The one time you have a free hit is during service. It's easily the most important part of any game. Professional table tennis rallies are on average only 3.5 strokes long. That means that on average more than a quarter of strokes will be for the service, which is why it's key to examine the styles of people better than you in order to improve. A good sidespin serve when misread can set up a third ball attack. A fast, dead ball can catch the opponent off guard and set up a flick down the line. In this list, I count down the greatest servers currently active in 2016.

Please note that just because someone is a skilled player, it does not mean their service is exceptional. Zhang Jike may be world #2, but he plays safe serves and relies on longer rallies. I'll be counting down players who play unconventional serves, particularly technical serves, and those who win many service points.

Kenta Matsudaira

The Japanese player is a master of the tomahawk serve. I recommend all new players to try and learn at least one heavy sidespin serve, and the tomahawk is just that. Best used when the opponent is not expecting is, as skilled players have no problem smacking it back.

Ma Long

The world #1 was always going to have a proficient serve. Ma Long's is incredibly deceptive. I challenge any beginner to watch the video at 1:00 below and tell me the spin of the ball before you see the rotation of the ball. The Chinese never fail to impress.

Ma Lin

The perfect backspin serve has eluded most players. But not Ma Lin. Oh, no. This Chinese penholder has mastered the ancient art of 'the ole' flick'o the wrist'. He can serve the second bounce with heavy backspin to anywhere on the table he likes and have it bounce back into the net. That's incredible. I don't know anyone else who can serve long and still have the ball roll back into the net. You only need to see it once.

Xu Xin

The ex world champion serves long with backspin to set up a loop. Xu xin's strength is in his third ball attack. Even when his opponents know that it's coming, trying to flick it is still very difficult.

Jan Ove Waldner

In the 1980s he single-handedly brought forehand serves back into popularity. Until then the metagame was focussed entirely on backhand serves, but after seeing how far he got and how many trophies he won, the table tennis community switched almost entirely to forehand serves. A man who changed the meta on his own. A true king of service.

Footnote - The Components of a Good Serve

What makes a good serve excellent? Only one thing - the average quality of the return. If I don't win many service points, but my opponent keeps popping the ball up when they try to return it, that's still a good serve. A long dead ball that won't cause weak returns but might win the point is a good serve. You don't have to get the ace to win the point. Keep that in mind always.

Written by: Stuart Johnson