Table Tennis strokes

The objective and the properties of the basic strokes of Table Tennis.


There are a number of different strokes in Table Tennis that you need to master.

For each stroke, you need

  • control and consistency
  • the right spin, speed and placement
  • to know when and how to use it.

This table tennis article

  • gives you the basics, starting with some theory and definitions
  • presents some characteristics and properties of various strokes
  • does not describe how you make the strokes.

What is a controlled ball?

A controlled ball from you is a ball that you return on the table with the spin, speed, and placement you expect, given the incoming spin, speed, and placement.

To improve control, practice your strokes and consider using a not too fast blade and good quality rubbers. When you practice your strokes, I suggest you do it partly (~25%) with known, stable incoming spin, speed, and placement (for instance, using a robot), and partly (~75%) with stochastic, varying incoming spin, speed, or placement (for instance, using a training partner).

What is a spinning ball?

A spinning ball is a ball that has been brushed on its surface by a racket of high speed. An explosive stroke, with an accelerating racket, that has high speed when the ball is brushed, gives a lot of spin. The result is a spinning ball, a ball with really fast rotational speed. Add power and you get a ball that is difficult for your opponent to return.

It is important to understand that spin is three-dimensional.

The spin around the horizontal axis (across the length of the table) gives either topspin or backspin depending on the rotation direction. This spin affects both the trajectory and the speed of the ball after ball contact with the table. A topspin ball bends downwards and accelerates after touchdown, while a backspin ball slows down and decelerates after touchdown. You make the spin by touching the upper or lower parts of the ball, for topspin or backspin, respectively.

The spin around the vertical axis gives either left or right lateral spin, or side spin. The trajectory is bent either left or right. You make the spin by touching the ball right or left on its back.

The spin around the longitudinal axis (along the length of the table) gives either left or right deviation. The ball deviates left or right at touchdown (after the ball contact with the table). The trajectory is not changed. You make the spin by touching the ball up- or downwards on its left or right side. This spin is sometimes called cork screw spin.

Any combination of spin around the three axis is of course possible.

To improve spin, practice your touch strokes.

The spin is also dependent on the ball (material, make and quality), racket (rubber and blade) and floor. The plastic ball (marked with 40+) has less spin than the old celluloid ball had. A harder floor gives less spin.

Remember that spin helps to get control and control helps you to win games.

What is a fast ball?

The perceived speed of a ball, and the demands on your reaction time, are consequences of various factors.


  • The hitting power
  • The ball contact point of the trajectory
  • How close to the net the ball is hit
  • The stroke (flat hit, loop, etc)
  • Good or bad timing
  • Placement of the ball
  • How hard the racket is

You — The receiver

  • How close to the table you stand
  • How prepared you are — your ready position


  • The ball (material, make and quality), the table and the floor (the harder floor, the faster)
  • The size of the room/area
Trajectory — Ball contact points

Absolute speed can be accurately measured but it is the perceived speed that is interesting.

To improve speed, practice your strokes. Practice, for instance, by varying where and how you hit the ball, how you generate motion power, timing, and placement.

What is a risky ball?

Risk is the uncertain situation where you can estimate the probability of a certain outcome. A risky ball is a ball you deliberately strike with a higher uncertainty than normal because you hope, plan and expect a good effect.

What is a well placed ball?

If you have an objective when you aim your strike at a particular place on the opponent’s part of the table, a well placed ball is a ball that fulfills that objective. You should have such objective.

A well placed ball

  • has a target placement that is effective for your game systems and/or your tactics, and
  • is struck with precision so it is placed at the target placement.

To improve placement, learn more about game mechanics, game systems and tactics, and practice your strokes to be more consistent.

There are some generic ideas about well placed balls:

  1. A short serve should be short (at least two bounces if left alone).
  2. A fast long serve should be long (and fast).
  3. For attack strokes and most other strokes, you should aim close to, but not at, the white lines at the table edges (see the lilac aiming area in the picture below). This is a bit simplified, but simple is good.
  4. Angles should be selected to make the ball either difficult to reach, or at the crossover point between backhand and forehand, for the opponent.
  5. Only emergency defense strokes should aim toward the big area in the center of the table.
Aiming area (lilac/purple color) for all but emergency strokes

How and when do I choose the right stroke?

The best is that you have a well thought out and well trained set of game systems (or game schemes) you follow, as a base. What stroke to use is planned, a part the pro-active main plan of yours, a sequence of your game system. What game systems to use during the match is based on your tactics. You decide or revise this between games or rallies.

Using game systems, you delimit the solution space, and the decisions are easier to make during rallies.

During the rally, unexpected things happen. In choosing the right stroke, always weigh efficacy against risk. Decide immediately, half automatized, like a handshake between the spine and the brain.

Purpose of strokes

A stroke only has one of four purposes (that is, why you do them):

  1. To start the rally — the Service stroke.
  2. To get a good or better opportunity — the Control stroke.
  3. To score a winner and end the rally with a point — the Winner stroke.
  4. To save the ball — the Emergency stroke.

For all four of them goes that you make it as difficult you can for the opponent.

The four first strokes

  1. Stroke №1 — The Service.
  2. Stroke №2 — The Service Return.
  3. Stroke №3 — The third ball attack, a counterattack, or a control stroke.
  4. Stroke №4 — The counterattack, or a control stroke, or an attack.

Stroke №1 — The Service

As mentioned above, the purpose of the Service is to start the rally.

However, your objective with the Service is to (in a proposed priority order):

  1. Get the return you want according to the game system you’ve selected based on your tactics.
  2. Get a return you can attack.
  3. Get a return that is easy to handle.
  4. Make an ace.

Your success factor is that your serve:

  1. Is difficult to attack for the opponent.
  2. Is hard to read the spin of.
  3. Has a surprise effect.
  4. Has the right spin and speed, and precise placement.

Your challenges are to:

  1. Use the right technique right and get full control.
  2. Get effect of your variation of your serves and how you choose the serve depending on the opponent’s game style and the ball you want back.
  3. Make your serve difficult to read and attack. To make it either low and short (double-bounce if left free) or fast and long (near the edge).

The importance of the Service is cardinal. There is a statistically secure relationship between serving and overall achievement. Match wins are strongly related to successful Services and successful Service Returns. A player who wins points through her Service has a higher chance of winning a game, and thus the match.

Stroke №2 — The Service Return

You perform the Service Return in response to the serve.

So, the purpose of the Service Return is to continue the rally.

However, your objective with the Service Return is to (in a proposed priority order — which depends on your style of play and your technical skills):

  1. Win the point.
  2. Get the third ball you want according to the game system you’ve selected based on your tactics.
  3. Get a third ball you can attack.
  4. Get a third ball that is easy to handle.

The success factor of your Service Return is that it is difficult to attack for the opponent (for instance, is short and low over the net). 
The success factor of your Service reception is your ability to predict the opponent’s intentions and precision in the Service.

Your challenges are to:

  1. Read the Service and be prepared for a ball on the backhand or forehand, short or long, topspin or backspin or no-spin, left side spin or right side spin, or no side spin.
  2. Use the right technique right and get full control of the return stroke. Return the long serve with your strong topspin and make up for, or utilize, the side spin. Return the short topspin or zero-spin serve with topspin. Return the short backspin serve low and short or fast and safe or well-placed with backspin.

The importance of the Service Return is high. A player who wins points through her Service Return has a higher chance of winning a game, and thus the match.

Table of basic strokes

See the below table for some information regarding the basic strokes of Table Tennis. This table is my first attempt to describe the characteristics and properties of some strokes.

Basic strokes. Please comment so we can improve this table together!