Table Tennis Rules and Regulations

A post entitled Table Tennis Rules and Regulations might sound boring, but it isn’t! At least, I hope it won’t be.

In this post, I will clearly explain the most important rules of table tennis and in doing so, put an end to the countless arguments 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 let’s 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 sidespin. 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 around 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 Rules

  1. The service must start with the ball in an open palm. This stops you from throwing it up with spin.
  2. The ball must be thrown vertically, at least 16 cm. This stops you from serving straight out of your hand and surprising your opponent.
  3. 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 chance at returning.
  4. 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.

The following video, taken from Table Tennis University’s Service Mastery training course, is another great summary of the basic table tennis service rules…

Doubles Rules

  1. 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.
  2. A doubles pair must strike the ball alternately. This makes doubles challenging. None of that front court/back court tennis nonsense.
  3. At the change of service, the previous receiver becomes the new server and the partner of the previous server becomes the receiver. This makes sure everybody does everything. After eight points you’re back to the start of the cycle.

General match play

  1. You have two serves before it is your opponent’s turn to serve twice. This used to be five serves each but since changing to 11 it’s now just two.
  2. 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.
  3. 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…

  1. An otherwise good serve touches the net. This ensures your opponent has a chance at making a return.
  2. The receiver isn’t ready (and doesn’t try to hit the ball). This is just common sense really!
  3. 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…

  1. The service is missed.
  2. The service is not returned.
  3. A shot goes into the net.
  4. A shot goes off the table without touching the court.
  5. 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.

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.

So, now you know the rules… What next?

I’m a table tennis coach, not an umpire. Therefore… I’m passionate about helping players improve their game!

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