How to Approach the Service Game
by Han Xiao
Think back to some matches where you had a lot of problems with an opponent’s serves. There are likely two scenarios you thought of. The first scenario is when you simply misread an opponent’s serve over and over again. This scenario doesn’t make for very good analysis, really. The way to overcome that is practice against similarly high quality serves to learn the subtleties that allow you to read the spin more accurately. Even the best players once in a while misread the type or amount of spin on a serve. The second scenario is when you knew what the serve was, but simply couldn’t stop the opponent from doing whatever they wanted on the third ball attack or played into their hands in general. This is the mark of a player truly dominating with his or her serve. Let’s take a look at how we can approach our own service games to try to put ourselves in this position more often.
To help with our analysis, we’re going to look at the recent Europe Top 16 final between Marcos Freitas and Dimitrij Ovtcharov. Here’s the video I’m going to refer to:
Let’s start with Ovtcharov, since his service game during this match was relatively straightforward. Ovtcharov has a large power advantage over Freitas, and indeed over most players he faces. This is reflected in his choice of serves. Ovtcharov serves a great deal of sidespin, topspin, and nospin serves, some of which are actually easily readable by the opponent. There are some underspin serves and long serves mixed in to keep the opponent guessing. At the same time, you’ll notice that Freitas is still attempting to push or drop the majority of the topspin serves, especially in the first game. Why is this?
Let’s do a quick analysis from Freitas’s point of view. If he sees an obvious side-topspin serve to his short forehand, his options are quite simple. He can either attempt to push or drop shot, he can soft flip, or he can go for a flip kill. He can also flip with either the forehand, or step around and use his backhand to flip. Ovtcharov can do this simple analysis and prepare for two simple things first and foremost. He can set himself up to get ready for any flip by taking up a neutral position close to the middle of the table. From here, he can cover a flip or push anywhere on the table. If Freitas tries a drop shot, he will have time to step in and react accordingly, since a short ball will travel more slowly than a deep receive.
After Ovtcharov does this, the problem with any option involving a flip for Freitas immediately runs into the problem of Ovtcharov’s power advantage on both sides. In fact, even if Ovtcharov didn’t have this power advantage, Ovtcharov has set up after his serve expecting to deal with a flip, meaning that the element of surprise would be lost, allowing Ovtcharov an easy attack. Additionally, since the receive would be long and a topspin ball, Ovtcharov can really go for a lot of spin and power, causing massive problems for Freitas. As a result, Freitas opts for the more conservative drop shot most of the time, especially in the first game. Since the serve has a bit of topspin, this is very difficult to control, giving Ovtcharov a number of flip kill opportunities. This is quite an old pattern that high level players have been using for many years. Players used to serve very obvious nospin and dare the opponent to flip, and in more recent years this has evolved to serving short topspin or half long, challenging the opponent to flip or loop a weak ball for the server to counterattack. This becomes a win-win for the server as long as their follow-up is thoroughly practiced and consistent. They either get exactly the return of serve they prepare for, or they get a relatively weak return such as a slightly high drop shot.
Freitas incorporates some of the same elements into his service game, but he also has a special case that is quite effective. Freitas really likes to use a short reverse pendulum serve that can range from light side topspin to very heavy side underspin. When he serves this serve to Ovtcharov’s backhand, he stands in a pretty neutral position and prepares first and foremost for Ovtcharov’s well known backhand banana flip. However, things get more interesting when he serves this reverse pendulum to Ovtcharov’s forehand. From this position, Freitas not only gets into a position in his own backhand corner, he even cheats a little bit with his weight distribution to get ready to step around. It’s very rare that Freitas serves this reverse pendulum serve to a right hander’s short forehand and then is forced to use his backhand on the next ball. The reason is very simple. Freitas knows that it is quite risky due to the sidespin he has put on the ball to try to receive wide to the forehand, and there isn’t really a good angle for it. Even if the opponent does return to his forehand, he will likely easily be able to attack this return. Now he has a very simple follow-up that you can put into a flowchart. If the opponent receives deep with a flip or push, he will loop with his forehand, stepping around if necessary. If the opponent receives half long, he will make a safer loop with his forehand and look to attack the next ball harder. If the opponent drop shots, he will either drop or flip, mostly to a right hander’s forehand, depending on the quality of the drop shot. This is a great pattern for Freitas because he has a stronger forehand opening relative to his backhand, so it allows him to play to his strengths. If you watch the entirety of the match, you will see this pattern repeat over and over again whenever Freitas uses this serve. It’s all about limiting the opponent’s options, knowing what those options are, and using that analysis to your advantage.
This is a very high level concept that seems obvious but can be difficult, which is why making a new serve effective can take months to years. Being able to limit the opponent’s returns based on your serves takes a lot of practice, noticing which serves give the opponent too many options that give you trouble, and improving or changing those serves and your follow-up to take away some of those options. Sometimes, it can be as simple as improving your third ball attack against a certain return to make that return a much riskier option for opponents and even take it away altogether.
Even if we can’t fully master this concept and be world class players, all of us can at least use serves that allow us to play to our strengths. For example, if you’re a pips out penholder than plays well in topspin rallies but struggles to attack off heavy underspin, serve more long serves and short topspin serves and prepare for fast, deep returns. Why? Because the opponent would be lured into more topspin rallies, and would find it difficult to try to push or drop shot short topspin serves. If they tried to push these serves, they would result in higher, weaker returns that are more easily attackable than a quality deep push. If you’re a chopper that has almost no attacking game, it’s better to serve almost all deep and half long serves while varying the spin and making them as tricky as possible. The reason is that serving short will allow a smart player to drop shot, making it difficult for you to set up and forcing you to move in and out. Making the opponent push deep or try to attack the serve outright will allow you to predict where you should be after the serve much more easily, while the spin variation should draw some direct errors. Doing this type of analysis based on your strengths will allow you to maximize your service game and put your opponents in a no-win situation more often.