Five-Ring Circus

Why Do Olympic Table Tennis Players Toss the Ball So High When They Serve?

Li Xiaoxia
Li Xiaoxia of China in action during day three of the ITTF Pro Tour Table Tennis Grand Finals.

Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

If you’re not watching the men’s and women’s team table tennis competition this weekend, I don’t know what’s wrong with you. It’s got everything you’d want in an Olympic sport: fast-paced action, feats of stamina and precision, and people tossing balls really, really high in the air. A ping pong watcher can’t help but notice that a lot of the top pros fling the ball up to the heavens before serving. Why do they fling the ball so high?

Teodor “Doru” Gheorghe, the coach for the U.S. women’s table tennis team, told me that ball-tossing is less a matter of strategy than of the player’s personal style, and the style of the coaches with whom the players have trained. “Each player [finds] the right [height] to toss the ball according to his game and skills,” wrote Gheorghe in a quick email from London. “Some like to toss it higher some not.”

Tossing the ball higher can help a player put more spin on her serve. Gheorghe notes that a well-tossed ball builds velocity on its descent, which can help a player impart more topspin, backspin, or sidespin. But the amount of spin on the ball also depends on the motion of your paddle.

American Ariel Hsing—the teenager and billionaires’ pal who made it to the third round in singles before losing a tight match to eventual gold medalist Li Xiaoxia—starts her serve with her back facing the table. After tossing the ball into the air, she twists around, squares up, and hits. I thought she was trying to get some extra torque behind her serve, or something. (I always assume that sports strategy comes down to torque.)

But Gheorghe, her coach at the London Games, explained that Hsing was just trying to keep her spin secret. “The players are trying to hide or not reveal the motion of the paddle,” he told me. Professionals pay close attention to the motion of their opponent’s paddle and the spin of the ball in order to position themselves for a return shot. As such, the server will go to great lengths to deceive, just as a baseball player tries to hide the ball before letting fly to the plate.

Hsing’s twist makes it harder for her opponent to pick up the spin. This also explains why Li tosses the ball high in the air and then, on its descent, contorts herself so it appears she’s hitting the ball with her head. She’s not spastic, she’s just being strategic.