Table tennis is a unique sport in the sense that matches could theoretically go on forever. There is no time limit, and if the players never reach at least a 2 points difference in a game, the match will never end.
Close matches tend to be quite long, whilst one-sided matches are usually very short. Hence the typical table tennis banter, to invite your friends to play and tell them “don’t worry, it’ll just take 5 minutes”.
However, you can roughly tell how long a match will take. This is determined by many factors, with the most obvious being the number of games played.
Lots of other factors also influence the length of matches, such as the players’ playstyles and their level. Even the size of the playing area can affect how long the match will take, as players will have to walk a longer distance to get the ball.
Most table tennis matches will last between 10 and 35 minutes.
We are now going to explain all the factors that affect how long a table tennis match takes, and why some matches can drag on for too long or end very quickly.
How long does the average table tennis point last?
This is a complicated subject. Determining how long the average point lasts isn’t as hard, but it is difficult to determine how much time passes between the beginning of one point and the beginning of the next.
The average table tennis rally is short, the players will usually return the ball a combined total of between 2-6 times, so the average point generally lasts between 2 and 3 seconds. This also depends on the playing style of both players.
If you’ve ever seen a match between two defensive players, they’ll just push the ball back and forth, so these games are going to be a lot longer than those played by two offensive players.
This was the case for the longest professional match rally ever recorded. Li Jie and Hitomi Sato hit the ball back and forth a combined total of 766 times (yes, you read that right) in a point that lasted 10 minutes and 13 seconds.
This point was longer than many 3-set matches, and the tremendous battle came to an end when a ball from another table entered the playing area. The umpire called “let, ” so the point had no effect on the match.
Here’s the full rally. Get your popcorn ready!
There’s also the amazing story of the first point in the match between Paneth Farkas and Alojzy Ehrlich in the 1936 World Table Tennis Championships. This single point allegedly lasted 2 hours and 12 minutes. After 70 minutes of play, Ehrlich switched hands.
After two hours, Farkas began having trouble receiving the ball as his arm lost mobility, and he lost the first point. They also had to substitute the umpire, Gábor Diner because his neck got cramped up.
However, we have no official evidence except the accounts of those present, which were turned into articles.
Without these exceptions, it’s often the time between points that takes a massive portion of time, rather than the points themselves.
If you are playing a match for fun, you may get the ball quickly and want to play the next point as fast as possible. In this case, the time between points will be between 5 and 15 seconds.
Some balls will go into awkward places after being hit, other times the ball land on the playing area of other tables and you will have to wait for it to be returned, etc.
But let’s say it takes 10 seconds, on average. This will give us a time of 13 seconds if we add up the point and the time between the points.
Now, if you are playing an important game, you will probably do a routine between points, taking more time to focus and think about your tactics. This is seen mostly in intermediate levels of play and upwards.
Professional players usually take the most time to concentrate and think. At 10-9 in the third game of the 2017 World Cup match, a very important point, Ma Long took 33 seconds before serving against Timo Boll.
We estimate that in official matches the total time per point is around 20 seconds, 3 for each point and 17 on average for the time between points.
In addition, in official matches, table tennis rules allow players to use their towel every 6 points, so there will be around 10 or 20 additional seconds per game each time the score reaches a multiple of 6.
How long does the average game last?
This very much depends on whether you are playing a game seriously or if you are playing a game just for fun. Another factor to consider is time-outs. If the players use theirs, you have to add 2 more minutes to the game total.
It also depends on how many points are played per game. If 16 points per game are played (a game that ends 11-5), the game will last between 3 and 7 minutes. If 24 points per game are played (a game that ends 13-11), the game will last between 5 and 9 minutes.
That means the average game lasts around 5 or 6 minutes.
It will last less if it is very one-sided or if the time between points is minimized, and it’ll take much longer if the towel is used, the time between points is maximized and time-outs are used.
3 game matches or 5 game matches
If we take average games of between 5 and 6 minutes, an average 3-game match will last between 10 and 20 minutes, depending on whether all 3 games are played or only 2 are played.
A 5-game match, meanwhile, is going to last between 15 and 25 minutes on average, depending on the same factors we discussed above.
Important matches can last longer, sometimes lasting between 30 and 35 minutes, taking the two timeouts, the minute of coaching between games, the routines between points, and the towel every 6 points.
One-sided or fast-paced matches, on the other hand, can end very quickly
What happens if a game goes over 10 minutes?
A game that lasts more than 10 minutes is considered exceptionally long.
For these games, the expedite system shall come into play. However, there have been instances where games have lasted longer than 10 minutes and the expedite system was not implemented.
It depends a lot on the judgment of the umpire, but the expedite system has only been used a handful of times on the professional circuit.
In the expedite system, each player or pair will serve once per turn instead of twice in a row, and if the receiving player can return the ball 13 times in a row, they score a point. This new set of rules shall be used until the end of the match.
This match between Feng Tianwei and Park Mi Young is one of the rare instances in which we got to see it into play:
This rule was made to address those matches we mentioned at the beginning. Those seemingly endless matches between two defenders or an offensive player and a defender who can return all of the attacks.
The 13 return rule was implemented so that when the defensive player is serving, they have to score a point before their opponent returns the ball 13 times in a row. That is, they will have to compromise their opponent in some way to win the point before the count gets to 13.
This gives the match more dynamism, and it is quite interesting to see it every once in a while since the umpire has to say the number of returns out loud while the point is going on.
But again, it’s not something that happens often, and there have been instances of games where the system should have been applied and it wasn’t.
The longest table tennis match ever
The longest official match in the history of table tennis is supposedly the match between Ni Xialian and Honoka Hashimoto, a 7-game contest that lasted 1 hour, 32 minutes, and 44 seconds. In this game, the expedite system was used.
However, if the Paneth Farkas and Alojzy Ehrlich story is true, 1 single point lasted longer than this entire match.
If we were to take unofficial matches into account, we’d probably have to measure their length in days, rather than hours. The longest rally in history lasted 11 hours, 50 minutes, and 36 seconds. Imagine a game with points as long as that!
The shortest table tennis match ever
The shortest table tennis matches are not as popular as the longest matches. They are games in which one player beats another by such a large margin that the game never gets interesting.
However, I’m positive that I know what the fastest 7-game match in the history of the sport must be, and it happened at the Olympics.
Caroline Kumahara defeated Yasmin Hassan Farah 4 games to 0 in just 13:20 minutes, the length of a typical 3-game match.
The duration of each game was very short. If we take out the time between games, which totals 3 minutes 39 seconds, each game lasted only 2 minutes 25 seconds.
If we were to think of a match as one-sided as this one but only 5 games long, it would last 9 minutes and 40 seconds. Surely this has happened and possibly faster matches have been played that we don’t know about.
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!