Are Your Table Tennis Serves Going Too Short?

Are your table tennis serves going too short? “Too short”, you say. “How can a serve be too short? Isn’t it, the shorter the better?!”

This post is all about how to improve your short serve in table tennis and it came about following a conversation I had with Harrie last week during our training session.

So, Harrie likes to do a short backspin serve, force his opponent to push long, and then go for a third-ball loop-kill. This is a pretty standard attacking strategy.

The only problem is… his opponents keep returning his serves short, and his touch-play isn’t that strong!

So he asked me, “How can I make my opponent push long instead of touching short?”

The 3 Possible Returns to a Short Serve

When you serve short you give your opponent three options for returning your serve.

  1. Short push
  2. Long push
  3. Flick/Flip

An experienced player will be able to successfully execute all three returns to any short serve you give them. A less experienced player… not so much!

Harrie has a pretty good short backspin serve. It’s low and has plenty of backspin. That means, most of the intermediate-level players he comes up against won’t be able to attack it with a flick/flip. They have to push it. But they still have the choice to push long or push short.

Harrie wants them to push long. But after watching him forehand loop-kill a couple of third-balls past them, his opponents will probably decide that pushing short is a better option.

Now he’s stuck having to deal with a load of touching and short-game on every point he serves. Not ideal.

So how can he “encourage” his opponents to push his serves long instead of pushing short?

Analysing Harrie’s Short Serves

I asked Harrie to do a few serves at me so that I could see what he’s doing. Immediately, I spotted the issue.

Harrie’s backspin serves are super short!

I left a few of them to see how many times they would bounce on my side of the table. They were all bouncing at least three times. If your short serves are bouncing three times (or more) on your opponent’s side of the table, I would label that a super short serve.

I told him his serves were going really short and he was pretty pleased with himself. He knew that a service had to bounce twice on his opponent’s side to be classed as “short”. But from watching YouTube backspin service tutorials he’d got the idea in his head that the more bounces the better.

So getting three bounces was better than two. And if you can get four bounces on the other side of the table then your serves are really pro-level.

Unfortunately, this just isn’t true!

Super Short Serves Are Easy to Touch Short!

In fact, a service that is going to bounce three or four times on your opponent’s side of the table is actually much easier for them to return. And here’s why…

  1. When receiving a super short service, you can see earlier that it is going to go short and therefore you can step in earlier and get yourself in position earlier.
  2. When receiving a super short service, the ball is closer to the net which makes it easier to touch back short over the net.

A super short serve removes some of the decision making and uncertainty about whether the receiver should stay out and loop the serve (because it’s only going to bounce once), or step in and push/flick (because it’s going to bounce more than once.

Any time you remove decision making from your opponent you are making their life easier!

Give me a super short serve and I’m pretty confident I can touch it back super short. In fact, quite a lot of the time I’m able to touch it back in such a way that it clips the top of the net! This is easy to do (with a bit of practice) to a super short serve.

Getting the Second Bounce on the End-Line

I actually wrote a blog post all about this in 2013. That just goes to show that all intermediate players struggle with the same things. Master these and you’re well on your way to playing advanced level table tennis!

Here’s what I had to say back then…

A half-long serve that is clipping the end-line on its second bounce gives the receiver a tough decision to make as to whether to take it early or wait and hope it drops off.

A short serve that is making its second bounce on or close to the end-line is tougher to touch back short or flick than a shorter service.

And that’s exactly what I said to Harrie last week. If he wants his opponents to push his serves long instead of short he needs to stop doing so many super short serves and aim to have the second bounce hit his opponent’s end-line instead.

The black line on the image below shows you what I mean…

Harrie immediately started practising his short serves, trying to get them to go a little bit longer. It took him a while to adjust his action but soon the second bounce of his short serves was getting near to the end line.

And it suddenly became much more difficult for me to touch them back short!

The last thing I want to do is try and return with a short touch, but have that short touch drift long so that Harrie can play a loop-kill. So, instead, I might opt to just push long and deep. That’s the safer option – if I’m worried that the quality of my short push won’t be good enough.

Adjusting the Length of Your Short Serves

There’s nothing wrong with changing the length of your short serves during a game. In fact, you should adjust the length to keep your opponent guessing.

A super short serve can be very effective.

So can a short serve that ever so slightly drifts long (aka a half-long serve).

If you opponent opts to push your half-long serve, it’ll then be in the back of their mind that they ‘should’ have looped that one. They decide they must try and loop the next one.

If your next short serve clips the edge of the table on its second bounce then they’re in big trouble!

It’s these sorts of games that you should be trying to play with your opponent by varying the length of your short serves. And if Harrie can start doing that, instead of just serving super short every time, he’ll be well on his way to becoming an advanced-level table tennis player!