Table Tennis Rules for Beginners

Table Tennis Rules – The Ultimate Beginners Guide

If you’re just starting out on your Table Tennis journey, all the different rules & regulations can be quite confusing to get your head around. As with all sports, people can get quite obsessed with the proper “rules” because they’re designed to ensure nobody is allowed an unfair advantage.

This ultimate guide has been designed to give you an important crash course in all the critical rules you need to know before playing competitive Table Tennis matches. Whilst you may not follow these all the time when practising, it’s good to be aware of all the rules people will expect you to follow in leagues and tournaments worldwide.

Most of the information provided is pulled directly from the Laws of Table Tennis (ITTF) with additional commentary based on my experience as a County Umpire with Table Tennis England.

Rules terminology you should know

Before I explain the core rules of Table Tennis, we all need to get on the same page with some terminology. This will help make sure the rules make sense for you:

  • Rally – The period during which the ball is in play.
  • Let – A rally where the result is not scored, so no player is awarded a point.
  • Strike – A player strikes the ball whenever the ball hits that player’s racket or racket hand (below the wrist).
  • Server – The player who strikes the ball first in a rally.
  • Receiver – The player who is returning the first strike from the server.
  • Game – Won when a player first scores 11 points and leads by at least 2 points.

Now we’re speaking the same language, we can dive into the rules of serving the ball in Table Tennis.

Still thinking about Ping Pong? Well, they are historically the same sport! Check out our Table Tennis vs Ping Pong article to find out more.

Serving in Table Tennis

The service is easily the part of Table Tennis with most misconceptions and the rules that are broken most regularly. I have played hundreds of matches in local league settings where my opponent has applied a very liberal understanding of these rules. You’ll often find they aren’t enforced strongly as long as you make some effort to serve legally.

There are a few key rules you must follow:

  • You must start your serve with the ball resting in the middle of your open palm.
  • The ball must be projected vertically upwards at least 16cm without your hand imparting any spin on the ball.
  • During the entire service action, the ball must remain above and behind the end of the table.
  • Striking the ball must occur as the ball is falling downwards.
  • At no point can the ball be obscured from your opponent’s view by your hand, body or clothing.
  • The ball must strike your side of the table and travel over the net before landing on your opponent’s side.

I’m sure that after reading those rules, you’re probably thinking of a few friends or club-mates who have serves that are on the very edge of legal (or maybe they’re completely illegal).

The most common mistakes that new players make are failing to throw the ball up far enough (or at all) or striking the ball above the table’s surface. If your serves struggle to meet these requirements, it’s definitely time to work on improving your service game.

Finally, it’s important to know there are no “second serves” in Table Tennis. You are only allowed one attempt at making a successful serve, losing a point if you fail to do so. If your service hits the net before landing on your opponent’s side, this is called a let and the service is replayed.

Order of serving

The serving order depends on whether you’re playing Single or Doubles in Table Tennis.

For singles (1 vs 1) matches, the player serving alternates every two points that have been scored. That changes slightly once the score reaches 10-10 when the server changes after every point.

For doubles (2 vs 2) matches, things get a bit more complicated. Whilst you still alternate servers every two points, it’s important to keep track of who is serving/receiving next. At each change of service, the previous receiver shall become the server and the partner of the previous server shall become the receiver.

Scoring a point in Table Tennis

There are many ways you can win a point in Table Tennis, with the most obvious one being if an opponent fails to make a correct return. A correct return is when a player strikes the ball and it lands on the opponents side of the table before touching anything else (apart from the net).

Most points are won in this way, by forcing your opponent into missing their return of your shot. However, we need to be aware of some additional ways you can win a point:

  • If your opponent fails to make a correct service.
  • If the ball touches anything other than the net assembly before being struck by an opponent.
  • If your opponent deliberately strikes the ball more than once.
  • If your opponent moves the playing surface in any way, or touches the net assembly.
  • If your opponent’s free (non-racket) hand touches the playing surface.

A lot of beginners forget about that last rule, where your non-racket hand must stay clear of the table itself. Unfortunately, if you use that hand to steady yourself at any point during the rally, you will lose the point.

Another point that can confuse people is that you’re allowed to “double hit” the ball as long as it’s part of the same motion. This includes the ball hitting your hand and then your racket during the course of a shot.

Take a break from learning the rules by watching this incredible Youtube compilation including 10 of the best rallies ever caught on camera:

Playing a let in Table Tennis

We earlier defined a let as any rally where the result is not scored, as well as learning that a point is replayed when a service hits the net before landing on the receiver’s side. That’s an example of the most common “let” in Table Tennis where nobody scores a point and the rally is replayed.

There are a few other scenarios where a let may be called during a rally:

  • If the service is delivered when the receiving player is not ready, as long as the receiver does not attempt to strike the ball.
  • If the conditions of play are disturbed in a way that could affect the outcome of a rally.
  • If failure to make a service or a return is due to a disturbance outside the control of the player.
  • To correct an error in the order of serving, receiving or ends.

These rules can be open to interpretation and require some sportsmanship from all Table Tennis players. You are perfectly allowed to call a let if you feel there is a disturbance that is impacting your ability to play. However, this must be with conscious awareness of your surroundings.

If you’re playing in the same hall as other matches, then you won’t be allowed to call a let for any noise coming from other tables. However, you could call a let if a ball rolls into your court or if another player moves/impacts the barriers around your playing area.

The most important rule to maintain sportsmanlike conduct is to never attempt to strike a ball before you call a let. This will come across like you’re calling a let purely because you were likely to lose the point and will be frowned upon by all other players.

Winning a match in Table Tennis

Every Table Tennis match consists of an agreed, odd, number of games. That means you can play a match that’s the best of 1, 3, 5, 7, 9, 11 etc. games up to 11 points each.

The most common formats are best-of-3 and best-of-5 matches, with professional tournaments often playing best-of-7 formats as well. The match continues until a player has won more games than the opponent is capable of winning. For example, a player wins the match once they have won 3 games in a best-of-5 match.

Changing Ends & Servers

When playing a match, it’s important to keep track of who’s serving first in each game. That’s because the person who serves at 0-0 alternates for each game, ensuring no player is given an unfair advantage.

Between each game, players should also switch ends of the table. This is because lighting and background can be different on each side of the table, so there could be an unfair advantage given by one side of the table.

You must also change ends when one player reaches 5 points in the final game of any match that is played as best-of-3 format or above. The final game is defined as the last game that can possibly be played, so the 3rd game in a best-of-3 match or the 5th game in a best-of-5 match.

Applying the rules of Table Tennis

So now you know the basic rules of Table Tennis, you can make sure you apply them to your own game. This will help you if you ever want to play in a local league or tournament as players will likely be expected to follow standard rules.

Once you start playing at a national (or even international) level, you’ll find that most matches are run by a qualified umpire who will count the score and monitor for any rules violations. If you’re ever playing at this level, it’s important you are aware of all the different rules.

However, if you’re playing with your mates in a garage somewhere or with your colleagues in a bar, you can probably go a bit easier on them. Playing Table Tennis is meant to be fun and enjoyable, which is difficult with someone monitoring every action for a rules violation. Does it matter if your friend doesn’t throw the ball up at least 16cm when serving? Probably not.

Have any questions about the rules? Let me know in the comments section below and I’ll help you out.

Featured Image by freepik – www.freepik.com

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