Written by Ben Larcombe.
The majority of new table tennis players that I coach are intimidated by heavy spin serves. And that's understandable. As you watch your opponent doing some funky arm and wrist movements at the other end of the table, you worry that if you judge the spin wrong the ball is going to kick off your rubber in some random direction.
In response to that uncertainty, you may be tempted to just try and nudge the ball back over the net. "Don't try anything too fancy", you think to yourself. "Just safely tap it back". Unfortunately, that's probably the worst thing you can do!
Here's a helpful quote from former World Champion, Werner Schlager...
"The more spin I put on the ball, the less I need to consider the existing rotation."
What he’s saying is that using lots of spin on your return can help to weaken the effect of the spin that was put on the ball by your opponent's serve. 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 serve. You can counter that spin with your own spin.
But, if you try to simply nudge/tap/poke the spinny serve back, without imparting any spin yourself, you are just offering the ball a flat grippy surface to kick off, in whichever direction it likes.
It's safer to use spin
This is a little counterintuitive. Your brain will be telling you that the safest way to return this incoming heavy spin serve is to just give it a little prod and hope it goes on. Then you can worry about going for one of your proper strokes on the next ball.
But your brain doesn't know what it's talking about!
Sometimes the best defense is a good offense and when faced with a heavy spin serve you are much better off doing something than nothing. Fully commit to returning the ball with a particular stroke/spin and don't worry about missing the table.
Back in August, I was helping out at a summer camp for teenagers - and playing a little bit of table tennis (of course). One afternoon another leader challenged me to do a service they couldn't return. I did. They put it straight in the net. It wasn't long before a queue emerged of teenagers and leader who all wanted to try and return one of my "unreturnable" serves.
I probably did about 100 serves in a row to 20+ different opponents without a single one coming back. None of these guys knew how to play table tennis properly and we were using decent fast and spinny bats. Then one boy confidently walked up, picked up a bat, and calmly sliced back my next serve with his backhand. He just went for it... and it paid off. I found out later he was a pretty decent tennis player.
This ability to use spin to manipulate the ball and make it do what you want it to do is sometimes called "feeling". And the only way you're going to improve your "feeling" is by giving it a go. Try a few different spin returns. See what works. Adjust. Adapt.
Don't be scared
This is just generally good advice for table tennis, life, everything really - but it's particularly applicable to returning heavy spin serves.
There are two approaches;
- A negative approach based on the fear of messing up.
- A positive approach based on the possibility of success.
Try to always bring a positive mindset to the table with you. Expect the best. Focus on what you want to do with your return. Which stroke do you want to use? Where do you want to place the ball?
And assume it will work. If it doesn't work, you should be able to figure out what went wrong and tweak your next return.
It's much better to be an active player, looking to dominate the point with your own shots/style/game, than a passive player, simply reacting to whatever your opponent is doing.
Ben Larcombe is both co-owner at Eastfield and a #TeamEastfield sponsored player. He is also the founder Expert Table Tennis which includes; a popular blog, two podcasts, numerous coaching resources, and a thriving online community.