Table Tennis Coaching: Using the Reverse Pendulum Serve
by Han Xiao
As modern table tennis continues to develop, many techniques and tactics change at high levels of play. One of these changes is that the reverse pendulum serve has become much more popular.
The reverse pendulum serve is executed by swinging the wrist and forearm away from the body while contacting the bottom half of the ball. An extensive look at the actual execution by Zhang Jike can be found in this video:
A couple things to note about Zhang Jike’s execution are that first of all, he stops his follow through very short to keep control of the service location and to keep it short. It’s very easy to serve reverse pendulum serves long or half long when going for extra spin. Secondly, he has his elbow in a very high position so that when he swings his forearm outward like a pendulum, the gets the angle he desires and gets more deceptive contact. As with all serves, the execution of the serve takes a lot of practice and adjustment to get the mechanics right for you.
In general, the reverse pendulum serve produces slightly less spin than a regular pendulum serve for most players. There are of course exceptions, such as Fan Zhendong and Zhang Jike, who can produce a large amount of spin using this serve and still control the service location. However, the general idea with the serve is to force a lot of returns to the middle and backhand half of the table due to the direction of sidespin that is on the ball, especially when served crosscourt. The serve makes aggressive returns to the forehand corner and drop shots to the forehand side risky and difficult to control. Much of the time, returns to the forehand off this serve will be of a lower quality and easier to attack. This causes many opponents to shy away from these types of returns.
There are then a few very common followups to the serve. Much like chess openings, knowing how the serve will develop into the point is key to the effectiveness of the serve. With the reverse pendulum serve, a nospin or topspin variation is likely to produce a flip to the middle or backhand as the most common return if the opponent reads the serve correctly. This will likely create a backhand exchange, allowing the server to take the initiative with the backhand, or give the server an opportunity to attack with the forehand from the middle. If the receiver decides to push or drop shot, this will likely produce an attackable ball that is again an attacking opportunity. If the serve is backspin, the most common return will be a push to the middle or backhand side. The server can open with either the backhand or step around and open with the forehand. Often the push will be half long, so the server should make a low, consistent loop to the middle of the table. If the receiver drops short, the server has the option to drop shot in return or attempt to attack with a flip over the table. The receiver can also try to flip the ball, which can be risky, which should again produce a backhand exchange or a forehand attack for the server. With both types of reverse pendulum serves, most returns to the forehand will be either slightly high or half long, also giving the server and opportunity to open if desired.
Of course, the receiver can vary returns, but these are the most common variations. If the receiver receives aggressively to the forehand corner, for example, it is up to the server to adjust. Additionally, the server should be ready to punish weak returns to the forehand and recover risky returns to the forehand that happen to land. However, as I have mentioned previously, this is a risky return and a much lower percentage play for the receiver. As the server, playing the percentages means expecting most returns to be half long or long to the middle and backhand side of the table, producing either backhand exchanges or opportunities to open to the receiver’s middle consistently.
As I’ve outlined the type of rally that usually develops from the reverse pendulum serves, we can see that this serve really benefits two types of players: players with very strong backhands as well as players who can consistently produce a low, spinny first opening and follow up with controlled attacking play. It is less effective for one winged, forehand-dominant players as well as players who prefer to look for service winners and third ball winners. This is why we see players like Zhang Jike, Fan Zhendong, Wang Hao, Timo Boll, and many others use reverse pendulum serves in order to take control of rallies early with either wing, while players like Ma Lin, Ryu Seung Min, Ma Long, and other forehand-dominant top players use reverse serves more sparingly or not at all. As Ma Long’s backhand has become a much more reliable aggressive weapon, he has incorporated the reverse pendulum serve more into his game.
To see the reverse pendulum serve in action, note its use in this match between Fan Zhendong and Zhang Jike. Both players mix in pendulum serves with reverse pendulum serves to keep the opponent guessing and prevent too many strong opening banana flips, but when they do use reverse pendulum serves the pattern of the rally is quite predictable for the server. As both are world class players, they can make some very high quality drop shots to the middle at times off the serve, but more often than not the serve creates the desired pattern for the server. I hope you have a better understanding of the reverse pendulum serve and how it develops the point after watching for some of the points we discussed.