here’s a video by Tom Lodziak and Craig Bryant explaining the backhand serve: 

10) Tomahawk serve

The tomahawk is a very intuitive and effective serve. It is still used by professional players such as Dimitrij Ovtcharov. 

The upside to this serve is that you can load it with tons of sidespin and either backspin or topspin.

Here’s a video from none other than Dima explaining how to recreate his legendary tomahawk serve:

11) Lollipop serve

The lollipop is a nice serve to have in your arsenal. It’s not a very common serve to receive so lots of players will have trouble with it.

French professional player Alexis Lebrun frequently pulls it off in matches and it pays dividends for him at the highest levels of play:

12) High-toss serve

The high-toss serve opens up many more possibilities.

Because the ball falls down with more velocity, you can get a lot more spin on your serve. 

However, it’s more difficult to time the contact right and to keep the ball low to the net.

We recommend experimenting with different heights and seeing what works best for you.

Here’s a video by Matt Hetherington explaining the ins and outs of high-toss serves:

13) Ace serve

The ace serve is one that every player should know how to do.

This serve is especially useful for players who like to pivot your serves and also for those players who like to receive more towards their backhand side.

Against these players, it’s really good to do an ace serve every so often, even if its once or twice in the whole match.

What this does is that it keeps your opponents accountable. They won’t be able to pivot freely because of the risk of a fast down-the-line serve.

What you want to do is start with the same motion as any of your other serves and contact the ball on its back at the last second to generate a fast topspin ball.

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The Controller

Alvaro’s been playing Table Tennis since he was 15 and is now ranked within the top 100 in his native Argentina. He loves to compete in provincial tournaments and is always looking for ways to improve. Alvaro made his favourite memories with a racket in hand, and he joined the RacketInsight team to share his passion with other players!

Blade: Butterfly Fan Zhendong ALC | Forehand: Butterfly Dignics 09c | Backhand: Butterfly Rozena
Playstyle: The Controller

5 thoughts on “Learn How To Serve In Table Tennis – Beginner Skills Series”

  1. “Backhand dominant players, defensive players, all-round players, and blockers really like this serve”. My first question is “why?”. I’ve always been more proficient at doing backhand serve than forehand serve, and I happened to play more comfortably as allrounder and blocker. My 2nd question is, does the favorite serve dictates one’s overall playstyle, or the vice versa? In other words, if I want to lean more toward aggressor, should I start playing aggressively, or should I start serving with forehand serve much more?

    1. Hello Erriza,

      The backhand serve is popular among these playstyles because it synergizes well with their objectives in a rally.

      If you think about backhand dominant players, their objective is to stand a bit more towards the middle of the table and dominate the rally with their backhand and forehand attacks.

      The backhand serve means that the ball will not go to their wide backhand side so they can serve and stand more in the middle of the table from the get-go. If the ball goes to their forehand side, they can open up toward their opponent’s backhand and enter a backhand to backhand rally.

      Blockers will also usually try to stand near the middle of the table so the backhand serve serves a similar function, to negate the ball from going to their wide backhand side.

      As for all-rounders, the backhand serve is a great way to enter into the rally, as they can just serve and pay attention to their opponent’s return straight away instead of wasting time going back to the ready position. They can also utilize the backhand serve from any of the corners depending on the game state and what they want to accomplish.

      To answer your second question: It’s vice versa. You should take into account your playing style and then learn serves that synergize well with it.

      If you’re good at opening up, then it makes sense to serve backspin. If you want to pivot, it makes sense to utilize pendulum serves. If you want to enter the rally straight away, you can serve no-spin or topspin. Try out different serves and see which ones you like the most.

      This also depends on the opponent. If your opponent is slow on their feet, it makes sense to serve short any spin to their forehand. If your opponent is standing in the middle of the table, you can target their wide backhands. If your opponent uses long pips, then you should serve variations of no spin and backspin.

      As you can see, serving is a very complex topic, and choosing which serves to utilize depends on many different factors.

  2. This is a great study, thanks!
    Just wondering why you state that “The backhand serve means that the ball will not go to their wide backhand side”. Do even good players have such a problem to play such a serve accurately to the backhand side? If someone can play the FH flick quite well then it seems to me that the sidespin is not such a problem for them that they would not be able to play fairly accurately by properly adjusting the angle of the paddle.

    1. Hey Darek!

      I’m going to jump in and take this one for Álvaro.

      It’s worth precluding this answer by saying that a lot of the serves presented here are effective at a beginner – intermediate level, but start to be less effective as the skills level of your opponent goes up.

      With the backhand serve, you’re most commonly placing a variation of side/top or side/bottom spin. In each scenario, that sidespin is going to push the ball to be returned towards your forehand side. Not only this, but it’s very hard to place the backhand serve wide into your opponents left-hand side.

      With that combination, it’s going to be really difficult for your opponent to find the angle and spin to force it out wide to your backhand. Even if they counter-act the sidespin, it’s difficult to get the angle to make it tough for the server to reach.

      We’re ultimately playing in percentages here. You want to give your opponent a difficult shot, or at least make it hard for them to give you a difficult shot.

      Lastly, if you’re playing against a Left-handed player who’s got a strong forehand flick, and you choose to play a backhand serve into their FH side which is too short/high, you’re asking for them to put it past you cross-court. Choosing the right serve not only depends on your playstyle and strengths, but also your opponent’s.

      1. Hi David!
        Thank you for speaking up, I understand your explanation. My level is intermediate so I probably don’t pay attention to such details as in case of pro players, hence my question. I now understand that in the case of a serve with side-spin it is difficult even at a high level to estimate exactly how much side spin is given in the serve so it is not easy to replay accurately. It can be but risk is too high, you may be able to hit perfectly once, but the next time the ball will fly off the side of the table.

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