How to Plan a Third-Ball Attack

This is Episode 050 of the Ask a Table Tennis Coach podcast. Today’s question comes from Alex and is all about how to plan a third-ball attack.

Alex asks…

“Can you please talk about how a short side-spin serve makes the placement of the return more predictable in terms of whether it’s going to come to the forehand or the backhand side? I’ve heard many times that, as an example, a regular pendulum serve makes it more likely that the ball is going to be returned to your backhand side. But I’m not sure why. This is important to me as I’m working on linking my serve with at third-ball attack and I’d like to know where to expect the ball.”

Hi Alex! Nice question here. This really depends on who you’re playing against. A heavy side-spin pendulum serve against someone like Ma Long will give you no idea where it’s going to go.

He’s such a good player that he’s going to be able to put that ball absolutely anywhere on the table. Forehand side or backhand. Short or long, into the middle or off to the side. In that kind of situation, you’re not going to have a clue where he’s going to put the ball.

However, doing a really heavy side-spin serve against a beginner and they’ll probably miss the table completely. If you do a heavy pendulum serve against someone who doesn’t really know how to return serves they will probably put that ball wide off your backhand side and miss the table.

If they’re lucky they might get it on the backhand side. There’s a huge difference in the effectiveness of serves, depending on who you are playing against. And how easy it is to work out where they are likely to return to. It’s all down to the difference in skill levels.

Probably if Ma Long was serving against me then he would be able to work out what I was going to do based on his serves. Because the quality of the spin on his serves is so strong that I’d struggle to fight against where the ball wanted to go.

The thing to think about here is that it’s all about the direction of spin that you put on the serve. So on a pendulum serve, if you’re a right-handed player, your spinning the ball from the right to the left. So you’re kind of brushing the side of the ball from right to left.

This means the ball wants to kick off of your opponent’s rubber to the left, towards your backhand side. Because that’s the direction of spin that’s been put on the ball.

If they are aiming wide to your forehand side then all of that spin that you put on the ball that’s making it want to kick to the left will drag the ball closer to the center line of the table.

If they aim for the center line then all that side spin is going to drag the ball more towards your backhand side.

And if they aim just wide to your backhand then all of that side spin is probably going to push it to the left and it’s going to miss the table completely.

The opposite would be true if you were to do a standard backhand side spin serve where you’re coming across the ball in the opposite direction. Or if you were to do an advanced serve like the reverse-pendulum or the tomahawk serve.

On those serves, you’re imparting the other direction of side spin to the ball. So you’re brushing the ball from left to right and you’re starting the serves over on the left-hand side of your body while finishing over on the right.

As such the spin that you’ve put on the ball makes it want to kick off to the right after it hits your opponent’s rubber. Therefore that’s more likely to be returned to your forehand side if you’re opponent plays a flat stroke aiming for the middle of the table.

It’s important to remember that most beginners try and return serves they just aim generally for the middle of the table. That’s the safest area. Therefore the direction of side spin that you’ve put on the ball is largely going to determine whether that middle ball gets dragged slightly to the left or right.

Just remember that a good receiver of serves is going to take into account the side spin on the serve because they’ll watch what you’re doing and their brain will figure out what’s on the ball. Then they are going to adjust their shot accordingly.

Because of this, they can just put the return anywhere. But if you’re playing a beginner or improver, someone that’s not good at returning serves, left or right side spin can have a big effect of where it’s going to come on your side.

If you’re a player with a really strong forehand, but a weak backhand attack, then it doesn’t make sense for you to do loads of pendulum forehand serves when you’re playing matches. Because you’re just increasing the chance that you’ll need to use your backhand for the third-ball.

If you’re putting these side spin serves in the ball wants to be dragged to your backhand side so you’re probably going to be playing more backhands than forehands if you’re playing people who aren’t brilliant at returning serves.

So instead, you want to go for a backhand serve or maybe a tomahawk serve. This will more likely bring the ball to your forehand side if you’ve got a strong forehand and you want to use that.

Those are just some really simple tactics that you can start using when you’re a new player. They can be really effective if you are playing other new players as well. It’s a really great way to start thinking tactically and planning your points.

Even if this is quite simple, it is the first step. Some players never really get into the mind set of thinking tactically. But this is a really good way to get into thinking like that.

Are you stronger on your forehand or your backhand? Trying to think what kind of side spin serve, therefore, should I be doing to try and set that up?

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