How to Return Spin Serves in Table Tennis

Last week I wrote about how to “read” spin serves in table tennis. Today, I’m taking it one step further and looking at how to “return” spin serves. That means you’re going to need to have mastered a wide variety of table tennis strokes in order to get the most out of this post. Check out How to Play Table Tennis in 10 Days for more help with that.

I’m not going to lie to you; successfully returning a heavy spin serve is tough – even for the professionals! Check out the concentration on Liam Pitchford’s face (above) as he analyses how best to return Maharu Yoshimura’s reverse pendulum serve. To be a good returner of serve you need plenty of experience and the ability to make correct decisions very quickly.

In this post, I will be sharing a framework for returning serves. It is based on the assumption that you can already “read” the spin that has been put on the serve. If you can’t read the spin on the ball then returning serve successfully will be just like flipping a coin – perhaps a coin weighted heavily in your opponents favour.

I will be going through a wide variety of different serves and spins, and giving my suggestions for how best to return them. It’s worth pointing out, however, that there are always multiple ways to return a serve and very rarely is an answer objectively “right” or “wrong” – as tactics should play a big part in your decisions.

For example, when receiving a long backspin serve to your forehand I would recommend using a forehand loop. However, there are some situations where a forehand push return may be more appropriate. On the other hand, a forehand smash is never going to work against a backspin serve, provided it is heavy and low. You get the idea.

How to return spin serves

Before I get into the specifics, there is one point that I would like to make. There are two ways to return spin serves…

  1. You can work out what the ball wants to do and then select the correct stroke to counter that action. For example, a backspin ball wants to go down, but if you use a push and get underneath the ball you can stop that from happening and direct it over the net.
  2. You can use enough spin and a strong enough shot that you can make the ball do whatever you like. For example, a backspin ball wants to go down, but if you play a backhand banana flick, with good technique, you can attack the ball with topspin and force it over the net.

This was a key lesson that I learnt coaching table tennis to Sam Priestley during 2014 for The Expert in a Year Challenge. We spent a lot of time trying to help him to master the first method. He was often unsure whether he had selected the perfect return stroke for that particular serve and, as such, wasn’t committing to his stroke – which is always a recipe for a poor shot.

It wasn’t until we started talking about trying to “bully the ball” (a phrase we invented as a reminder) that Sam’s returns significantly improved. He learnt to trust his instincts and believe that if he played a good return, with good technique, he would get the outcome he desired.

This is why you may occasionally see top players making some rather unorthodox decisions regarding their return of serve.

For example, at the moment a lot of professional players are serving short topspin serves, trying to entice their opponent to flick the ball. They are then ready for the flick with a big third ball counter-attack winner. To combat this, you will often see the professionals cutting down the back of a short topspin serve. They are playing a forehand push – albeit with more of a vertical bat angle.

There’s more than one way to skin a cat

No doubt you will have heard before that you should absolutely never push a topspin serve. If you do, the ball will surely pop up high and your opponent will have an easy smash to win the point. This is a common newbie error.

Perhaps a beginner doesn’t possess the technique and feeling required to push a short topspin serve without setting up their opponent, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t possible. The point I’m making is that, provided you have the skills, there are many ways to return a heavy spin serve.

The following quote from former world champion Werner Schlager sums it up nicely…

The less I know about how much spin is on the ball, the more spin I should use. The more spin I put on the ball, the less I need to consider the existing rotation. – Werner Schlager

What he’s saying is that using lots of spin on your service return can help to weaken the effect of the spin that was put on the ball by the server. If you play a high-quality return, with plenty of spin, you don’t have to worry as much about which spin was on the ball. You can counter that spin with your own spin.

And this is what you see the top players doing. They return serves with their own spinny shots, and that gives them the freedom to do all sorts of things with their returns and be much less predictable.

Perhaps your strokes aren’t quite at a level yet where that is possible for you. But it’s worth remembering. If you have ambitions to become a very good player one day, you will need to be able to return common spin serves in a variety of different ways.

How to return a heavy backspin serve

Heavy backspin serves are probably the most troublesome to deal with for new table tennis players. If ever I find myself in a match against a relative beginner – like I did in my recent racketlon tournament – a heavy backspin serve is my go-to move. New players will put these into the net time and time again.

So, what should you do if your opponent is serving heavy backspin?

Well, you actually have a number of different options – depending on your skill level – but the first thing you need to figure out is if the serve is long or short. I wrote a bit about this back in 2013 in a blog post entitled 1 Key Tip to Improve Your Serve.

A long serve will only bounce once on your side of the table before travelling beyond the end line. A short serve, if left alone, will bounce two or more time on your side of the table. The ability to judge whether a serve is going to be short or long is a really important aspect of returning serve and is applicable to all types of serve.

If the serve is short

A short backspin serve is probably the most common serve in table tennis. If your opponent is serving like this, you have three options;

  1. You can push the ball back short (a touch)
  2. You can push the ball back long (a dig)
  3. You can attack the ball using your wrist (a flick)

Those are your options. The fact that the serve is short means that is isn’t possible to loop the ball as, if left, the ball will bounce twice on your side of the table. And, for all three returns, you will need to use footwork to step in under the table in order to get closer to the ball.

So, when returning a short backspin serve should you touch, dig, or flick? Which return is best?

Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. You should probably try out all three and figure which one your opponent finds most uncomfortable. This is where tactics come into play.

Some players (like me) are good at short play and want you to touch their serve back short. Others love to loop backspin and are waiting for you to push long so they can open up with heavy topspin. Others still want you to do the hard work for them and flick the serve so that they can get straight into a fast counter-topspin rally.

If the serve is long

A long backspin serve may have been chosen on purpose, or it may be a poorly executed short backspin serve that has drifted long. Lots of players think they are serving short but, in fact, their serves are only bouncing once on the other side of the table and can, therefore, be looped.

If your opponent is serving long backspin you have two options;

  1. You can attack the ball with a loop (an open-up)
  2. You can push the ball back long (a dig)

Most coaches would advise you to return a long backspin serve with a loop. It is always good to attack first and here your opponent has given you the initiative by serving long. You will need to get down low and brush up the back of the ball, playing a loop with lots of topspin in order to get the ball up and over the net. Perhaps aim for the crossover point (your opponent’s playing elbow).

Occasionally, it may be a good idea to simply push back a long backspin serve. You won’t see many professional players doing this, but if you aren’t yet very confident at looping backspin or your opponent is particularly weak in pushing rallies, then perhaps a push return is best.

The ability to loop long backspin balls is a crucial skill if you are to become a strong table tennis player. Therefore, even if you are not very good at “opening-up” these types of balls (and worry you will make too many unforced errors trying these strokes), it may be worth losing a few points practising this in your training matches so that your overall game improves as a result.

How to return a heavy sidespin serve

Sidespin serves can be particularly tricky to return as the spin on the ball drags your shot wide, either to the right or the left. The ability to correctly read the direction of the sidespin is key. It sounds complicated but it is actually quite simple.

The ball will bounce off in the direction your opponents racket travelled. If it goes from left to right, the ball will bounce to the right. If it goes from right to left, the ball will bounce to the left. All you need to do is follow the direction of the racket and the ball will be dragged the same way.

Now let’s get into the specifics of returning sidespin serves.

If the serve is short

There are lots of options available to you when returning a short sidespin serve;

  1. You can push the ball back short (a touch)
  2. You can push the ball back long (a dig)
  3. You can attack the ball using your wrist (a flick)

Those are the same three options you had for the short backspin serve. However, your racket angle and stroke action will need to be slightly different to adjust for the different spin on the ball. When using the push return (either long or short) you won’t need to go as much under the ball. When attacking the ball with a flick you can be a bit more aggressive and go more through the ball – you don’t need to lift it or brush it as much.

Remember as well to adjust the placement of your return based on whether the serve has left or right sidespin. For example, a right-handed server using a standard backhand sidespin serve will create a ball that wants to drift to your left on contact with your bat (towards the server’s forehand side). To counter this, you should aim more towards their backhand side in order to keep the ball on the table. The same is true of a right-handed reverse pendulum serve.

A right-handed pendulum serve is the other type of sidespin. When returning these the ball will naturally want to drift to your right (towards the server’s backhand side) so you need to compensate for this by aiming more towards their forehand side.

This may all sound a bit much at the moment but after a bit of practice and experience returning serves you will start to do this automatically. When I see a heavy sidespin serve I don’t need to consciously think to aim a bit more to the left or right than usual. My brain just does it for me. That’s rather handy, isn’t it!

If the serve is long

There are two options when returning a long sidespin serve;

  1. You can attack the ball with topspin (a loop)
  2. You can push the ball with backspin (a dig)

When returning a long sidespin serve you should really be attacking almost 100% of the time. If you play a strong loop with lots of topspin you should be able to overpower a lot of the sidespin that was put on the ball by the serve.

It’s the principle from the Werner Schlager quote earlier – the more spin you put on the ball the less you need to worry about the incoming spin. You should be able to play a topspin loop, into the middle of the table, and get it on whether it was left or right sidespin.

Pushing a long sidespin serve is a very passive choice and would only be advised in very rare circumstances.

How to return a heavy topspin serve

Light topspin serves, also known as “rally” serves, are very common at the recreational level. In reality, they are basically “nothing” serves as the server is more interested in getting the point started than trying to gain any advantage by adding heavy spin to their serve. These types of serves will almost always go long.

Experienced players can use a topspin serve to great effect. They may use a short heavy topspin serve to trick you into pushing and then finish you off with a third ball kill. Or, they may use a fast and long topspin serve to catch you out (especially if you are instinctively stepping in).

If the serve is short

There are two options when returning a short topspin serve;

  1. You can attack the ball using your wrist (a flick)
  2. You can cut down the back of the ball (a push/chop-block)

The standard return to a short topspin serve is a flick. The only problem is that your opponent will be expecting you to attack the ball and is probably already setting themselves up for a big counter-attack. This means that your placement is even more important.

You can also switch up the speed and spin on your flick. Some flicks can be fast and flat. Others can be slower and spinnier. The technique you use can also change. The tradition wrist flick action, where you quickly brush up the back of the ball on the forehand flick, is one option. The other is the “flip” where you rotate your forearm over the ball to produce a shot with much less spin.

On the backhand, you can use the position of your elbow to create lots of different types of spin on your flick. The banana flick has one type of the sidespin – using a hook effect. The strawberry flick (as I’ve seen it called) produces the other type of sidespin – with a fade effect. You can even backhand banana flick with sidespin and backspin if you are able to get underneath the ball!

Cutting down the back of a short topspin serve is much more difficult and requires exceptional touch. However, as I mentioned earlier, we are starting to see this used more and more by the professionals to deal with a short topspin serve to their forehand. The key is to keep your bat practically vertical and quickly use your wrist to slice down the back of the ball.

If your bat angle is too open the ball will pop up for an easy smash. If you don’t get the “cut” contact perfect the ball will bite into your rubber and end up in the net. Like I said; it’s tricky!

If the serve is long

A long topspin serve only really has one possible return;

  1. You can attack the ball with topspin (a loop)

Whether it is a super fast serve that you need to take early, or a slower heavy topspin serve that has drifted long, the only option is to play a loop.

Some players are scared of these types of serves (I used to be) because they are used to returning short backspin or sidespin serves 90% of the time. However, this is something you need to practice against so that when it happens you can be ready and confident to play a strong loop and look to win the point.

The topspin serves I used to really hate returning were the half-long ones that are just about going to drop off the end of the table without bouncing twice. These are sometimes known as “bat breakers” because if you judge them wrong and go for a loop when the serve is actually going to just clip the edge of the table you can end up smashing your racket into the table!

On these half-long topspin serves, it’s important you get the racket angle correct. Too closed, and the ball will go into the net. Too open, and you’ll lift it up off the end of the table. The key is to spot these early and take them before they have started to drop. Let them drop down to table height and you’ll be in big trouble.

The Table Tennis Playbook

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The Table Tennis Playbook

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