Returning serves is a very difficult part of the game. Many players give up on learning how to read what kind of spin your opponent put on the ball and use special racket covers (rubber) to lessen the impact of spin – e.g. long or short pips or anti spin rubber.
Before we can return a serve we need to stand properly. How far from the table? How much should we bend? Where should our weight be?
How far from the table? The body should be about arms length (about 40 cm). This position is a compromise allowing to move forward quickly for a short serve and jump back a bit for long serve. Moving forward is fast while moving backward is slowest human movement. Moving side to side (lateral) is faster than backward but slower than forward.
How much should we bend? When you watch professional players you see them bend way down so their eyes are about the net level. However, just before they return the serve the straighten up. Why? I think it is because humans move fastest when they are more upright. (I don’t know why they bend so much before the serve? This position is uncomfortable to stay in for longer period of time – I know that my back hurts after a while of doing this in preparation for a serve). Are they focused on the ball and paddle of the server? So, you should be in a bent but comfortable position – probably in a position that is best for starting a run.
Where should the weight be? To move quickly you should stand on the balls of your feet, not on heels. You should be in such a position that if someone pushed you from behind you would fall forward. Again, just like preparing for a sprint run.
See some of this thinking in the early part of this video.
There are variety of short serves (once that bounce twice on your side of the table). This Chinese video with subtitle is a good start and presents a variety of returns against various spin & no spin serves.
Short Underspin Serves
This serve is best returned short so the ball bounces twice on the opponents side and is hard to attack on the 3rd ball. Here is the first set of instructions for returning the short backspin serve. The most important thing about returning this serve is timing. First, make your body stay low and closer to the table so you can move well and see the ball better. This serve must be returned right off the bounce on your side of the table, because at that moment the spin effect is the weakest. Therefore don’t wait until the ball reaches the high point and drops off. Receive as early as you can. At the moment of ball contact add backspin with finger and slight wrist movement. Sort of squeeze you blade a bit, so your opponent won’t be able to flip it back to you too easily.
Another way to return short serves with racket facing up, racket tip pointing down and handle pointing at your face. The key ingredients of this technique is a gentle rub downward of the ball right after the bounce and relaxed hand. You need lean over the table to be very close to the ball to be able to exert a gentle very controlled rub down. If your hand is extended you will not have good control and your contact will be less precise. Also the contact time is very short – the shorter the contact the less forward ball movement and the ball will bounce twice on your opponent’s side. Watch the video by Pierre Luc-Hinse here.
Short Sidespin Serves
These serves have need to be returned with a racket perpendicular to the table surface. If the racket is open (like for returning underspin serves) the ball will to up. The key points is to contact the ball right after the bounce, rub it gently on its side in the left to right direction to counter the spin. If the ball is not bouncing twice you are pushing too much forward so try to push more to the side.
Short No Spin Serves
To return the no-spin serve short so it bounces twice on the opponents side, keep your blade as straight as possible (perpendicular to the table surface) and receive early before the ball drops off. At the moment of contact rub the ball downward a little instead of forward. Here is the video showing this technique. Here is another long discussion of the theory followed by practice by another coach. The demonstration starts here 10 minutes into the video. This coach basically confirms the flat (perpendicular to table surface) racket angle and rub down. What is different from previous video is returning with sharp side rub of the ball both on forehand and backhand.
Returning pendulum left side/under spin serve by Chen Weixing is shown here. The basics are contact ball right after a bounce, with racket perpendicular to the table and pull sharply to the right side (not forward) to kill the spin. It can be pretty aggressive return making it hard to attack.
Returning the same pendulum left side/under spin with over the table backhand loop (a.k.a. banana flip) demonstrated by Canadian player Pierre-Luc Hinse. The key technique is to get close to the ball, lean upper body over the table (too straight and the ball will miss the table), elbow forward and paddle pointing towards body, unwind with power. Against underspin touch the ball on the left side. Against topspin touch the ball on top. Watch
Short, long, no spin returns briefly demonstrated by Pierre-Luc Hinse.
These are the serves that bounce only once on your side of the table and close to the end line. If the ball bounces in the middle the serve is considered mid length serve.
Against long side-spin serve to the backhand side. Stay close to the ball and receive with wrist movement. Touch the ball with the top of your blade at the highest point of the bounce. At the moment of contact press downward and forward at the same time. This technique is shown in the later part of the same video as short serve return above – starting at 0:47.
Receiving long serve with forehand. Use the arm instead of the wrist. You don’t need to take the racket back far – i.e. the swing is short. Place the blade where the ball is and swing it forward. At the moment of contact, no matter how low the ball came over the net still press the blade a little bit down. Don’t swing up. This technique is shown in the later part of the same video as short serve return above – starting at 1:24.
Tom Lodziak has this advice for returning pendulum sidespin serves.
Long fast serves with topspin
Keep your arm above the table and swing forearm straight forward. If you are missing the table it is because your arm is below the table before the swing and this results in a swing up as you touch the ball. So your swing needs to be more horizontal. This technique is shown in the later part of the same video as short serve return above – starting at 2:15.
And now see all this into practice
… by the same player who demonstrated it in earlier videos. See this match here.
Attacking short serves using forehand & backhand. Need to turn on subtitles because the coach speaks Portugese.
Reverse pendulum serve
Banana flick (flip)
This return is an example of an advance serve return but is becoming very popular recently as it allows to be aggressive on serve return.
Here are some adjustments that you have to make to account for variations of the server’s spin.
Against sidespin/underspin serve contact ball on the bottom left of the ball and come more upwards on the stroke
Against sidespin serve contact ball on the side of the ball around the middle
Against heavy underspin contact the ball bottom left? and come upwards on the ball with your wrist to generate lift on the ball
Against topspin/sidespin contact the ball on top left, more forward movement of the racket.
Brian Pace has this advice for returning various variants of pendulum serve – side, side under spin, under spin, side top and topspin serve.
Tomahawk serve is rarely seen these days, but if you encounter it here is some advice on how to do it.
Here is an example of the tomahawk serve and one way to return it. To return this serve, first you need to very carefully observe where the server contacts the ball. If he contacts it on the side it will result in a pure side spin. If he contacts it closer to the top it will have topspin. If somewhere between the side and the top then a combination side and topspin. Reading it is difficult when the serve is performed fast.
If a right handed player serves it to your middle, you can either return it with your backhand by pulling sharply from left to right and directing it to your opponent’s backhand. To direct it like this you will need to angle your racket so that the paddle’s handle is closer to the net and the tip of the paddle farther from the net.
Another way to return is to loop it as described below by Ilya Koshkin.
In order to loop the side-top tomahawk serve you have to adjust to the timing. This serve usually veers quite a bit after the bounce AND slows down a little. We all tend to rush on that serve because it starts out fast and we think it will get to us quicker than it really does. To compensate for the timing change (when trying to loop it with the forehand), exaggerate the upper body turn on the back swing. REALLY turn around your waist, then make a very forward-going looping stroke without lifting it much.