The Tomahawk Serve: How-To, Video Tutorial, Pros and Cons

The tomahawk serve is not a common serve in the modern game of table tennis. Most professional players seem to prefer pendulum serves, backhand serves, or chop serves these days. However, the tomahawk serve is actually one of the most powerful weapons that there is in the game of table tennis. This is especially true when it comes to beginner and intermediate players.

Serving in General

Have you ever seen professional table tennis players serving? It is incredible how much spin and speed they can get on their serves, and specialized serves have really become some effective weapons for many players. Most of the best players have developed the types of services that are really hard to return. 

Although many beginner and intermediate players prefer not to practice their serves extensively, the service remains one of the most important shots in table tennis. In fact, the service is the only shot where you have complete control in the entire game, so it is for the best if you know what you are doing.

Cropped image of bearded ping pong player serving ball

Being able to serve well can give you a huge advantage over your opponent.

Official ITTF Table Tennis Serves 

Before learning the different types of serves, you will need to be familiar with the correct and official table tennis rules of serving. So here is a list of a few of the official rules from the International Table Tennis Federation ITTF, taken from pages 36-37 of the ITTF Handbook: 

  • 2.6.1 Service shall start with the ball resting freely on the open palm of the server’s stationary free hand. 
  • 2.6.2 The server shall then project the ball near vertically upwards, without imparting spin, so that it rises at least 6 inches after leaving the palm of the free hand and then falls without touching anything before being struck. 
  • 2.6.3 As the ball is falling the server shall strike it so that it touches first his or her court and then touches directly the receiver’s court; in doubles, the ball shall touch successively the right half court of server and receiver. 
  • 2.6.4 From the start of service until it is struck, the ball shall be above the level of the playing surface and behind the server’s end line, and it shall not be hidden from the receiver by the server or his or her doubles partner or by anything they wear or carry. 
  • 2.6.5 As soon as the ball has been projected, the server’s free arm and hand shall be removed from the space between the ball and the net. The space between the ball and the net is defined by the ball, the net, and its indefinite upward extension. 
  • 2.6.6 It is the responsibility of the player to serve so that the umpire or the assistant umpire can be satisfied that he or she complies with the requirements of the Laws, and either may decide that a service is incorrect. 
  • 2.6.6.1 If either the umpire or the assistant umpire is not sure about the legality of a service he or she may, on the first occasion in a match, interrupt play and warn the server; but any subsequent service by that player or his or her doubles partner which is not clearly legal shall be considered incorrect. 
  • 2.6.7 Exceptionally, the umpire may relax the requirements for a correct service where he or she is satisfied that compliance is prevented by physical disability. 

What is a “Tomahawk”? 

So now that you know a little more about table tennis serving in general, let’s take a look at the tomahawk serve. According to Wikipedia, a tomahawk is a type of single-handed ax used by Indigenous peoples and nations of North America. It traditionally looks like a hatchet with a straight shaft. The term came into the English language in the 17th century as an adaptation of the Powhatan (or Virginian Algonquian) word. 

Tomahawks were meant to be general-purpose tools used by Native Americans and later the European colonials, and the tools were often used as a hand-to-hand weapon. The metal tomahawk heads were originally based on a Royal Navy boarding ax and used for trading with Native Americans for food and other supplies. 

What is the Tomahawk Serve? 

Originally popularized by Germany’s Dimitrij Ovtcharov and Japan’s Kenta Matsudaira, the tomahawk serve requires a certain type of technique. To perform the tomahawk serve, first, imagine that you are throwing an actual tomahawk. The serve is called a tomahawk serve because the movement of the paddle looks like the way American Indians were shown waving their tomahawks in movies.

You’ll start in a squatting position, and then you’ll lift your elbow and extend your arm outward and strike the ball with your forehand rubber. Try not to contact the ball too directly. You really want to just brush the ball to produce a degree of spin. In time, as you learn how to enhance the level of spin and understand the mechanics of the serve better, it might become one of your best skills. 

Beginner players often put too much topspin on their tomahawk serves, which can leave them prone to awkward flat forehand flick returns. This makes it better to switch between different topspin serves, sidespin serves, and backspin combinations to keep your opponents guessing.

The motion of the tomahawk serve should begin at the upper right-hand corner of the ball. You then flick your wrist around the side of the ball and finish underneath the ball. Because this motion can cover any type of tomahawk spin variation depending on when the ball is contacted, it is hard to read, which can be a real advantage.

Many opponents will not even be able to return the ball. And if they do, a poor return can give you a simple forehand smash. If you are a dominant forehand player, all you need is a small mistake on the service return to suddenly be in an ideal position for a strong attack. 

Pros and Cons: When to Use the Tomahawk Serve?

Of course, the serve has a few limits as you face better opponents. The important thing to remember is to never force your serves. If they are not working well against a particular opponent, be sure to switch to another. To be a successful tomahawk server in general, variation is key, as it is with all other serves.

But with the tomahawk serve in particular, keeping the ball short is the most important thing. Try to vary your spin and placement and serve to the opponent’s forehand with heavy sidespin topspin. This makes the ball more awkward to return. The sidespin topspin forces your opponent’s wrist into an unnatural near 45-degree angle, which makes it difficult to make a good return. 

With so much topspin on the ball, a powerful forehand return is prone to sending the ball right off the end of the table. If you are the receiver and the serve is short, move over to the right if the ball lands on your forehand side. This will allow you to play a much safer backhand shot to avoid bending your wrist awkwardly and losing control. 

Developing Tomahawk Traps 

Tomahawk traps can be used a few times per match because they can win you a lot of points very quickly. The first trap is done by performing frequent short serves with different combinations of spin. You can then follow with a very deep heavy backspin serve to bait a forehand loop. By striking the ball harder, you produce more spin. Very often, the loop return that comes my way ends up in the net.

The second trap is a fast and flat tomahawk service down the line. It is generally better not to serve to your opponent’s backhand side. Backhand flicks are much easier to perform than forehand flicks when it comes to short balls with variations in spin. So if you serve right down the line, the subsequent return is often an awkward block or drive shot, so you can move your body to be in position for a strong forehand winner.

Dimitrij Ovtcharov from Germany

Germany’s Dimitrij Ovtcharov getting ready to serve at the 2017 ITTF World Tour Grand Finals.

Step-by-Step Guide

Now that you know a little more about the tomahawk serve in general, it might be helpful to look at a step-by-step guide so that you can start using this type of service as part of your overall game.

Tomahawk Service Step 1: Getting Started 

Since this is a more advanced serve, the idea is to prevent the receiver from making a strong attack against the serve, and hopefully force a weak return instead. The serve can be performed from anywhere along the endline, depending on your preference. The sidespin on the ball will make your opponent’s return go towards your forehand side.

Keep your free hand flat, stationary, and above the playing surface and behind the endline. Your bottom three fingers should be loose to allow the paddle to move more freely when you are serving. This makes it easier to put more varieties of spin on the ball.

The amount of sidespin and topspin can be varied constantly to make it harder for your opponent to judge the amount of spin. Sidespin also makes it harder to tell how much topspin is on the ball, since the ball has a combination of topspin and sidespin. 

Tomahawk Service Step 2: Starting the Ball Toss 

Begin the service motion by throwing the ball into the air. Watching the ball as you make the toss. Raise your paddle upwards and backwards to prepare for your forward swing. Throw the ball almost vertically upwards from an open palm, as per the official table tennis rules of serving. Straighten up a little from your crouched position as part of the full-service motion. 

Tomahawk Service Step 3: The Top of the Ball Toss 

When the ball is at the top of its ascent, continue to watch the ball closely. Move your free arm down and to the side to conform with the rules of table tennis which state that the free arm must be moved from the space between the ball and the net as soon as the ball is projected. A higher ball toss will give you more speed and spin on the ball, but a lower ball toss can work too. In fact, varying the height of the ball toss is a good idea. 

Tomahawk Service Step 4: Middle of Ball Descent 

When the ball is on its way down, you’ll be in a position to perform the serve. Drop your elbow while raising your paddle. Also, bending your knees to get your body low enough to perform the serve comfortably. This is also so that you don’t contact the ball too high above the net, which can make the ball bounce too high. With your free arm now completely out of the way, your opponent has a clear view of your contact with the ball. 

Tomahawk Service Step 5: Pre-Contact With Ball 

This happens as the ball is descending and you are finishing your backswing and you are about to swing forward to contact the ball for service. Hold your paddle face at an angle, because you want to make the serve look similar to other varieties of tomahawk serves.

Keep track of the ball once it starts to descend to make sure of the flight of the ball. However, try not to actually watch the contact of the ball. Move your free arm out of the area between the ball and the net, so that your opponent still has a clear view of the ball throughout the service motion, as required by the official rules of table tennis. Continue to bend your knees to bring your body lower to the ground. 

Tomahawk Service Step 6: Contact With the Ball 

Snap your wrist forward. The paddle will make contact slightly on top and to the left side of the ball. The forward motion produced by contacting the top of the ball will put topspin on the ball, while the right to left motion will put sidespin on the ball.

This combination of spins is harder for your opponent to read than just pure topspin or pure sidespin. Since your opponent can clearly see the contact of the ball, you’ll need to create some deception by varying the angle at which the paddle is held, which will change the proportion of sidespin to topspin. 

Other deceptions can be made by changing the amount of wrist snap used, or the speed with which you move your playing arm. The amount of brush can also be varied to add to the deception. The ball can be brushed to produce some spin, but with fairly solid contact to also give you some speed. This is designed to produce a fast, spinny serve that will bounce for the first time at the back of your opponent’s side of the table.

Tomahawk Service Step 7: Start of Follow Through 

Contact the ball, which is now moving sideways and forwards towards the table. Move your paddle diagonally forwards, sideways, and further down as you make contact. Again, this will cause a nice mixture of topspin and sidespin to be put on the ball. 

Tomahawk Service Step 8: End of Follow Through 

Turn your shoulders, waist, and hips more to your left, which will reduce the amount of movement necessary to get into a neutral ready position. The ball will be moving with more pace than for short serves, since only some of the speed of the paddle has been converted into spin, while the rest was used to provide forward motion. Keep watching the flight of the ball to see how successful the serve has been. 

Tomahawk Service Step 9: Start of Return to Ready Position 

Start to return to your ready position. Continue to watch the ball and if you see that the serve caused your opponent trouble, look for an aggressive 3rd ball. If you see that the serve is not really effective (too high, too short, or badly placed), start getting ready for an attacking return by your opponent. 

For an instructional video of all of the steps we’ve covered here, take a look at this excellent tomahawk serve tutorial by Germany’s professional star Dimitrij Ovcharov. Watching some of these steps in slow motion can really help you bring them to life and make them the types of shots you can play.

Using Your Tomahawk Service to Work for You 

Many of the points that you win as a result of a tomahawk service can be the difference between you winning or losing an entire ping pong match. There have been plenty of games in the Olympics and other international tournaments that could have easily gone the other way if one of the players had just been better at serving.

To become the best player you can be, it is important that you devote plenty of time to practicing your serve alone on your own to purposefully work on varying the spin, speed, and placement of your serves.

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Riley Draper

Riley Draper

Avid table tennis player, world traveler, and content creator. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn.