9 Serve & Return Tips for Table Tennis Players – by Werner Schlager

Werner Schlager is a former world champion table tennis player from Austria. Strangely enough, it’s his birthday on Wednesday (he’ll be 44) – which is when I usually release my weekly blog post – so, to celebrate, I have decided to do a “Werner Schlager Week”.

Each day this week I will release a new article featuring table tennis tips direct from Werner Schlager himself. I hope that you enjoy reading them and find them helpful and applicable to your game. If you do, please share Werner Schlager Week with a friend!

I’m kind of assuming everyone knows who Werner Schlager is, but perhaps that is not the case…

Werner first started playing table tennis at the age of six, learning from his father and older brother who were both top Austrian players. He won the World Championships in Paris in 2003 (which makes him the last non-Chinese player to win either the men’s or women’s title – Waldner won it previously in 1997) and opened the Werner Schlager Academy in Vienna in 2009.

We kick off Werner Schlager Week with a collection of table tennis tips focusing on the service and service return. After each quote, I have added a brief comment of my own.

These tips are taken from Werner Schlager’s fantastic book Table Tennis: Tips from a World Champion. It’s a great read that you can buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk. I highly recommend it. In my opinion, it should be compulsory reading for all aspiring table tennis players!

For more table tennis tips please check out my page, 1001 Table Tennis Tips. Now let’s get into the good stuff!


The service is without a doubt the most important stroke in table tennis.

This is something that is regularly said by the majority of top players and coaches. It’s great to see Werner Schlager repeating it, though. The service is the only time in the game where you have complete control over the ball. That isn’t an opportunity to be wasted!

The implication here is that if you believe this statement you will make improving your serve a priority.

All top players must constantly think of new varieties of serve. That is the only way to survive several years as a world-class player.

This is an interesting point and something I haven’t really thought about before. At the sub-elite level, you can easily get away with just developing a few solid serves and then using them throughout your career. For example, you might have a good pendulum, tomahawk, and backhand serve.

Professional players need to be constantly improving and tweaking their serves to stop their opponents from completely figuring them out. However, perhaps this is something that we can do as well. Or we could at least spend a bit more time learning to copy the latest serves used by the professionals!

The basis for each serve, not counting technical ability, is the mental temperment.

Here, Werner is saying that you need to be mentally strong to be a good server. It’s a combination of being mentally tough enough to execute them perfectly under pressure, and also being tactically and strategically smart with your choice of serve.

Later on in the book, Werner shares that he thinks tactically about which variety of serve to use before he serves. But the execution happens automatically. He doesn’t think about the mechanics of the serve.

That’s very good advice! In the past, I have found that it’s when I start worrying about the mechanics of how to serve during a match that my service really falls apart. This is often called “paralysis by analysis”.

Chinese rubbers have a lot of grip and this helps the Chinese players to achieve above average rotation on their serves.

I’ve always been surprised by how few European players use Chinese rubbers. Especially when every top Chinese player has a tacky hard-sponge black rubber on their forehand. Ma Long, Fan Zhendong and Zhang Jike use DHS NEO Hurricane 3. Xu Xin uses DHS NEO Skyline 3 TG3.

Now I’m not saying that there is anything special about Chinese rubbers, or that Dima and Marcos would be beating the Chinese if they started using Hurricane, but it’s worth thinking about. The Chinese rubbers do allow you to generate more spin and that appears to be even more necessary with the new plastic balls. Perhaps it’s time more of us did try sticking a Chinese rubber on our forehand.

Service training is boring but very important.

The common mantra is “service training is very important” – which is true. But I like how Werner has added the “boring” bit.

Let’s admit it. Practising your serves with a box of balls isn’t the most fun you’ll have on the table. It certainly can’t compare with playing matches, or multiball, or a bit of loop-to-loop. But it is very very important. As we’ve already learnt, the service is the most important stroke. Therefore, it makes sense to dedicate a big chunk of our training time to it. Even if it is a bit boring!

It’s good to have a service ritual or routine.

Novak Djokovic has been known, on occasion, to bounce the tennis ball up to 25 times before making his serve! This is his service ritual. It may annoy his opponents (and spectators) but it helps him to mentally prepare for the point and get “in the zone”.

Werner recognises the importance of developing a service ritual or routine. That’s not surprising. He’s a professional table tennis player. Watch almost any professional player and you’ll quickly recognise their unique service ritual.

For us non-elite players, however, we are often too busy thinking about the previous point or rushing to start the next point to take a second to relax, calm our mind, and refocus. Developing a service ritual is a great way to begin each point with a clear mind.

Service Return

Whereas long serves are looped.

I like how, according to Werner, there is no decision to be made here. Long serves are looped. Simple.

Some of you will remember that I wrote last week that, on occasion, it can be wise to push a long backspin serve. Am I contradicting the great Werner Schlager? Maybe. But actually, I think the difference is Werner is talking to experienced players (or at least players with very high ambitions). If you want to be a real top player then you certainly do need to get into the habit of looping any long serve. Period. You’ll never catch

You’ll never catch a player of Werner’s calibre pushing a long backspin serve and missing an opportunity to attack first.

A good return can force the server into a passive role.

In many ways, this should be your aim when receiving serve. Try to figure out the most tricky return you can give your opponent. Perhaps it is a touch (drop shot) just over the net that they can’t attack. Maybe it is a heavy backspin dig into their wide backhand where you know they can’t loop very well.

A “good” return is a clever return. It isn’t just about trying to attack every single one of their serves. Placement, spin variation and deception can be valuable tools for forcing the server into a passive third ball shot.

Before I take up my returning position, I mainly concentrate on my breathing to slow down my pulse rate.

Deep breathing is something that I have looked into a few times. It is a great way to calm yourself down, both physically and mentally. It can also help with nerves if you are feeling particularly anxious.

Sometimes, during matches, we can find ourselves getting more and more tense and erratic. Perhaps we are losing our head after a bit of luck has gone against us. Maybe we are too pumped up after winning a big point. Werner stops this from building up by focussing on his breathing. This will also become another routine, a return ritual, that will get him mentally ready for the next point.

Buy the book

That’s all for today but I’ll be back tomorrow with some of my favourite Werner Schlager tips on the topic of stroke development.

There are hundreds of other brilliant tips in the book, these are just a few that particularly stood out to me. I strongly recommend you get yourself a copy!


Table Tennis: Tips from a World Champion is available in paperback and for Kindle from Amazon. Please use the links below to buy…

To check out all of my favourite table tennis books please read my popular blog post, The Best Table Tennis Books.

And if you are looking for some more table tennis tips from professional players and coaches please check out my page, 1001 Table Tennis Tips.