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RacketInsight Guide to Serving Rules

The 5 Serving Rules in Table Tennis You Need to Know

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When playing out points, most of the rules of Table Tennis are clear since they’re quite intuitive. Fail to make a proper return and you lose the point. It’s as simple as that. 

This is not the case with serves. Learning how to serve can be tricky.

Table Tennis serves must comply with an intricate set of rules. Most casual ping pong players serve illegally, and they don’t even know they’re doing it. 

Table Tennis serves generate a lot of debate between players given that some of the rules aren’t very straightforward. Table Tennis serving rules are applied by the match umpire based on their interpretation of the rules. 

Thus, misunderstandings happen quite often, since enforcement of the rules by different umpires can be inconsistent.

For example, in the Rio 2012 Olympics Women’s Final, Ding Ning lost a total of 3 points from illegal serves, even though those same serves were called legal during other matches by different umpires.

Based on our umpiring experience and summarising rules straight from the ITTF Handbook, we’ll cover every serving rule to help you serve legally and steer clear of any problems.

1) Stay behind the table

Before initiating your service, make sure that you’re behind the end line

If you throw the ball or contact it over the playing area, then it’s an illegal serve, and you could get called for it.

In addition to this, make sure that the ball is dry. After playing for some time, especially when it’s hot, both players will start to sweat, and this can get the ball wet.

If the ball is wet, rackets can’t grip it, the ball just slips. So check that the ball is dry before serving. 

2) Start in your palm

To serve legally, you will need to hold the ball behind the end line and above the height of the table. Your opponent must be able to see the ball at all times.

You will need to rest the ball on the palm of your free hand. The hand must be stationary and completely open. This is so you can’t put any extra spin on the ball with your fingers when throwing it. 

Also, remember to check that your opponent is ready before initiating your serve. Some players need some extra time to prepare themselves to receive. 

If your opponent is not ready to receive and you serve, it’s polite to call a let serve. 

Here are some clear examples of serves that fall foul of the first 2 rules:

Instead, your serve should start with the following position. Note that slightly cupped hand is acceptable to prevent the ball from rolling off your hand.

Hold the ball in your palm

3) Throw the ball upwards

After making sure that your opponent is ready to play the point, you can initiate your serve. 

According to the ITTF Handbook, you must throw the ball near vertically upwards at least 16cm without imparting any spin on the ball. If you’re unsure about how much 16cm is, it’s about the height of the net or the width of your racket.

This is where the controversy begins since a “near vertically” upwards throw is judged by the referees. Some referees are quite lenient when interpreting the rules, while others are quite strict.

Almost all Table Tennis players don’t throw the ball 100% vertically upwards, since throwing it towards your body gives your serve an advantage. It’s a lot easier to impart spin to the ball if it’s falling towards your racket.

It’s also really hard to throw a ball perfectly straight up every single time.

Whether a serve is legal or not depends on the angle at which you throw the ball. This means that if you throw the ball higher, you can get away with throwing it a bit more towards you.

According to the TTR system used in the 2019 ITTF Grand Finals, an illegal serve is one in which the server throws the ball towards themselves at an angle of more than 30 degrees. This angle is measured from the moment the ball leaves the hand until it reaches its peak.

So if you like throwing the ball towards you, try to project it high enough so that the angle of the throw is 30 degrees or less.

The main takeaway is that you don’t try to gain an unfair advantage by throwing the ball towards you. The rule was implemented so that you don’t throw the ball straight into your racket.

We recommend throwing the ball as vertically as possible, just to be safe. It’s sometimes hard to tell if our serves are legal, so you can film yourself serving and know for certain, applying the 30 degree rule.

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4) Don’t hide the ball.

While the ball is in the air, don’t hide it! Some old-school players still have the habit from times past, but it’s illegal now.

Hiding the ball was legal until 2003 and every player did it so that their opponent couldn’t see the moment of contact. This led to a lot of missed receives and shorter points because players often failed to read the spin on the ball.

The ITTF then changed this rule so that there are fewer unforced errors on the receive. 

No one wants to watch a match where all the points are one player serving and the other failing to receive the ball. So it’s now illegal to hide the ball at any moment, whether it is with your arm, clothes, torso, etc.

As soon as you throw the ball upwards, you must remove the throwing arm from the space between the ball and the net.

5) Hit both sides of the table.

As soon as you throw the ball upwards, the point starts. So if you fail to hit it or you miss the table, you lose the point. This is why you need to make sure you’re 100% ready before throwing the ball.

You then have to contact the ball as it’s falling down

If you’re playing doubles, then you have to hit it cross-court so that it bounces on your side of the table and then on the opponents’ right side. If it hits your left side or your opponents’ left side, you lose the point.

If you’re playing singles, the ball can bounce anywhere on the table. It doesn’t have to be cross-court. 

If the ball bounces on your side, hits the net, then hits the other side, it’s a let serve, and there is no limit to how many let serves you can do. 

Know Your Table Tennis Serving Rules

Now that you know the serving rules, it’s time to apply them. Check out our guide to serving, or check out this great article from PPongSuper on how to serve.

We’ve all played against players who hide their serves or don’t throw the ball high enough. Everyone knows it’s much more difficult for the receiver to return those serves.

It’s an unfair advantage, so don’t do it! 

We highly encourage you to make a conscious effort to keep your serves nice and legal, not only so that they don’t get called as faults, but also for the sake of fair play.

If you’re not much of a stickler for the rules however, you might like to see the best illegal serves you can play in table tennis.

Frequently asked questions

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The Controller

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

David's been playing Table Tennis since he was 12, earning his first coaching license in 2012. He's played in national team & individual competitions, although he prefers the more relaxed nature of a local league match! After earning his umpiring qualification in England, David moved to Australia and started Racket Insight to share information about the sport he loves.

Blade: Stiga WRB Offensive Classic | Forehand: Calibra LT | Backhand: Xiom Musa
Playstyle: All-Round Attacker

30 thoughts on “The 5 Serving Rules in Table Tennis You Need to Know”

    1. The serving rules in pickleball are very different from those in table tennis.

      In pickleball, the serve should be played with an underhand stroke and contact must be made below the waist, while in table tennis you can serve with any motion you want as long as the serve is otherwise legal.

      Also, in pickleball, the serve must be diagonal, even in singles. In table tennis, you can serve wherever you want when playing singles.

  1. My son and I were playing tonight and his ball toss on serve hit the ceiling. I called it a foul but he insisted it was not in the rules about ceilings on serve. Sadly I lost my concentration, in the middle of the deciding seventh set, and lost, the issue still in my mind.
    I can’t see any rule about false serves hitting the ceiling so maybe I was wrong?

    1. Ian, great question!

      You were right in that your son’s serve was a foul serve.

      Your son’s serve was illegal because it doesn’t comply with serving rule 2.6.2 (as per the International Table Tennis Federation rules)

      “The server shall project the ball near vertically upwards, without
      imparting spin, so that it rises at least 16cm after leaving the palm of the free
      hand and then falls without touching anything before being struck.

      In the case you’re mentioning, the ball touches the ceiling before being struck, hence, it’s an illegal serve and it’s your point.

    1. Hey Monali!

      This all depends on where the contact is made with the ball. Once the ball passes over the net, we treat the scenario like we would on any other shot in the rally. That is:
      – If the ball is over the table or before the end of the table when contacted (as a volley), the person who last played a valid shot wins the point. In this case, it would be the server.
      – If the ball is past the end of the table when contacted, the server has failed to make a valid serve and therefore loses the point.

      This rule is in place so you can’t just smash a really fast serve on your side of the table to simply hit your opponent and win dodgy points.

      Hope that helps!

  2. Is it legal that the racquet hitting the
    table at the time of service
    Is it allowed if the ball hits the hand at the time of service

    1. The racket CAN hit the table at the time of service, as long as the table doesn’t physically move as a result of the contact.
      The ball can not hit your non-playing hand during the service, but it CAN hit the hand holding your racket. In this scenario, your hand is considered part of your racket.

    1. Álvaro Munno

      It is!

      In fact, this is what you should aim for when serving short. The lower you serve, the harder it is for your opponent to attack, and thus, you gain the upper hand in the point.

      1. Eduardo Espinosa

        The table you are playing on has to bounce up the ball at least 4″ after barely clearing the net. If not, that table doesn’t fill the legal requirements and the whole game you are playing should not be taken seriously.

  3. Is there a rule that wearing Black T shirt player should not serve with the black colour rubber side? and similarly vice versa the red colour T shirt and red side rubber?

    1. Hi Sundar!

      There’s no rule that suggests a player must serve with a specific side of their racket. If you’re wearing a black t-shirt, feel free to serve with either the black or red side.

  4. Is it a legal serve if the ball:
    1) hits the server side once, but is so short that the ball bounces more than once on the receiver end?
    2) on the receiver’s end goes off to the sideline after the bounce?

    1. Hello Ping,

      1) Yes, and that would be an excellent serve, because your opponent would struggle to attack it. Sometimes, if you serve with a lot of backspin, the ball can bounce on your opponent’s side and come back to your side. That is also a legal serve, and if the ball bounces on your opponent’s side, comes back to your side, and your opponent doesn’t touch it, it’s your point!
      2) That’s also a legal serve. Anything that we haven’t covered in this article is legal 🙂

      Cheers,
      Álvaro

  5. Hi, there was a dispute about serving rules, so my question:
    Has it always been a rule that you have to toss the ball for a serve?
    Thanks in advance
    Best regards

    1. Hey Geza,

      I’ve been involved in Table Tennis for nearly 20 years and can confidently say that the ‘throw’/’toss’ for serving has been in the official rules for at least 2 decades.

      However, your question intrigued me. I looked into the original rules of the game from 1902 and found that the toss wasn’t specified in that set of rules. Clearly, it’s been added at some point inbetween.

      I’m publishing these comments in the hopes one of our other readers might be able to shed some light on this history.

  6. A friend of mine regularly catches the ball if he deems my shot was long sometimes if it’s a matter of an inch or so over the table. Is this legal?

    1. Hey Rob,

      As soon as the ball has travelled over the end of the table (without contacting the table), it’s considered to have missed and the point is over. So, your friend can catch the ball and the point is definitely still his.

      This rule was brought in because it stops people aiming to hit their opponent with the ball and claiming the point because the opponent ‘interfered’. Once the ball is past the end-line, it’s never coming back and hitting the table.

      However, too much overconfidence can lead to catching high balls whilst they’re still over the table. This should be discouraged, and you are free to claim the point because that would legally be considered interference.

  7. When playing as a three (sometimes in social table tennis one does because otherwise someone would have to sit out), can the server serve to a single player anywhere on the table. I know the single player has to serve diagonally
    but what about when the server is down the other end with a player beside him and he is serving to the single player?

    1. Hey Diana,

      There are no official rules when playing a 2v1 match, so really you can set the rules however you like. Personally, I would allow the doubles servers to serve anywhere on the table to the single player because that more closely mimics a real match.

      Nothing stopping you from deciding on your own set of rules here though!

  8. Is it legal for my opponent to swap his bat from right hand to left hand after my serve, and catch the ball in his right hand as a way of saying that he wasn’t ready for the service?

    1. Yes, it is legal, if he/she truly wasn’t ready.

      It’s the server’s responsibility to make sure that the receiver is ready before starting to serve. If the receiver wasn’t ready when the server started the serve, then the receiver has the right to call a let and stop the point.

      Alexis Lebrun has had this happen many times because he rushes to serve and their opponents have called let on several occasions because they weren’t ready.

      Cheers,
      Álvaro

  9. Hi, can you help me with the following issue?, an opponent served the ball to me which was wet, the ball went straight down off my bat and there was an obvious wet mark on my bat, is it a rule that the point MUST be replayed or is it down to the umpires discretion?, thanks Neil.

    1. Hello Neil,

      It’s the server’s responsibility to make sure that the ball is dry before serving. What you’re describing happened to me a few times and then I showed my opponent and the umpire that there was a wet mark on my rubber and they always agreed to replay the point. It’s completely fair to ask for the point to be replayed because otherwise servers could get free points with dirty tricks such as this.

      If that happened to me, and my opponent didn’t agree to replay the point, I’d talk with the supervising umpire, who would dictate that the point should be replayed.

      Cheers,
      Álvaro

  10. Hey, so I play table tennis with place that has coaches. I wanted to know If someone does illegal serves, does the player have to call it first and then the issue go to coach or is it legal for the coach to call it out too even if the player doesn’t seem to notice any of it?

    1. Hello Hein,

      If someone is serving illegaly, technically, the only one who can do something about it is the umpire. If the umpire doesn’t call the illegal serve, then there’s little you can do as a player besides complaining. Ultimately, it is the umpire who decides whether a serve is legal or not.

      As for the coaches, it’s the same thing, they may point out that the server is serving illegally to a supervising umpire in the venue but that’s everything they can do.

      This is all talking about sanctioned tournaments. If you’re not playing sanctioned matches, then it’s up to the players to resolve the matter between them. Make sure to tell your clubmates if they’re serving illegally so that they don’t have any problems when they go and compete at tournaments.

      Cheers,
      Álvaro

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