Choosing Who Serves First in Table Tennis

3 Ways To Choose Who Serves First In Table Tennis

Before starting each match, you always need to decide who gets to serve first. There are several ways to determine the serving order, and this has the potential to affect the outcome of the entire match.

Did you know that receiving first makes it so that you will have two serves when it’s 9-9 or 10-8 in the 1st, 3rd and 5th game? This is what we mean when we say that the serving order can have a huge impact on how the game plays out. 

There is no doubt in my mind that choosing to receive first has given me an advantageous position in many matches. Hence, it’s important to understand how serving first, receiving first, or even choosing sides works in table tennis to make the best choice.

We’ll explain the 3 main ways to decide who serves first and how you can make the most out of the pre-game draw.

1. Flipping a coin

The most professional way to determine serve and side selection is by flipping a coin. This is the least popular way to do it since you actually need a coin available. Plus, if you’re not playing an official tournament, the other ways to determine who serves first are more practical and entertaining. 

This method is almost too professional for casual and club settings, and it is only used in important tournaments where the umpire will use a special coin to determine who serves first.

A picture of the DHS Umpire Coin
DHS Umpire Coin

The umpire will ask a player what color they choose prior to the warmup starting. The winner of the toss will be asked what their choice is – whether to serve first, receive first, or start playing from a specific side of the table. The opponent will have to select what the winner of the draw did not choose, and then the match will begin.

For example, if the winner of the draw chose to receive first, the other player will be asked what side they want to start playing on, and vice versa.

In all my years as a player, I have never used this method except one time when I was playing in an umpired provincial tournament.

This is the only way to ensure that the draw is completely random since the following two ways are not 100% fair.

2. Which hand is the ball in?

This is my favorite method (and that of countless players around the world!).

One of the two players will roll the ball on the table until it falls down to their hands (underneath the table) and the other player will have to choose which hand the ball is in. If the other player is correct, they will be able to choose whether to serve, receive, or a particular side.

In this case, we’ll pretend like you got the choice right. If the guessing player gets the choice right, the player shuffling the ball will give the ball to them signaling that they can choose what they want. 

If you didn’t get the choice right, then I’d keep the ball if I wanted to serve first, give you the ball and tell you that I want to receive first, or tell you that I’ll choose a specific side.

One of the players simply has to shuffle the ball and the other has to choose. It’s the easiest way to do it, and it’s also quite fun.

In my opinion, this is the most practical method of all, and it even adds a bit of excitement to the match as it is essentially a guessing game.

Granted, it is not the most professional way to draw the service but in the vast majority of non-sanctioned tournaments, it is the method used, since theoretically there should be a 50% chance of success for each player.

Anyway, it’s more or less like playing a game of rock, paper, scissors before the match.

3. Play for serve

The last way to choose who serves first is to play a point out.

This is the way most casual players determine who serves first. If you play at the office or with friends, chances are that this is going to be the method by which the service order is determined.

Most commonly, the ball is thrown onto the table to start the rally, which must then last at least 3 shots. This helps stop one player just smashing the first ball.

Ever since I started training seriously I’ve never used this method, but it is quite a fun way to determine who serves first.

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How to make the most out of the pre-match draw

In case you didn’t know, you can take advantage of the pre-match draw in many different ways. 

Every small factor can make a difference. In order to understand the ways to get the most out of the service draw let’s study the ITTF Handbook.

“2.13.1 The right to choose the initial order of serving, receiving and ends shall be decided by lot and the winner may choose to serve or to receive first or to start at a particular end. 

2.13.2 When one player or pair has chosen to serve or to receive first or to start at a particular end, the other player or pair shall have the other choice.”

Serve and side selection

The player who wins the draw will be able to choose one of the following two options:

Choose whether to serve or receive first.


Choose the side they’ll start playing on.

The player who has lost the draw shall then exercise their option to choose the other alternative.

In the vast majority of matches, the player who wins the draw will choose to serve or receive first. Most players prefer to serve first.

If there is not much difference between the two sides, the part about choosing a side is omitted, but it is quite important.

Serve selection

Most players choose to serve first. According to a poll we conducted on Reddit, 62% percent of all players prefer to serve first. However, I always choose to receive first.

In case you didn’t know, receiving first means you’re going to get both serves at 9-9 or 10-8 in the deciding games (1st, 3rd, and 5th).

My 3rd ball attack is my strongest weapon, so having the ability to serve in the key points of the most important games is a huge advantage for me. In my opinion, if you have a similar style to me, it is better to choose to receive first.

On the other hand, serving first makes it so that you will serve first on the 1st, 3rd, and 5th game, allowing you to have the advantage on the first 2 points of the most important games. 

Some players prefer serving first because they feel they can impose their game from the first point in the match.

I think both options are fine as long as you choose one strategy and stick to that. For me, receiving first is also advantageous since most players choose to serve first.

This means that if I win the draw, I will always receive first, and if I lose the draw, I will receive first around 80% percent of the time. This helps my consistency since I have the two most important serves in the 1st, 3rd, and 5th games almost every match. 

I’m already used to having these serving opportunities virtually every match so it helps me a lot mentally.

Side selection

In the pre-match draw, it’s not just the service order that’s selected, but also the side on which the players are going to start playing.

In many cases, you will find that there is one side that has an advantage.

It may be that one side faces a window and the ball cannot be seen properly, that the floor is better on one side than the other, or simply that you warmed up on one side and feel more comfortable playing on that side.

The choice of side is an important factor to consider. If you have a preference for one side and you have the possibility to choose, we recommend that you do so without hesitation.

Many times I lost the draw, my opponent chose whether to serve or to receive, and I was left with the side choice. 

Most times I don’t have a side preference so I just play out the match in whatever side I was when warming up, but sometimes I have a preferred side and I do choose it.

If the advantage of one side over the other is very obvious, I would recommend that you choose sides even if you won the draw and let your opponent decide whether they want to serve or to receive, as the side can have an even greater influence on the match than the service itself.

In my case, many times it has happened to me that I won the draw, chose the side I liked, and my opponent elected to serve first, and I would have chosen to receive anyway if I had been able to choose, giving me the optimal scenario.
If you are a player who usually likes to receive first, choosing sides has quite an upside as most players will let you receive first regardless.

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The Controller
Alvaro Munno - Table Tennis Player & Author

Alvaro’s been playing Table Tennis since he was 15 and is now ranked within the top 100 in his native Argentina. He loves to compete in provincial tournaments and is always looking for ways to improve. Alvaro made his favourite memories with a racket in hand, and he joined the RacketInsight team to share his passion with other players!

Blade: Butterfly Fan Zhendong ALC | Forehand: Butterfly Dignics 09c | Backhand: Butterfly Rozena
Playstyle: The Controller

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