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How serving practice improved my game

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    Posted: 08/30/2014 at 10:09pm
When people think about how serves improved their game, they talk about spin and deception and third ball attacks.  Some might go as far as discussing improved service receive as practicing serves sometimes enables you to understand what your opponent is often doing when they serve (and what to look for).  Some will mention, and this is probably along the lines of what I am about to discuss, that service practice improves your touch. I want to recommend practicing serves, especially high toss serves, as a way to improve your loop and your block.

I am primarily a backhand server, and I serve mostly obvious heavy backspin and sidespin to the short forehand.  However, I had issues returning pendulum serves and never understood them.  So I spent time practicing them hoping that one day it would all make sense.

I read articles on various sites, especially Larry Hodges blog, about high toss serves and how they can be used to generate heavy spin (with the con that they were harder to control i.e. keep short and low).  I practiced them, but  as decent as mine were for my rating at the time (1600-1800), I never felt I was getting more spin out of the serves so I shelved them for my usual low toss serves.

One day, my coach saw me practicing my serves and he said that I crashed the ball too hard and that my goal should be to let the ball drop into my paddle while moving at the right speed and graze it.  I really thought he was crazy and I never really linked what he said back to my high toss serve practice.  However, I practice what he said with medium and low toss serves and noticed that I was able to get decent spin on my serve, even though my serves seemed slower.

Over time, as I worked on this, I became surprised at how much I could put on the ball with a short motion while letting the ball drop onto my paddle.  It made me think really hard about how I played the game in general.  Usually, I took big swings at the ball to generate as much racket head speed as possible.  I wondered whether a shorter swing with more time to make solid contact on the ball at the right, deliberate racket angle wouldn't be a better way to play.

I tried out this way of playing for a couple of weeks.  When I was fed multiball, rather than trying to take big cuts at the ball, I mostly grazed the ball by contacting it on a spot that I Felt would get it over the net with decent spin and medium pace.  My strokes were really short.  My consistency immediately went up.  I extended this philosophy to my blocking and countering game, focusing more on making good contact with the right racket angle then a relatively short motion.  People would tell me that I was driving the ball, but all I focused on was making good contact.  I used far less energy to hit the ball than my full swing and I got far better results in terms of placement and control.  

Lower rated Players who I had inconsistent results against because I missed a lot started to win fewer and fewer points off me because I could wait to the last second to redirect my shot after they had already committed to defend a part of the table.  Taking a shorter stroke with looser muscles allows you to make good contact while staying loose, so you aren't tensed up and committed to hitting the ball in a particular direction.  This allows you to change the direction of your racket face at the last second.  I watched William Henzell's video in his Ask the Coach Q&A section on timing over and over and I began to appreciate what he said about starting your racket acceleration too early.  Again, too many beginners believe that the best way to make the ball go fast is to swing hard and large, when what is far more important is to make good contact with the ball at the right racket angle for the speed of your shot.  In a sport when the ball trajectory in flight is changing, there is a lot of consistency and flexibility to be gained by slowing down your shot and making up the loss of power from a large swing with a relatively short paddle swing but good contact.  Using more parts of your body (knees, abs, elbow, wrist) help with this, but even without these aids, the general principle is still helpful.  Pros get their power not by swinging at full strength, but by building up their bodies and timing through training and practice that they can do with 60% effort what I can't do at 200%. 

My blocking game also got better as the touch I used to add and take pace of the serve during practice allowed me to find a better range of grip strength for blocking.  Practicing contacting the ball on different points during serving and how that translated into more or less pace also helped me thing about varying the contact point when blocking.

Recently, I played a 2100+ player in a league match and he narrowly won.  While I was proud of my performance, I was amazed at how often I popped up his quick wrist motion serve which I failed to read (getting it back on the table was an achievement for me, even if I popped it up).  I then wanted to mimic something similar and my coach told me that I had to learn how to make quick contact with the ball and then change the direction of the paddle i.e. generate heavy spin without a (visible) follow through.  It was while trying to do this that I began to connect the dots between what my coach originally told me to do (let my ball drop onto the paddle), high toss serve practice and my appreciation for keeping loose and learning to loop/spin with short strokes.  

Serve practice can improve your looping game, and not just in the way you think it will.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote MAkira Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 08/30/2014 at 11:23pm
WOW. +1 great read. just one more thing i need to try out.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote cole_ely Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 08/30/2014 at 11:40pm
nicely written, thanks for taking the time
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote viva Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 08/31/2014 at 2:03am
Really well written Clap thanks 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote CraneStyle Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 08/31/2014 at 7:36am
@ Nextlevel - Thanks for sharing bro. ...

Post like this make me feel part of a Table Tennis community. ...

I too have been working hard on good contact. ...

The only thing I can add is that what a good shot looks like is not always what a good shot feels like. ...
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Machine_Head Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 08/31/2014 at 8:58am
Thank you for the article.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Tassie52 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 08/31/2014 at 9:14am
Thanks, NextLevel.  Clap There's a whole lot in here worth reflecting on.  After struggling to find spin with my serves, your thoughts prompt me to explore what I'm doing in a whole new way.  Who knows, I might find some other benefits as well.  Smile
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote BRS Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 08/31/2014 at 9:21am
This is a great post, but a bit of video would make it awesome.  How high is your high toss?  And a before-and-after of your loop swing would be informative too.  How short is short?  

I ask about the changes you made because otherwise it could be that you have practiced a ton and your touch has improved with that.  A great accomplishment for you, who was already a good player, and encouraging for the rest of us, but not revolutionary.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote NextLevel Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 08/31/2014 at 10:31am
Thanks for all the kind words.


Originally posted by BRS BRS wrote:

This is a great post, but a bit of video would make it awesome.  How high is your high toss?  And a before-and-after of your loop swing would be informative too.  How short is short?  

I ask about the changes you made because otherwise it could be that you have practiced a ton and your touch has improved with that.  A great accomplishment for you, who was already a good player, and encouraging for the rest of us, but not revolutionary.

Good questions.  The article is really about the importance of timing.  High toss taught me a lot about timing and managing incoming speed.

I have no doubt that I have practiced a ton and that my touch has improved (that said, I still struggle to push the ball short so I can't say everything is all gravy).  Moreover, I have no doubt that some of my muscles have gotten stronger with play so I can do things that I probably couldn't do two years ago with shorter motions. That said, I really believe that swinging too hard at the expense of making solid controlled contact with the ball kept me back much longer than it should have because of my misconceptions about what went into hitting a solid ball.

1.  The key isn't so much the height of the toss but letting the ball fall onto your paddle and then grazing a point on it - the hardest to control would probably be heavy backspin.  The high toss serve was just to show how extreme the control was but the key is to let the ball drop on your paddle and then spin it, as opposed to crashing it forward.  You can do it with a medium toss or low toss serve as well, but a high toss would be more similar to how you can respin an incoming midpaced deadball with a short stroke.  

I always thought that much more spin could be generated by low toss and grazing the ball hard with a relatively thick and fast motion than by letting the ball drop and grazing it with a shorter motion.  However, when I compare the quality of the backspin I get from both serve scenarios, I see that my thought process was wrong and that the spin-speed ratio on the short stroke high toss serve is just as impressive if not more so as long as the timing is right.  That's what had me thinking that maybe even on shots that I used to hit hard for power, that I could get more consistency and placement if I used the incoming pace and made better contact, or if I used less pace and placed the ball far better.

2.  The principle of stroke timing is that you are not supposed to accelerate your racket until you've determined where the ball is going to be and you've locked onto it.  If you take a stroke that forces you to start your acceleration early to meet the ball on time (that's the definition of a large stroke)
a) you are rushed to get to the ball on time. 
b) you are locked onto a stroke trajectory because the momentum of your body is set.
c) if the ball deviates from where you expect it, you are too tight to change your stroke trajectory and you miss it.
d) if you change your spin read, you are too tight to change your racket angle and the ball usually ends up in the net.

Few things are more tragic than practicing at a speed that is not relaxed in practice then berating yourself in a match because you can't hit the ball the way you do in practice.  IT's usually because we often hit the ball too hard in practice, when we should using measured technique to control a variety of balls and continually improving that technique to make it faster.  OF course, this is a more control oriented game than a power game, but it doesn't prevent you from adding power to it with improved technique.  You just have to think about the ball consistently.

The other thing is that this improved control makes you much less scared of rallying.  One of the reasons people hit the ball too hard is that they are afraid to miss when it comes back.  If you develop a slower, shorter stroke that can handle most incoming balls at your level while recovering, then you feel less pressure when rallying and have the time to put the ball where you want to and place your opponent under pressure.  

Video isn't entirely helpful but I will try to record a few matches with my current play and contrast them with my old play.


Edited by NextLevel - 08/31/2014 at 10:32am
I like putting heavy topspin on the ball...
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Tassie52 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09/02/2014 at 8:47pm
What drives me nuts? When really good topics get buried beneath the 47 threads on which rubber will make me a hero!   

You talk about making "good contact" with the ball. What exactly does "good contact" mean for you? I know what it means for me, but I'm interested in what your criteria are. How does "good contact" differ for different strokes?

You also focus on timing and write about waiting to "lock onto" the ball before accelerating the racquet. What else is involved in your understanding of timing? I've tried to access William's video, but even after signing up it won't let me in.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote suds79 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09/02/2014 at 10:23pm
This is well written in makes me want to re-explore the heigh toss serve.

After experimenting with it a while back, I had the same experience where I didn't feel like it gave me any extra spin as well.

I think were I struggle on the high toss backspin serve is where to contact the ball. Do I contact the front of the ball? Where the speed of the ball going down and my racket going up on the front side would create the most grazing motion? To me that makes sense but it's difficult to execute consistently.

I would think if I contacted the back of the ball or the bottom side of the ball, my contact would simply be too thick from the speed of the ball coming down.

clearly the high toss backspin serve baffles me. Topspin and variations of sidespin are easy. But purebackspin? I'm not sure.

Edited by suds79 - 09/02/2014 at 10:25pm
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote ndotson Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09/02/2014 at 10:38pm
Thank you for this thread @NextLevel....extremely helpful thoughts. Please continue to share your revelations.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote NextLevel Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09/03/2014 at 1:32am
Originally posted by Tassie52 Tassie52 wrote:

What drives me nuts? When really good topics get buried beneath the 47 threads on which rubber will make me a hero!   

You talk about making "good contact" with the ball. What exactly does "good contact" mean for you? I know what it means for me, but I'm interested in what your criteria are. How does "good contact" differ for different strokes?

You also focus on timing and write about waiting to "lock onto" the ball before accelerating the racquet. What else is involved in your understanding of timing? I've tried to access William's video, but even after signing up it won't let me in.

I'll try to explain but in time, I'll make a short but still theoretical video about it.  It's probably best to join ttedge, and be a paying member,  and watch videos I20 and AC18, but I'll reiterate the main point.

Scenario 1

Let's say you want to hit a ball hard as an untrained amateur.  You are likely used to winding up using your hand and then swinging.  You might do a body turn,  but that is just for extra emphasis.    By winding up to gain extra power, you have created a larger distance to accelerate your hand through.  Therefore, to get to the ball where you expect it to be, you also have to accelerate your racket pretty quickly (which was the plan anyway).  However, you do have a problem - racket motion does move the air close to the ball and the ball itself might be moving slower or faster or even sideways anyway for whatever reason.  The size of your stroke will likely have locked you into a trajectory so no matter whatever happens, you will hit whatever spot your trajectory has you guided for.  If you hit the ball, it's a great shot (but not that great, as we will see in a second).  However, the nature of the moving parts (large arm swing, slow moving ball) makes the shot inconsistent if repeated over the course of a match.  You may get very good playing this way if you practice a lot as you will be able to read ball trajectories better, but even then, there are so many things that can mess up your timing (if the opponent is using pips for example, your ball trajectory predictions will often be wrong).  You may not even look properly at the ball because you are swinging so hard that your head turned away from it.  Very often, to compensate for our racket head speed, we need to close our blade to avoid overhitting the ball.  Or our mistiming just results in our missing the ball and producing bad contact.

Scenario 2

Contrast this with starting your shot late with a short backswing.  Your primary concern is making contact so you may simply block the ball.  However, even with a short backswing, you can do better than block.  You can actually hit the ball (yes, you can loop hit underspin as long as your have the right racket angle).  The key will be finding the right racket angle and swing trajectory to control the ball (45 degrees for topspin, 90 degrees for backspin is a decent start).  However, the shorter distance you need to go through to make the shot allows you to adjust things if the ball that is incoming is slower, spinnier or moves away because you haven't locked into a trajectory yet.  You can adjust until the ball is close to your racket and hit it by accelerating quickly once you have locked onto it.  And contrary to what most of us believe, because we can make good, controlled contact with the ball by getting close to it, even with a short backswing, we can give the ball decent pace and spin.  

This is not a full pro-level stroke unless you have the physical makeup of a pro (pros have better timing and can use a variety of backswing sizes once they have locked onto the ball trajectory), but it is a better way to approximate a pro-level stroke than scenario 1.  However, most uncoached (and even many coached) amateurs try to achieve pro-level strokes with scenario 1 thinking rather than scenario 2 thinking.  It is the biggest reason why some people hit no-spin balls into the net or whiff on slow, sidespin balls.  They locked into a ball trajectory and tightened their muscles way too early, rather than staying loose until they had locked onto the ball.

It's also one of the reasons why having strong elbows and wrists as well as using knees/weight transfer can be helpful - it enables you to get power (spin or speed) out of a shorter, relaxed stroke.

Another thing is that swinging too hard without the right practice and fitness can have negative consequences (flat hitting without direction instead of spinning, racket angle is inappropriate, tiring oneself out because one cannot consistently play that way).  With a slower and more deliberate racket angle, you allow yourself to figure out what works to get the ball over the table.  This slower and deliberate racket angle might not be that slow to the opponent, but it will feel slow to you.  However, the gains in control are significant.  So rather than hitting the ball as hard as you can, you can simply put it at a point where you think your opponent will have trouble with it.

This manner of playing is especially important when you are facing players who play slowly or who do not attack.  A lot of their points will come from your misses so you need to get close to the ball before accelerating hard - large swings will be tempting because of the slow ball, but the short swings will usually be more effective as long as you make contact with the right spot on the ball.    Against offensive players, it's a bit more difficult to follow as at the very least, you have to manage their incoming topspin, but it is actually almost as important because the faster ball allows you to hit the ball with a shorter stroke (sometimes a block) and have good power.

If you hit a ball into the net with a reasonably correct stroke (racket angle), it often means that you started your acceleration too early.  Starting it too late can lead to missing it or hitting it off the table, but it is usually better to be slight late than to be slightly early as the contact with the ball when late tends to be better and the extra time to fix the racket angle allows for adjustments even if the shot is imperfect.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (1) Thanks(1)   Quote NextLevel Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09/03/2014 at 1:38am
Originally posted by suds79 suds79 wrote:

This is well written in makes me want to re-explore the heigh toss serve.

After experimenting with it a while back, I had the same experience where I didn't feel like it gave me any extra spin as well.

I think were I struggle on the high toss backspin serve is where to contact the ball. Do I contact the front of the ball? Where the speed of the ball going down and my racket going up on the front side would create the most grazing motion? To me that makes sense but it's difficult to execute consistently.

I would think if I contacted the back of the ball or the bottom side of the ball, my contact would simply be too thick from the speed of the ball coming down.

clearly the high toss backspin serve baffles me. Topspin and variations of sidespin are easy. But purebackspin? I'm not sure.

Let the ball fall onto your paddle and let your arm relax.  You should graze the bottom of the ball.  That should give you plenty of backspin.  The timing and touch to graze the bottom of the ball are not easy to develop but it's not impossible.  But if you don't let the toss produce the pace and focus on grazing the ball to add the spin, you won't realize that what you need is a very relaxed and short whip of the racket beneath the ball with very little forward motion, with very little effort when contrasted with serving heavy backspin on a low toss.  My guess is that really advanced servers can probably time the ball well enough to use great effort on a high toss as well, but I am not one of them.
I like putting heavy topspin on the ball...
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote BMonkey Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09/03/2014 at 1:53am
My two cents are that a high toss serve should only be a variation to a main serve component. The main reason for this is service game robustness between venues. If you encounter a playing venue that has bright lights in your tossing trajectory or a strong draft above the table, your base service game will be compromised for something as silly as a drafty table or losing the ball in the lights.

That being said, for me the ideal contact point for the ball on a high toss serve is the point where the vertical centerline of the paddle bisects the outer edge of the sweet spot. The real key to getting the ball to contact the paddle at this spot is knowing how to control your service toss to have it come down in the exact spot you want for correct timing.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote BH-Man Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09/03/2014 at 9:46am
My rating improved form low/mid 1400s to low 1600s in a 1.5 year timespan and there was no TT. All I could do was practice serves 3-5 minutes a day in a remote lonely Army camp. BogeyHunter showed me what to do to make a short serve before I went there and I couldn't land one even 50% consistent after two months trying. It slowly came together later and helped out my game big time.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Baal Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09/03/2014 at 9:57am
Great post NL! Thumbs Up

Yes when your serves get good you really begin to feel the ball, and everything else gets better -- short game, brush loops.  Your hands get "softer".  It worked that way for me too.  Once people start to develop the touch they next learn that subtle spin variation is more important than having high levels of spin.  (When people ask, "how do I get spinnier serves", it is a clue that they haven't quite figured out yet what makes serves effective).

 The other side of the sword, though, is that until players reach a certain level, it is almost impossible for them to develop very effective serves because they can't possibly execute the fine variations needed to execute them. 

But for sure there is a pretty large class of players who are right at the level where they can begin to go down this road but who haven't started to do it yet.  I have had benefit from several coaches who are fantastic at teaching serving techniques and strategies.  One of the best of them started by asking me, "so what is it that makes a good serve?"  It turned out, my ideas about that were very much mistaken, as he then pointed out.  These days serving is the main strength of my game.

With these larger balls, I really need to put some time in serving practice because some of my stuff is less effective with them.  
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote DistantStar Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09/03/2014 at 11:28am
+1 for excellent post. I share similar experiences in finding out I was "hitting" the ball too much. It was a turning point in my forehand pendulum, which had very little spin before. But, I'm also guilty of BIG motion. It's something I need to explore next.

Videos would be great :)
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote stiltt Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09/13/2014 at 2:24pm
wow I can't believe I missed that thread for 13 days...thanks a lot for the great insight NL. 
I have problems receiving high toss serves that can be either top or underspin with very little differences in the swing and blade angle at contact --> I notice that the angle of the blade with the table plane and the height of the ball at contact (10 inches above the table) is almost all what the server needs to worry about, gravity does the rest; the swing is still there, just less pronounced and that allows the server to better hide the spin and let the receiver work harder to read it, just based on the angle of the bat at contact; so the rule of thumb that I try to apply receiving high toss serves is: 
1)get ready to loop whatever comes because it will probably be long (mostly true with people under 2200 high tossing).
2)focus at the same time on 2.1)blade angle (does the handle point to the sky? topspin is coming; toward the server's hip? backspin on the way and 2.2)point of contact with the ball. those 2 -interdependent- factors should always be enough to decipher the incoming serve.

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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Roger Stillabower Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09/13/2014 at 2:39pm
I have notice that just watching the servers blade motion for spin is some times deceiving. I try to watch the ball bounce to determine what spin. I do a back spin serve mostly but some times I will hit above center (toward top side of blade) motion looks like back spin but it is a no spin ball. And I have had this done to me before.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Fehrplay Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 09/21/2014 at 5:47pm
Great written! I would love more threads like this! 
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jackwong23 View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote jackwong23 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 10/09/2014 at 4:59am
nextlevel, what do you mean by “ locked onto the ball ” ?
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote NextLevel Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 10/09/2014 at 11:50am

jackwong23,

I mean when the ball is close to your paddle, and you are sure to make contact, ideally in your power zone.   That is when to swing faster.  Doing so when the ball is far away from your paddle often causes timing and racket angle errors.


Edited by NextLevel - 10/09/2014 at 11:51am
I like putting heavy topspin on the ball...
Mazunov
FH: TBD (MX-S, C1)
BH: C1
Lumberjack TT, not for lovers of beautiful strokes. No time to train...
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote jackwong23 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 10/09/2014 at 12:18pm
Originally posted by NextLevckaong23,</p><br /><div>I mean when the ball is close to your paddle, and you are sure to make contact, ideally in your power zone.   That is when to swing faster.  Doing so when the ball is far away from your paddle often causes timing and racket angle errors.</div>[/QUOTE NextLevckaong23,


I mean when the ball is close to your paddle, and you are sure to make contact, ideally in your power zone.   That is when to swing faster.  Doing so when the ball is far away from your paddle often causes timing and racket angle errors.
[/QUOTE wrote:




thanks for the clarification.


thanks for the clarification.
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote igorponger Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 10/10/2014 at 3:42am
MOST EFFECTUAL SERVING.





Most artful serving ever seen. I like to insert this sometimes all along a match.   90% effective.
Regretfully, my knee infirmity would preclude me from getting my ass as much beneath.   
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote Fehrplay Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 10/10/2014 at 1:11pm
Originally posted by igorponger igorponger wrote:

MOST EFFECTUAL SERVING.





Most artful serving ever seen. I like to insert this sometimes all along a match.   90% effective.
Regretfully, my knee infirmity would preclude me from getting my ass as much beneath.   

Such an amazing serve! 
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Post Options Post Options   Thanks (0) Thanks(0)   Quote HowToPlayChineseLoop Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 11/11/2014 at 5:19pm
thank you next level. i love the scenario explain :)
keep it up ! accelerate at the right spot :) not too early.

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