The Tomahawk Serve (And Why You Should Learn It)

The tomahawk serve is a somewhat rare serve in today’s table tennis scene. The likes of the pendulum and chop serves are so dominant that you probably rarely see the tomahawk. I can only recall a few players that I have played against over the years that use it as one of their primary serves.  

Yet, I would argue that the tomahawk serve is one of the most powerful weapons in table tennis today. Especially among beginner and intermediate players. 

My Tomahawk Serve Experience

I began to incorporate the tomahawk serve very early on in my table tennis journey. Initially just for some diversity, as I only really used two other serves: the pendulum and the chop serve.

I believe my inspiration originated from Dimitrij Ovtcharov (Germany’s #2 player). Although he uses the service far less often now, back then it was a common serve of his, and I liked the way it looked. I will learn that! I thought.

Kenta Matsudaira is another world-class player that makes use of the tomahawk. You can learn about his technique here.

To perform the tomahawk serve, first, imagine that you are throwing an actual tomahawk. In a squatting position, lift your elbow and extend your arm outward, striking the ball with your forehand rubber. Try to make sure you don’t contact the ball too directly; you’re aiming to brush the ball to produce spin.   

If you are having trouble visualizing the technique, check this video out. PingSkills provide a pretty neat breakdown of the serve in action.

As I mentioned earlier, initially my tomahawk serve was somewhat of a filler; a serve I would use to mix things up and keep my opponents guessing. But in time, as I learned how to enhance my spin and began to understand the mechanics of the serve, it became my greatest weapon!

Refining My Tomahawk

It wasn’t smooth-sailing though, there were definitely hurdles. Early on, I had a habit of over-abusing topspin on the tomahawk, which left me prone to flat forehand flick returns directly into my crossover.

These were very awkward to return; I didn’t like having to deal with them at all, so I introduced more variation. Switching between different topspin, sidespin, and backspin combinations. This was the point where my tomahawk became reminiscent of what it is today. 

Knowing that my primary focus for the serve was a third ball finish (or a win outright from the serve), and I needed to avoid the fast flick returns that landed deep directly into my crossover, I formulated my own distinct tomahawk serving motion – a serve which was nothing alike Ovtcharov’s serve. The serve I had originally been inspired by. 

I attempt to mimic the same motion on the tomahawk every time I perform it, but I vary the spin I impart between sidespin topspin, sidespin, and sidespin backspin. This keeps my opponents guessing.

The motion of my serve starts at the upper right-hand corner of the ball from the rear, and I flick my wrist around the side of the ball and finish downwards underneath the ball. 

Tomahawk serving motion with bat and ball
Tomahawk serving motion

As this motion can cover any type of tomahawk spin variation depending on when the ball is contacted, it is very difficult to read – and it showed.

The time and energy I spend perfecting this serve paid off. Bar a handful of players, my tomahawk serve breezed me through competitions within my county. Many players couldn’t even return the ball. And if they did, a poor return popped the ball up high for a simple forehand smash.

And that’s one of the reasons the tomahawk serve worked so well for me. As a very dominant forehand player, all I needed was a small mistake on the return of serve to put me in a good position for a strong attack.

Heavy sidespin topspin tomahawk with third ball loop kill
Heavy sidespin topspin tomahawk with 3rd ball attack

Knowing that statistically most of you will favour your forehand over your backhand, you should definitely consider learning this serve. It’s crazy to me how little I see this serve today as I know it would be such an asset to so many players. 

The Tomahawk is Powerful – But Don’t Abuse It

Of course, the serve has its limits as you face greater competition. But I still experienced good success with it whilst playing against other counties and whilst playing for the University of Reading. The important thing to remember is to never force your serves. If they are not working well against a particular opponent switch to another.

For a while, I become wrapped up in receiving “freebie” points from my opponents. Even when my tomahawk serve was having little success I would keep doing it anyway. Whilst constantly reassuring myself that it would catch them out soon or later, all the while losing points from strong forehand flick returns and weak pushes from me – don’t make this mistake.

To be a successful tomahawk server, variation is key, as with all other serves. But for my tomahawk serve in particular, keeping the ball short is vital. I always vary spin and placement, but 95% of the time I serve to my opponents forehand – often with heavy sidespin topspin. So if I were to serve long, and if the opponent makes the read, it is an easy loop finish for them. 

The reason I prioritize serving into my opponent’s forehand over the backhand is because it’s more awkward to return. The sidespin topspin I produce forces my opponent’s wrist into an unnatural near 45-degree angle if they want to return it to my backhand, which makes it difficult to make a good return.

In fact, even with my expansive knowledge for the serve, modifying and refining it over the years. I would be lying if I said I felt prepared when returning the tomahawk. I hate people performing the tomahawk serve on me! 

Knowing how much topspin can be on the ball makes me very hesitant to let loose my powerful forehand. I always fear that the spin will kick the ball off the end of the table. And if the serve is short, I almost always move over to the right if the ball lands on my forehand side.

This enables me to play the much safer backhand shot to avoid bending my wrist awkwardly which reduces my control.

Developing Tomahawk Traps

As with all my other serves, I developed traps for my tomahawk serve. I perform these a few times per match as they have a high likelihood of winning me points.

The first is set up by performing frequent short serves with different combinations of spin. I then follow with a very deep heavy backspin serve to bait a forehand loop. By being able to strike the ball harder, I am able to produce more spin. More often than not, the loop return that comes my way ends up in the net. Thanks for the free point!

The second trap is a fast, rather flat tomahawk serve down the line. As stated earlier, I seldom serve to the backhand side. Backhand flicks are far easier to perform than forehand flicks when talking about short balls with variations in spin.

It almost always catches people off guard as it’s a stark difference to the short spinny serve they are used to. The subsequent return tends to be a rather awkward block/drive to my backhand. I then pre-emptively make the read and move my body to be in a position for a strong forehand winner.

That’s All For This Month    

So that about wraps up my experience with the tomahawk serve. It’s still a serve I incorporate in my game to this day. Although more recently, I have transitioned largely into the shovel serve as it has a shorter recovery which helps in high pace matches. Think of it as a hybrid tomahawk serve. However, I am hoping to re-integrate my original tomahawk more into my game in the future, and see what refinements I can make!  

I implore you, give this serve a go and see how it improves your game.