Ovtcharov – M. Karlsson: when serve is not enough

The 2016 Swedish Open semi-finals offered us the chance to watch one of the best matches we can see nowadays between two European players. Dimitrij Ovtcharov and Mattias Karlsson, ranked 6th and 46th respectively [1], played hard for one slot at the finals. The latter, playing at home, had extra motivation empowered by the local crowd. Would it be enough to beat the 2012 Olympics singles bronze medalist?

An interview after the match had this comment from the Swedish player:

I had some problems with his backhand service, it has so much spin

In this article, we will analyze the above-mentioned match focusing on Ovtcharov’s serve and the trouble it caused to his opponent.

The match

The result of the match was 4-2 (12-10, 8-11, 11-5, 7-11, 11-8, 11-7) for Mattias Karlsson. The match reached the fifth set with 2-2 on the scoreboard, but the Swedish player won the last two sets with a remarkable performance. You may want to watch the full match here. Some stats about it:


As can be seen, Ovtcharov only controlled one aspect of the game: the serve. Apart from his reliability – no accounted fault – he achieved 8 unreturned serves. Let’s analyze now what makes the German player’s serve so effective.

Ovtcharov’s serve

Dimitrij’s serve is, with no doubt, one of the most special serves in the world table tennis scene. He has a variety of types, not only regarding the resulting spin but the technique used to achieve it.

We will now see some examples of them in his match against Karlsson. It will help us understand why his serve was honored in 2008 by Time Magazine as one of the best inventions of the year [2] .

Backhand sidespin


Backhand underspin


Backhand topspin


Forehand sidespin


Forehand no effect


Forehand tomahawk sidespin


In order to understand the impact on his game, we must check some insights:


Considering the 4-2 result of the match, it is surprising that 55% of Ovtcharov’s 54 serves ended up in a winning point. 40 out of the 54 serves he performed were backhand serves. And that is not a coincidence, as he had 60% effectiveness with them, compared to the 42% he had with his forehand services.

About the spin, Ovtcharov’s serves usually have a dominant sidespin, which varies from slightly underspinned to slightly topspinned. That fact usually brings him a third ball with chances to attack or counter-attack. Using an inverted sidespin, that is, anticlockwise spinning ball, makes it difficult for the opponent to avoid returning the ball to the forehand area, which again eases an attacking third ball.

Ovtcharov’s serve location is mainly at the right side of the table, usually close to the net to avoid an easy attack or a backhand flip from Karlsson. Most of the serves towards the left side of the table were longer and tried to find the Swedish’s backhand topspin, which wasn’t enough to prevent a fair good third ball due to the strong sidespin.

As a result of all these facts, he had only 1 winning return, which combined with no serve faults, enabled him to keep being competitive in a match where he did not perform well in general terms.

Not enough…this time

Such a good serve was not enough this time for Ovtcharov to win the match. However, some useful tips can be gained from the analysis:

  • Try to exploit your best serve as much as possible
  • Strong spin serves make it difficult for the opponent to return the ball with confidence
  • Inverted sidespin serves bring attacking chances for the third ball


[1] ITTF Men World Ranking November 2016

[2] Time’s best inventions of 2008


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