The Spin-Nospin Serve
by Han Xiao
Today, we’re going to discuss one of the most classically successful serve combinations of the past couple of decades: the spin-nospin serve. This is actually a two-serve combination: a heavy backspin serve along with a nospin serve with the exact same motion. It is often extremely simple looking yet very deceptive and difficult to read, resulting in easy attacking opportunities for the server.
The goal of the spin-nospin serve combination is very simple, which is to provide a reliable third ball attack and limit the opponent’s ability to receive aggressively. Compared to some other effective serves, it is generally not aimed at producing as many direct errors from the opponent. Most of the effectiveness is derived from the opponent being forced to receive conservatively out of the fear of misreading a heavy backspin serve, leading to popups as well as the inability to push short. Even when the opponent reads a nospin serve, if the serve is low the opponent cannot flip too aggressively without assuming a large amount of risk. Soft flips or rolls are very easy attacking opportunities for the server.
A very good display of two of these serves in action is a classic match between Jan-Ove Waldner and Ma Lin in 1999, both of whom are extremely effective in their use of spin-nospin serves:
As you can see from the video, both players have extremely effective serves that produce attacking opportunities very regularly even against world class serve returns. Even though hidden serves were still legal at the time, the principle of the execution has not changed a great deal other than the hiding of the contact. The idea is to make the ball contact and trajectory of a nospin serve look as similar as possible to a heavy backspin serve. This is aided by having a very quick and explosive motion at the point of ball contact, as well as possibly an exaggerated follow through motion to mask the ball contact even further. We can see that Waldner has a very explosive motion through the service and a quick follow through down and forward on many of his spin-nospin serves, while some of his other serves feature some sort of extra motion on the follow through. Waldner inspired a whole generation of servers who emulated his approach, and you can see a lot of the same elements in Ma Lin’s spin-nospin serve. Ma sometimes adds a quick pull back motion either during or after ball contact, which is not only deceptive but helps control the nospin serve to keep it short despite the very quick service motion.
At the core of the execution of the actual ball contact, a heavy backspin serve involves grazing the ball while contacting the bottom half of the ball and quickly accelerating down and forward. The contact point and angle of the racket can vary from person to person due to physical differences along with differences in equipment. More explosive acceleration will result in more spin. On the other hand, the nospin serve requires more of a normal striking contact through the back of the ball without much grazing, or very little acceleration. Because we are trying to hide the differences between the two, we need to accelerate very quickly at some point during the service motion. Therefore, there are two main ways to execute the spin-nospin combination, both of which are valid. The first way is to serve backspin as normal, and for the nospin serve to use a similar motion but only accelerate after ball contact has been made and the ball has left the racket surface or to stop racket acceleration right before contact. For example, you can graze the ball slightly and add wrist snap a split second after the ball is on its way to deceive the opponent. Some types of service motions also change the amount of spin imparted on the ball based on the point of contact of the ball on the racket based on how quickly that portion of the racket is accelerating. For a normal pendulum serve as an example, a point towards the tip of the racket will impart more spin than the center of the racket as you snap your wrist, since the tip of the racket is accelerating more quickly. The other common method is to contact the ball at the same point for both serves, but to graze the ball for backspin serves while striking the ball more for nospin. This can be very difficult to execute properly since too big a difference in ball contact will cause extremely different ball trajectories, as well as a big difference in the sound of the ball striking your racket. Practice is the only way to improve after understanding how to execute the serve combination, and it can take years of practice to perfect the serves to the point of being effective against all opponents.
It is important to note that in the modern game, more players are serving variations of the spin-nospin serve involving more sidespin. However, the spin-nospin concept is still very central to the service games of many top players, especially the Chinese. In addition, in certain situations a more basic, flat spin-nospin serve is still preferable, such as when the opponent has a strong backhand banana flip that is easier to execute against a sidespin serve. Also, the change from hidden serves to non-hidden serves means that all serves are easier for the opponent to read in recent years, leading to fewer clear opportunities for winners on the third ball. However, an effective spin-nospin serve can still lead to many attacking opportunities, even when the opponent drops the ball short but the ball pops up slightly. Sometimes, the attacker can wait for a fifth ball attack.
To round things out, here is a match between Ma Long and Timo Boll that highlights the more modern version of the spin-nospin serve. Although both players have some other types of services mixed in such as deep serves and reverse pendulums, both players still rely heavily on basic spin-nospin serves and produce numerous openings to attack, even when the opponents drops the ball short initially. I hope you learn from watching their service motions and follow throughs and practice making your own serves more deceptive and effective.