Spin serves can be a tricky situation. What kind of spin is on the ball? Which direction should I place my return attack? These are just a couple of the questions you have to process in split seconds during play. Once you understand these, you are on your way to knowing how to return a sidespin serve in table tennis.

The basics to countering a sidespin serve are to stay away from flat, blocking strokes or blasting ones. The spin will ride the strokes and go away to the side that the spin is directed towards. You want to use a spin stroke that counteracts the sidespin with your own perpendicular spin or counter spin. We constructed a couple of scenarios with options of return serves to use.

How to read spin serves

In order to return the serve, you need to know how to read the serve. This can be tricky, because:

  1. Your opponent has full ball control, since they are not reacting to one of your spin serves. Therefore, they can generate whatever shot they want and you need to be sharp enough to read their actions.
  2. Serves are short, sharp actions in the wrist, which are hard to analyze in such a short time, your opponents will also no doubt mask these movements to make it harder for you to pick them up.

The higher level you play at, the more your opponent can misdirect, and, let’s be honest, at such a fast pace can one truly identify the exact shot? Experts even have trouble with this task. So, what do you do?

You can try to analyze the visual cues, but that can be misleading. The best way is to practice with a partner, against the different serves, to narrow down one or two reactions that work in a multitude of situations. That’s right, the ole’ trial and error. If you practice alone, then it may be time to find someone. With all this being said, there are simple techniques to apply for reading and returning serves.

How to return a sidespin serve in table tennis

Sidespins serves are tricky and reading them takes some experience, but it can be done with a certain amount of success if you apply some basic techniques. Let’s start with what we know. The ball will bounce off in the direction your opponent’s paddle moved when he/she played the shot. If it goes from left to right, the ball will bounce to the right. If it goes from right to left, the ball will bounce to the left. Therefore, we can follow the direction of the racket since the ball will be dragged the same way. With that part covered, let’s get to some specifics:

If the serve is short

You have a few options to respond to this type:

  1. You can push the ball back short (a touch)
  2. You can push the ball back long (a dig)
  3. You can attack the ball using your wrist (a flick)

However, your racket’s angle and stoke action will need to be different to change the spin on the ball. Pushing the ball won’t require you to go under it as much, but, if you attack, you need to go through with your shot more and not lift or brush it as much. 

Make sure to adjust your placement though when you return, based on whether the serve has left or right sidespin. A right-handed server using a standard backhand sidespin serve will create a ball that drifts left after contact, which is towards the server’s forehand side. Counteract by aiming more towards their backhand side. This action will keep the ball on the table as a result of ‘playing for the spin’. The same is true if you have a right-handed reverse pendulum serve.

A right-handed pendulum, not a reverse pendulum, serve is the other type of sidespin to be aware of. If you find yourself in a situation where you have to return this stroke, remember they like to drift to your right towards the server’s backhand side. We recommend that you aim towards the forehand side to compensate and make a successful return.

It’s a lot to take in, possibly, that is why practicing with someone to experience returning the serves will help you start doing it automatically. Yes, muscle memory is key.

Practicing against a variety of different sidespin serves will put you in a position where you can react faster, purely because you would have seen these shots before and have created a mental model of how to react to them and execute a successful return.

When practicing with a partner, take turns to execute a variety of different sidespin serves so that you each have ample opportunity to practice executing returns. Make this a regular event and soon you will build a lot of confidence in your returns against these shots.

If the serve is long

You are only left with two options in this scenario:

  1. You can attack the ball with topspin (a loop)
  2. You can push the ball with backspin (a dig)

If you see a sidespin serve go long, you should definitely be attacking it close to 100% of the time. Playing a strong loop with lots of topspin should overpower a lot of the sidespin that was put on the ball. As mentioned before, the more perpendicular spin you apply on the ball the less you will need to worry about the incoming spin. A topspin loop, into the middle of the table, will get it on whether it was left or right sidespin.

Pushing a long sidespin serve is a very reactive choice that is only advised in rare instances. Stick with the loop or dig that attacks more to be safe.

A few more tips (If you want a short return)

A couple more things to throw at you:

  1. Early timing can be a key to success if you want a short return. Try to hit the ball in the 1 or 2 timing position, which are either the spot after the balls initial bounce below or level with the net. This will give you a low and short return to dismay your opponent.
  2. Sidespins have a lot of energy, so you want to absorb that energy to get a short return. To do this, you need to strike the ball on your paddle in the area near your handle. However, this will leave your shot affect by the spin, so use cautiously.
  3. Hit the ball on it rotational axis. Now this tip works for every return of a sidespin serve. If you don’t contact on the rotational axis, then the serve’s spin will have more affect on your counterstrike.

Game point

We have outlined a few of the basics to analyze the sidespin serve and how to return it. These will help you in the “theology” of how to return, but the true teacher is practice and experience as we said in the beginning.

Your plan should always start with your equipment. You want to guarantee that your paddle will support you in your motions and techniques, so picking the right rubber or combo for your paddle is important.

Finding a training partner to practice your returns is super important. Seeing the visual cues and results of different return techniques before the match will better prepare you for what happens in the match. Get your technique to muscle memory with a few key counterstrikes for the different scenarios. Just like everything, planning and practice pays dividends.