Service and Return Footwork
by Han Xiao
The first three to five balls of a point are shots that are really emphasized by most table tennis coaches and players, and rightly so. The opening of the point usually sets the tone for the rest of the rally, and often the point ends within the first five shots in intermediate play. However, most of us put our focus on the service and the subsequent attack, or perhaps the service return and the ensuing transition. Few coaches and players put a lot of emphasis on the footwork necessary to ensure a strong serve and receive game. It might come as a surprise to some that footwork is a part of the serve and receive game, and as a result it’s an area that many players neglect. However, practicing your serve and receive footwork can give you a big advantage right from the opening of the point.
What do we mean by serve and receive footwork? After serving or before receiving, the proper thing to do is to make a small movement in preparation for a larger movement that will come after we have determined where the opponent is serving or receiving to. Although this movement seems inconsequential, it is extremely important in a game where a fraction of a second makes a big difference.
In order to demonstrate before we proceed, I’ll provide a couple of examples to watch. Watching the whole matches are not necessary, but we can see the footwork I am talking about from watching the serves and returns of these players. The first player I’ll highlight is Koki Niwa of Japan. Niwa is very economical in his movements and has great positioning, meaning he doesn’t make many large movements with his feet unnecessarily. However, Niwa consistently makes very obvious movements before most service returns and to a lesser extent after every service.
Another example is this match between Zhang Jike and Ma Long of China. Watch both players directly after serving and right before returning serve.
As we can see, these professional players are moving right before receiving serve and right after serving. Most of the time, especially after serving, this movement is simply bouncing in place right before the opponent’s ball contact in preparation for a larger movement. This works similarly to a spring coiling; by bouncing once in place, we can coil our legs for a more explosive movement on the next step. This can help immensely, not only in this situation, but also in between every shot in the rally, and is something that we should be doing before every shot the opponent hits if we are standing mostly stationary.
The other technique that you can see in these videos is something that is sometimes termed a skip step. This is when a quick movement is made with one of your feet, either by putting the weight briefly onto the heel and then back to the ball of the foot, or briefly lifting the foot before putting it back down. This is done in anticipation of moving in the direction of the foot performing the motion and most of the time forward into the table, by pulling the other foot towards the leading foot shortly afterward and then stepping in. It is especially noticeable on Ma Long and Koki Niwa’s backhand banana flips from the forehand side.
Using these types of footwork on serve and receive seems simple, but takes quite a bit of repetition in order to perfect and make a habit. This is because it isn’t immediately obvious that we should be moving in these situations. However, many times a quick movement in preparation for the opponent’s serve or return can be the difference between a quality shot and an off balance recovery. Incorporate these good habits into your game by focusing on movement each time you serve or receive in training, and hopefully they become second nature and help you in competition.