Expert Table Tennis

with Ben Larcombe

Table Tennis Rules and Regulations

table tennis umpireA post entitled ‘Table Tennis Rules and Regulations’ might sound boring, but it isn’t! At least, I hope it wont be.

In this post I hope to clearly explain the most important rules of table tennis and in doing so, put an end to the countless arguments that I’m sure occur each day across the globe.

If you are a casual player or a beginner, this post will attempt to expose any and all of the mythical, made-up table tennis rules that crop up on tables the world over. I will also provide a brief bullet point summary of the basic rules of table tennis.

If you’re an experienced player I hope that you’ll find this article useful as well. I recently attempted an umpiring exam paper and despite having been playing table tennis for over 10 years… I failed. There are a few odd and hard to understand rules and regulations in table tennis and I’ll be highlighted them and asking for your opinion.

So lets begin…

Table Tennis Rules Myth-busters

During the time I’ve been playing and coaching table tennis I think I’ve heard every made-up rule there is! Here are a few you might hear and why they are nonsense.

  • “Don’t you have to serve diagonally in table tennis?”
    • Nope! In tennis, squash and badminton you must serve diagonally but in table tennis singles you can serve wherever you like. Yes, that includes off the sides of the table, if you can get enough side spin. In table tennis doubles, you do have to serve diagonally and always from your right hand half to your opponents right hand half.
  • “The ball hit you, so that’s my point!”
    • A common one with the kids in school. Sorry, but if you’ve whacked the ball at me and it didn’t hit the table, then that’s a miss. We’re not playing dodge ball!
  • “I thought you were meant to play up to 21? I don’t like playing to 11.”
    • In this case many of the older players would probably agree with you but the ITTF changed the scoring system from 21-points to 11-points back in 2001. If you play competitively the game will be up to 11, so you might as well get used to it!
  • “You can’t hit it round the net!”
    • Actually, you can. And it can be a pretty hard shot to get back. If you put a ball out really wide, your opponent is well within the rules to return it around the net. This even means that in some cases the ball can just roll on your side of the table and not even bounce! It’s very rare but it does happen. There are numerous videos on YouTube.
  • “The ball has to cross the net four times before you start ‘play for serve'”
    • I hear arguments about this a lot. ‘Play for serve’ is made-up. In a competitive game, the server is usually decided by a coin toss or picking which hand you think the ball is in. If you really want to ‘play for serve’, then just agree before you start at which point you are allowed to start attacking the rally. However, it’s probably easier just to put the ball under the table and guess which hand it’s in!

Basic Table Tennis Rules

I’ve summarised the official (and very long) rules of the ITTF in these basic table tennis rules. These should be all you need to start playing a game.

  • Service
    • The serve must start with the ball in an open palm.
      • This stops you from throwing it up with spin.
    • The ball must be thrown vertically, at least 16 cm.
      • This stops you from serving straight out of your hand and surprising your opponent.
    • The ball must be above and behind the table throughout the serve.
      • This stops you getting any silly angles and gives your opponent a fair change at returning.
    • After throwing the ball, the server must get their free arm and hand out of the way.
      • This is to allow the receiver to see the ball.
  • Doubles
    • The service must go diagonally, from the server’s right hand side to the receivers right hand side.
      • This stops you from getting the opposing pair tangled up before they’ve even hit a ball.
    • A doubles pair must strike the ball alternately.
      • This makes doubles challenging. None of that front court/back court tennis nonsense.
    • At the change of service, the previous receiver becomes the new server and the partner of the previous server becomes the receiver.
      • This make sure everybody does everything. After eight points you’re back to the start of the cycle.
  • General match play
    • You have two serves before it is your opponents turn to serve twice.
      • This used to be five serves each but since changing to 11 it’s now just two.
    • At 10-10 it’s deuce. You get one serve each and must win by two clear points.
      • This is sudden death or table tennis’ equivalent of a tie break.
    • If you are playing a best of 3, 5 or 7 (as opposed to just one set) you have to change ends after each game.
      • This makes sure both players experience conditions on both sides of the table. You also change ends when the first player reaches five points in the final game of a match.
  • A Let is called if…
    • An otherwise good serve touches the net.
      • This ensure you’re opponent has a chance at making a return.
    • The receiver isn’t ready (and doesn’t try to hit the ball).
      • This is just common sense really!
    • If play is disturbed by something outside of the players control.
      • This allows you to replay the point if your cat jumps onto the table, etc.
  • A point is lost if…
    • The service is missed.
    • The service is not returned.
    • A shot goes into the net.
    • A shot goes off the table without touching the court.
    • A player moves the table, touches the net or touches the table with their free hand during play.

Odd Table Tennis Rules

Here are a few table tennis rules and regulations that surprised me.

  • You are allowed to accidentally ‘double hit’ the ball.
    • The rules state that you lose a point if you deliberately strike the ball twice in succession.
    • Did you know this? I think it’s a new rule. What do you think of it?
  • You are allowed a maximum of two advertisements on the back of your shirt, in international competitions.
    • I wonder if they ever check to see if players have three?
    • I’ve certainly never heard of a player having to change a shirt because they have too many adverts on their back!
    • Let me know if you ever see a video with someone wearing three in an international competition.
  • The playing surface of the table can be made of any material.
    • All it has to do is give a uniform bounce of about 23cm when a ball is dropped from 30cm.
    • I’m pretty sure they are always made of wood though but I may be wrong.
  • The racket can be any size, shape or weight.
    • I’ve seen a few funny home-made bats recently from local league players. One was made of balsa wood and about an inch thick!
    • At the time I thought, “It’s fine here but they wouldn’t get away with that in an actual tournament”.
    • Well apparently they would!
  • If a wheelchair player is playing in an able-bodied tournament their opponents must play ‘wheelchair rules’ against them.
    • I came into contact with this rule coaching at Junior British League Qualifiers last summer. I was ensured by the tournament umpires and referees that this was the case and I myself had no idea, so I had to go with it.
    • I since discovered that the rules state that wheelchair service/receive rules apply simply, “if the receiver is in a wheelchair”, regardless of who the server is.

Whether you’re new to the sport or have been playing for years I hope you found that interesting. Please have a read of some of my other articles as well. If you’re new to table tennis you might like to check out my post What is the best table tennis bat for beginners?.

If you would like to have at look at the official table tennis rules and regulations, in depth, then you can do so on the ITTF regulations page. You can even download a .pdf document full of all the table tennis rules you can possibly consume. Did I miss anything important? Either serious or funny. If so, please let me know and I’ll update the post.

As always, thank you so much for reading. It really does mean a lot. If you’ve enjoyed the article please consider sharing it. I’ve made it easy for you, just click on one of the button to your left.

If you’d like to connect with me, you can do so by clicking one of the buttons up in the sidebar on your right. Or leave a comment below…

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  • Robin

    Hi Ben,

    Keep up the good work, I’m enjoying reading your articles.

    Where did you see the rule stating that wheelchair service rules apply even in able-bodied events?

    We have discussed this before so you’ll know that I find this rule unreasonable. I have seen it applied and did not contest the referee’s decision, as to do so could be misconstrued as non-inclusive.

    I just think that all players should play to the same rules and that the disabled player should not be able to claim a win against another player unless it was played under ‘able-bodied terms’.

    I thought this was one of those decisions at the discretion of the referee so would like to know where it is recorded officially.

    The accidental double-hit rule is relatively new, it was introduced before the start of last season. I disagree with this rule change. If I accidentally move the table or touch the table with my free hand is that ok?

    The previous ruling was much simpler to understand whereas now the umpire has a tricky call to make. I know this only happens very rarely but I would not like to be the umpire, or player for that matter, when this does occur at a crucial point!

    • Ben

      Hi Robin,

      It’s rule which can be found here

      “The rally shall be a let if the receiver is in wheelchair owing to a physical disability and in service
      the ball, provided that the service is otherwise correct;
      -after touching the receiver’s court returns in the direction of the net;
      -comes to rest on the receiver’s court;
      -in singles leaves the receiver’s court after touching it by either of its

      Doesn’t matter if it’s an able-bodied tournament. If the receiver is in a wheelchair these are the rules. Personally I’m not sure if that’s the right way to go about it either but there we go.

  • Carol

    Question re serving sequence in doubles using players A B X and Y.
    Assuming game 1: A serves to X, then X to B, then B to Y then Y to A.
    Game 2: Reverse above if X chooses to serve first (i.e. X>A, A>Y, Y>B, B>X)
    OR Game 2 if Y choses to serve first then Y>B, B>X, X>A, A>Y
    Correct for game 2???
    Game 3: Who serves first?

    • Ben Larcombe

      Hi Carol,

      As far as I’m aware either of your options for game 2 are ok. X or Y can choose to serve first as long as they are serving to the right person. In game three I think either A or B can choose to serve first, but again they need to make sure they are serving to the same person as in game 1.


    • Cedrik Thibert

      Serve A serves twice, than server B receive twice, than server B serve twice and than server A receives twice.. and repeat cycle.

  • David Smith

    looks an interesting site, will keep an eye on it.
    Just starting in TT, but not a club member yet.
    looking forward to be good enough to think seriously about some decent bats and rubbers

    • Ben Larcombe

      Hi David,

      Thanks for your comment. If you have any questions you can leave a message on the contact me page and I’ll get back to you.

      Good luck with your TT!

  • David Smith

    Can a serve bounce back over the net without the other player touching it, if so, is it a good point for the server

    • Ben Larcombe

      Yes it can! And if it does then it is the servers point as the receiver failed to make a return. However, in order to get it to come back the serve would need to be very high and slow and easy for the receiver to smash if they came round the side of the table. This is why you don’t see any of the pro’s doing it ;)

      • http://nope... Deepak Sudhakar

        Dear Ben,
        Thank you the insight.
        But I think as per the new rules, if ball returns in the net’s direction is a LET.
        Could you clarify…

    • Cedrik Thibert

      An ace. That’s what you wanna do.

  • Sascha

    Wow,so many clarifications needed…As far as I know the rule for double-hitting the ball on accident is allowed since a few years ago already. But then again I‛m from Germany so apparently the Deutsche Tischtennis Bund is handling different than some other parts of the world. And I think it‛s ok,because it happened on accident and you are not able to get certain advantage from it. Hell,if even that would lead to a stupid accident resulting in a lucky hour for the opponent just like hitting the tables edge,hitting the ball with the edge of your bat,with your finger and the net rollers…well,table tennis would be kind of a luck game instead of skills so to say.

    Of course it is a good way to stay at what the ITTF did with the rules for the dis-abled people. How should they return the short balls or the returning balls? By jumping out of the wheel chair? Oh my goodness…

    I don‛t know who has to serve in game 2 in a doubles match,and I think Ben is right that they can choose whoever wants to serve. But in game 3 B has to serve to Y. Because A started the service in game 1,now they cannot choose anymore but have to fill up a circle until all 4 players have made their service in a cycle. And if it comes to a 4th game then Y has to serve to whatever you chose as option in game #2,thus serving to the exact same opponent like in game 2.

    And please explain to me,Ben,the new regulation as to be ‛‛allowed to have a bat of any size‛‛? I couldn‛t believe what I read. So that means I can create a bat as huge as a chinese or japanese banshoo fan not being able to even MISS A SINGLE BALL? How about the new style that some notorious table tennis shops have in stock with some so-called Adidas Flash bats that have blue or yellow colors? Would they be allowed,too? I mean not because of the size but because of the color as I thought that a bat must at all circumstances have a red and a black side.

    Last but not least,and this is in fact my most important note/question: why do we have to play the ball diagonally during a service in double matches? The above stated reason from you that the players could confuse themselves and not have a fair chance to return the ball appropriately is kind of bull$hee‡ Sorry,but this rule is over-the-top annoying to me because I have an extraordinarily amount in store of various services and in singles I get the extra advantage thanks to them. But in double I make one clear free shot after another for my opponent,so that my dear partners always have almost no reaction time to react. I find the rule kind of dull,a left-hand player can play I think very well with this rule being applied,it won‛t affect him. But all we right-handers have our difficulties. And I mean the opponents can place themselves so that the one is behind and thus not staying in the way. The returner stays on the table and awaits the service like in a singles match and can play the ball and then move aside and the one who stood behind can come closer or whatever to prepare himself soon enough. During a whole rally in a doubles match always the danger of a mix/stumble/crash between two partners is omnipotent. So I cannot fathom why it should be different for a service act? I get it that tricky serves like the finger spin technique was banned so that a rally lasts longer than just the serve and the faulty return. And not the player with the most tricky serve but the player with the best overall skills should win the competition as is stated I think in the ITTF rules or just on wikipedia I don‛t remember. But I get those facts,but no one can tell me that there is a higher risk for two players to stumble during a double because of a service that would go to any place of the table,and that because of that the rallies would significantly stagnate and whatever.

    Please explain this last question of mine and try to give me the best answer you can. It is seriously bothering me so much,I cannot sleep at night,cannot eat properly and not even make love with my girlfriend :( See,it bothers me so much I think I‛m gonna write a letter to the ITTF and make my rant,er I mean make my point clear lol…nah,ok I was just kidding about the girlfriend thingy. But it seriously nags on me and maybe it should be changed for good (at least I hope so…›.› mrrh!).


    • Ben Larcombe

      Hi Sascha,

      Yes I’m pretty sure the bat can be as big as you like, but once it gets beyond a certain size I think it becomes more of a hindrance than a help.

      You wouldn’t be allowed to play with a bat with yellow rubbers, they must be one red and one black.

      I agree with you that the doubles service rules does make serves much less effective, and more difficult for right-handed players. I do think that doubles would turn into a bit of a farce, however, if you could serve anywhere and the opponent had to dart to any side of the table, around their partner, to return the ball. It would make the serve and receive too important and then the rallies would be very short and bad to watch. The ITTF are always looking for ways to make rallies last longer and I think changing the service rule in this way would definitely make them finish sooner, so it is unlikely to change.


      • Cedrik Thibert

        I love shorts rallies when I win them.

    • Cedrik Thibert

      Yeah as long as you don’t do it intentionnally, hitting the ball with your finger that is holding the racket is also accepted.

  • Reza

    Hi, A question about serving in doubles play.
    I know the serve should go diagonally. Now if ball touches the net and does not go diagonally, it is considered as a let or it is a miss point.

    • Ben Larcombe

      I think that would be an error Reza. It would be a let if it clipped the net but landed in the correct half of the table. I’m not 100% sure though.

    • Cedrik Thibert

      Point for opponent’s team. Has to be diagonal to be a proper serve in double.

  • TarvetKullmann

    I recently came across a match on youtube (China Table Tennis Super League 2013 – Zhang Jike Vs Ma Lin) where final set was played to 7 points.
    I tried searching for it but couldn’t find any rules for such a (lets say tiebreak set).

  • benlarcombe

    TarvetKullmann Really? Do you have a link to that game? I’ve never heard of anything like that before…

  • TarvetKullmann

    benlarcombe TarvetKullmann 

    at 4:40 is the conclusion of the match and there does not seem to be injury related trhowing of the match

  • Hogan

    Does the ball have to make contact with the receivers court before the receiver returns the ball? I can’t seem to find this anywhere. Merry Christmas and thank you!

    • Ben Larcombe

      Yes, volleys are not allowed.

  • http://none lino g martinez sr

    I was playing a table tennis game with my son today and this happened, I served to him and the ball went in the air and hit the net and bounced away without touching either side of the table. I don’t know the rules well and this had never happened to me or him before. Can you tell me who should have gotten the point, if anyone.Thank you very much, Lino G. Martinez, Sr.

    • Ben Larcombe

      Hi Lino, that would be a foul serve and your opponent would get the point.

  • emogirl

    omg cool

  • Cedrik Thibert

    I cannot do an attack (not the serve but returns) that go out on the sides of the table if I am playing a wheelchair person can I? Most probably not off course.