How High Should You Toss When You Serve?
Reprinted from the May, 1997 issue of Table Tennis Talk
The Chinese revolutionized the service game in the 1960s with their use of the high toss serve, now used by top players all over the world. By tossing the ball anywhere from ten to twenty feet in the air (measured from the ground), the ball comes down faster than normal tosses. This extra speed makes it difficult to pick up the contact point (especially against players not used to the serve) and gives more spin, since the ball's speed converts to spin when contacted properly.
The serve is done almost exclusively with a forehand pendulum (racket tip down) service motion, although other variations are used. Tibor Klampar, Peter Karlsson and Zoran Primorac have all developed medium-high toss backhand serves, for example. So has USA’s hard bat champion, Ty Hoff.
In recent years, the high toss serve has been done more and more with a medium high toss. The ball is tossed only a few feet over the head. However, 15-foot tosses are still used regularly, as are two-foot tosses, and everything in between. Some players, such as USA’s Gao Jun, are known for tossing the ball extremely high, perhaps 30 feet or more in the air. Other players use a very short toss, either so the opponent has less time to see the ball, or (in the case of most backhand serves) because the body is in the way of a higher toss.
Should you use a high toss serve? It all depends on what you are trying to do with the serve. There are several reasons why many top players now use a medium toss rather than a high toss serve. A high toss serve, if done at full racket speed, can accidentally go long when a short serve was planned, and (at the higher levels) this often leads to a very quick loop kill of the serve.
Because the ball is traveling faster downwards at contact, the ball only spends a fraction of a second at racket level. This leaves little time for a player to do any fake motions with the racket, and so the spin is harder to disguise. With a shorter toss, a player can bring the racket through a complete range of backspin, sidespin and topspin motions, and (depending on when the contact is) use any of these spins with the same motion.
Another disadvantage of the high toss serve is that it is harder to fake spin, and serve no-spin. A spinless serve, if it looks like it has spin, is just as effective as a spin serve, and at the highest levels, no-spin serves are as common as spin serves. A player simply uses a spin serve motion, but meets the ball more straight on at contact. However, with a high toss serve, if the ball is struck too much straight on, it jumps out, and is too obviously a no-spin serve unless player has great touch.
Yet the high toss serve lives on. It still allows the greatest spin, and there is great joy in serving the ball with so much spin that an unwary opponent's return shoots off in all directions, leaving the opponent to stare at his/her racket in confusion. Pure deception may not be as easy, but the sheer amount of spin on the ball makes it more difficult for an opponent to read the amount of spin, and an opponent who is not used to such a serve is in for an unpleasant surprise.
It is probably the most difficult serve to master, and so there is the challenge of developing the serve. Yet, there is something about the high toss serve that transcends other serves. It is the only serve that immediately marks a player as "advanced," since non-advanced players don't ordinarily have this serve.
For those who do master this serve, it is an extremely effective serve. For those in doubt, try your luck against U.S. Women's Champion Gao Jun, whose serves often challenge the highest ceilings. Others who use high toss serves include world #4 Vladimir Samsonov, European #3 Csilla Batorfi, and many of the Chinese. Many others use medium to high toss serves.
Developing the high toss (or medium toss) serve gives you a two-pronged service game that, in the absence of high winds, will give you all the weaponry you'll need to set up your other shots.
Here is a short listing of the advantages and disadvantages of the high toss serve:
- More spin;
- Hard to pick up contact;
- Players not used to it have great difficulty making good returns;
- Hard to control, including proper contact, type & amount of spin, depth, direction, consistency;
- Especially difficult to serve short (so that second bounce would be over table);
- Ball spends little time at racket height, so less time for deceptive racket motions;
- Harder to do deceptive no-spin serves;
- Takes more practice to develop than other serves;
Tips to Learn the Serve
If possible, watch a top player or coach demonstrate the serve, and copy what you see. Make sure to practice the toss itself until you can toss it up with your eyes closed, and still catch it in your palm. When you can do this, you're ready for the real thing! Try to contact the ball near the bottom, very low to the table, with a very fine grazing motion. Learn to control the serve with a medium-high toss, then work your way to higher and higher tosses until you're tossing the ball around light fixtures. Then use the serve to knock your opponent's lights out!
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