Table Tennis, also known as Ping Pong (though they are now different sports!) is an Olympic discipline in which players hit a lightweight ball back and forth until one of the players can’t return the ball successfully, as per the sport’s ruleset.
As the sport evolved, so has its scoring system. We’re going to cover everything you need to know about table tennis scoring rules and answer any questions you may have.
This guide is useful for anyone from playing in your living room, to organising a ping pong tournament at work.
Table of Contents
- Earning a Point in Table Tennis
- Winning a Match in Table Tennis
- Hitting The Ball
- Serving Legally
- Unusual Ways to Lose a Point in Table Tennis
- Frequently Asked Questions
- How many points are there in a game? Is ping pong played to 11 or 21?
- How many sets do you have to win in Table Tennis?
- What could be the final score to end the set in table tennis?
- What happens if the ball hits the net, or goes around the net?
- How many let serves are allowed in table tennis?
- Can I win a point on my opponent’s serve?
- Do I lose the point if I hit the ball twice unintentionally?
- What should I do if another ball rolls into my court and distracts me?
- What do you say when you win a point in table tennis?
Earning a Point in Table Tennis
In Table Tennis, a point is awarded to a player when the opponent can’t return the ball onto their opponent’s side of the table.
A point is also awarded to a player when the opponent fails to make a correct service. A player can only win one point at a time, regardless of who is serving.
When presented with these basic rules, players have interpreted them in different ways and this has led to the variety of playstyles we can find in today’s game. Some players like to blast balls through their opponent, not even letting them touch the ball (i.e. forcing their opponents not to return the ball correctly), while others prefer to minimize mistakes and keep the point alive (i.e. concentrating on returning the ball correctly as much as possible).
Both ways of thinking about the rules are viable. We suggest having a balanced game, in which you have the means to force errors from your opponent while minimizing your own.
Winning a Match in Table Tennis
The player to win a match is the one who gets to an agreed, odd number of games. Most commonly, table tennis games are played to the best of 3 or 5 games. When it comes to more important matches such as those in the Olympics singles event this is increased to the best of 7 games.
A player will win a match when he’s won more games than the opponent could get. For example, if a game is played to the best of 5 and a player gets to 3 games, he will win, because the most his opponent could get is two.
The player who gets to 11 points and has at least 2 points of difference with his opponent, will win the game (also known as set). If both players have 10 points, then the first player to get a 2 point lead will win the game, and starting from 10-10, the server will be changed every point, instead of every 2 points.
The game could theoretically go on forever if the players failed to get a 2 point lead. Some tournaments & leagues do have additional rules in place to end a game once a player reaches 21 points to save time.
Hitting The Ball
Players can hit the ball with their racket or with their hand below the wrist. It’s valid to hit the ball with your hand, provided that it’s the racket hand. You can’t hit the ball with your other hand.
If you drop your racket, you no longer have a racket hand, so you can’t hit the ball with it. In that case, you’d have to pick it back up to continue playing the point. The concept of “racket hand” is dynamic, so you can switch the racket hand at any given moment. Let’s watch a video of Timo Boll putting this rule into action!
It’s perfectly legal to hit the ball around the net, as long as it doesn’t hit the side of the table. If you clip the edge of the table, then it’s your point, but if you hit the side, then it’s your opponent’s.
If you involuntarily hit the ball twice, then the point goes on. It’s only illegal to hit the ball twice voluntarily. So, for example, if it hits your hand and then the racket in one motion it’s perfectly legal.
If the ball has passed over the end line on your side, you can hit or grab the ball and the point will be awarded to you. This comes in quite handy so that you don’t have to chase after the ball all the time.
Each player will serve twice per turn unless the score is 10-10 or past 10-10. To serve legally, players must hold the ball in their palm and throw it at least 16cm high, near vertically upwards, and the ball’s flight path must be seen from its projection until the moment it’s struck by the server. The ball can’t be hidden at any moment.
As the ball is coming down, the player must strike the ball so that it bounces once on his half of the table and once on the opponent’s side.
If a player were to serve illegally, the umpire will halt the point and award it to the receiver. If there’s no umpire in the match you’re playing and your opponent is serving illegally, we suggest you tell them so that the opponent doesn’t gain an unfair advantage. It’s very important to practice your serves and make sure they’re legal.
Players may serve anywhere on the table in singles, but you must serve from your right half to your opponent’s right half in doubles. Failing to do so will result in an incorrect serve, losing the point.
We have more detail on serving rules in our beginners guide to table tennis rules.
Unusual Ways to Lose a Point in Table Tennis
There are some slightly obscure ways you can lose a point. These are rarely broken in the professional game, although you’re likely to see players breaking these rules locally.
- You can’t touch the table with your non-racket hand. If you do, then you lose the point.
- You will lose the point if you move the table with your legs or your hips.
- You will lose a point if you’re shown a yellow and a red card.
- You will lose the point if the ball touches you or your clothing before you strike it.. Make sure to interrupt play and tell the opponent that the ball has touched your clothing and that it’s his point.
- You will lose a point if you serve incorrectly or illegally.
It’s worth keeping these in mind when you’re playing to ensure you’re following the correct table tennis rules.
Frequently Asked Questions
I’ll quickly answer the most common questions we get from players around the world about the table tennis scoring rules.
How many points are there in a game? Is ping pong played to 11 or 21?
Table Tennis games are currently played to 11 points. But it wasn’t always this way. Up until 2001, Table Tennis was played to 21 points, so that’s why there’s still some confusion regarding the scoring system.
How many sets do you have to win in Table Tennis?
More than your opponent could win. For example, if you play to the best 3 sets, the player who gets to 2 sets will win the match. If you play to the best of 5 sets, then you have to win 3 sets to win the match.
What could be the final score to end the set in table tennis?
Most sets end at 11, but if the score gets to 10-10, then the match could theoretically go on forever since players need to have a 2 point difference to close out the game.
In the Rio 2016 Olympics, Dimitrij Ovtcharov lost the first set against Bojan Tokic 33-31, then came back to win 31-33, 12-10, 11-5, 11-4, 11-7. Talk about mental strength!
What happens if the ball hits the net, or goes around the net?
If the ball clips the net during play, then nothing! However, it is part of the sport’s etiquette to gesture or say that you’re sorry for winning points out of nets or edges. It’s legal to hit the ball around the net, and it’s also very cool!
If the ball hits the net when serving, then it’s a let, and the server has to serve again.
How many let serves are allowed in table tennis?
There is no limit to the number of let serves allowed. The server can serve indefinitely.
Can I win a point on my opponent’s serve?
If your opponent serves incorrectly or illegally, then you win the point. If it hits the net and then your side, it’s a let serve and he gets to serve again.
You can always win a point no matter who is serving.
Do I lose the point if I hit the ball twice unintentionally?
No. The point goes on. You’ll only lose the point if you double hit intentionally.
What should I do if another ball rolls into my court and distracts me?
You have the right to stop the point and play it again. Raise your hand and don’t strike the ball, then return the ball to the other table. The ITTF handbook states that:
“Play may be interrupted because the conditions of play are disturbed in a way which could affect the outcome of the rally”
There are many situations in which this rule may come into play. For example, if you’re receiving, you hit the ball and it was wet, then you can ask to re-play the point since it’s the server’s responsibility to keep it dry (condition of play was disturbed because of the ball being wet)
What do you say when you win a point in table tennis?
Some players like to pump themselves up after winning a point, so you’ll sometimes hear them say “cho!” or “come on!”. It’s perfectly fine to do so. If you win your point out of a net or an edge, then you should say sorry. Also, make sure that either you, your opponent or an umpire is keeping count of the points out loud so that there are no misunderstandings.
Alvaro’s been playing Table Tennis since he was 15 and is now ranked within the top 200 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: Tibhar Stratus Power Wood | Forehand: Rakza Z | Backhand: Rakza 7 Soft
Playstyle: Forehand Looper