Table tennis is played by around 300 million people worldwide. It has an audience of 900 million – making it the seventh most-popular sport on earth. It’s overseen by an organization that has the word “federation” in its name. It’s been an Olympic sport since 1988 and the world’s top players are legit millionaires.
Not bad for a sport that’s essentially an adorably miniaturized version of another.
The point I’m getting at is that, as far as sports go, ping pong is pretty heavily regulated. There aren’t many variations on the rules, and they’re not particularly “flexible” either. Sure, you and your buddies could play without a net or perhaps choose to use tennis rackets instead of regulation ping pong bats, but if this is you, you may find this article a little frustrating.
So yeah, as you may have guessed from the title, and the intro, this article is about the rules of ping pong. Or, as I like to call it: “How to avoid arguments and having bats thrown at your head.”
Let’s dive right in, shall we?
Table Tennis Equipment Regulations
For a sport that takes place in an area the size of a moderately-priced studio apartment, table tennis sure uses a lot of “things”. Things that the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) have some pretty strong opinions about. In this section we’ll do a very quick summary of what these are.
The Table Tennis Table Surface, Frame, and Net
This is a topic we’ve actually written an entire post about, so feel free to check it out if you want more detail than the quick summary I’m going to give you here. We’ve also got a guide on choosing the best ping pong table you’ll want to check out.
- The table dimensions need to be 9 ft x 5 ft and has to be 2.5 ft above the ground.
- The playing surface has to be a single, solid component.
- There are no stipulations related to the frame, as long as it keeps the table steady and at the correct height.
- The net has to have a height of 6 inches and a width of 6 ft.
- The net has to extend 6 inches beyond each side of the playing surface.
- The net’s posts have to be exactly the same height as the net itself.
- There’s no rule governing the thickness of the table surface.
- When the ball is dropped from a height of 30 mm, it must bounce to a height of 26 mm.
The Table Tennis Bat
Your racquet, bat, paddle – whatever you want to call it – is governed by quite a few rules and regulations. Firstly, the ITTF’s official term for this piece of equipment is “racket”, so let’s stick to that for the remainder of the article.
Rather surprisingly, there are no rules governing the size of the racket. That’s right, feel free to enter any major ping pong tournament with a racket the size of a pizza – just be aware that there may be some serious ramifications for both your reputation and your ability to play. Typically, rackets measure 6 inches across and 10 inches long (including the 4-inch handle).
The flat sides of the racket’s blade must be covered with regular rubber that can be pimpled, with these protruding no further than 2 mm from the surface of the blade. This thickness includes the adhesive and foam between the wood and rubber. The total thickness of the blade cannot exceed 4 mm.
Interestingly, you don’t have to have both sides of the blade covered with rubber, only the one that you use to hit the ball with. If you opt for a blade that has both sides covered with rubber, the two sides must have different colors: one red and one black.
Lastly, the blade surface must be of an even thickness. No craters or bubbles allowed.
We’ve also got an in-depth guide to the best ping pong paddles you can buy.
Ping Pong Ball Regulations
This one’s pretty simple. An ITTF-approved table tennis ball must be perfectly spherical with a 40 mm diameter. It must weigh 2.7 grams and be constructed from a plastic material similar to celluloid. Lastly, it must be either white or orange and have a matte finish.
The Rules of Playing Table Tennis
Right, now we get to the meat of this article: the rules of actually playing the game. Let’s start off with a disclaimer. The rules of table tennis are the same at all levels of play. Professionals and amateurs are all subject to the same laws. However, some tournaments may choose to employ additional regulations. We’re not going to cover these. We’re going to have a look at the basic laws which should be more than enough information to solve any disputes you and your buddies may have during a particularly heated match.
How Long is a Table Tennis Match?
Prior to starting the match, the players (or tournament organizers) decide how many “games” will constitute a match. This is usually three, five, or seven.
A game is won when one of the players scores 11 points. Some of our older readers may be under the impression that it’s 21 points, but in 2001 the ITTF decided to bring this down to 11 in order to make the sport more accessible for players and audiences.
Just to keep things interesting, though, a game must be won by at least two points.This means that a game cannot be won if the score is 11-10. In this case, the game continues until one of the players achieves a two point lead.
Starting a Table Tennis Match
The first thing that has to happen before the game can begin, is for the players to decide who gets to serve first. They do this with the time-honored tradition of tossing a coin. It’s also not uncommon for the umpire to hold the ball in one of his hands behind his back and asking one player to choose his left or right hand. The same way your mom decided which candy you got after dinner.
How To Serve in Table Tennis
Each player gets to serve twice before their opponent is given their chance to serve. This used to be five serves, but the 2001 change we discussed earlier put an end to this. Both players have a chance to score a point, regardless of who is serving. Winning a point does not change the order of who gets to serve.
When serving, the ball must be tossed at least 6 inches in the air before it is struck. So no serving out of a closed hand. Your opponent must have sufficient chance to see the ball before it is served. The ball must also be held in your open palm before it is tossed in the air. This prevents sneaky players from putting spin on the ball with their hand.
The ball must be tossed and struck from above and behind the edge of the table. It is also the server’s responsibility to keep their free arm out of the ball’s line of sight to ensure that the receiver has a clear view of the incoming ball.
There are no rules governing how the ball can be struck during a serve. As long as it’s with the designated hitting surface of the racket’s blade.
When serving, the ball must bounce once on the server’s side of the table, and once on the opponent’s side. If it bounces twice on the opponent’s end, the server wins a point.
In a singles match, there are no rules governing the angles at which the ball can be served. It can travel to any side of the table and it is permitted to serve the ball towards the side of the table. There’s a common misconception that the ball must pass over the end of the receiver’s side of the table. This isn’t true – a legal serve can pass over the side of the table at the receiver’s end.
If the ball clips the net during a serve and still somehow manages to bounce on the other side, this is called a “let serve”. No points are scored if this happens and the serve is retaken. There are no limits on the consecutive number of let serves. If you have the ability, and your priority is to irritate your opponent rather than enjoying a proper match, feel free to serve as many of these as you want.
If the ball strikes the net and bounces back to the server’s end, the receiver immediately gets a point. There is no “second serve” like in tennis. No second chances in the cutthroat world of ping pong serving, buddy.
Scoring Points in Table Tennis
Once the serve is over with, the point gets underway. This is referred to as the “rally”. Players strike the ball from any position so that it flies over the net and bounces on the opponent’s side of the table. If the ball strikes any part of the table, it is a legal shot, even the edges. However, the vertical sides of the table are off limits. The ball has to make contact with any part of the table’s flat surface.
A player wins a point if any of the following things happen to the opponent during play:
- They cannot return a shot.
- Their shot hits the net and bounces back their side of the table.
- Their shot does not bounce on the opponent’s end of the table.
- Their shot bounces on their side of the table first.
- Their body makes contact with the table so that it moves.
- They touch the table, or net, in any way with their free hand.
- They deliberately strike the ball twice with their racket. An accidental double-strike is allowed.
- They hit the ball without it bouncing on their side of the table first. Volleys are not allowed in ping pong.
During a rally, the ball is permitted to clip the net and bounce over onto the other side of the table. This is obviously a massive advantage for the player who hit the ball, but the opponent will just have to live with the disappointment if they lose a point as a result.
Some Common Table Tennis Rule Misconceptions Debunked
- A player is allowed to hit the ball around the side of the net, as long as it results in a legal shot otherwise. This is obviously incredibly hard to do and the ITTF feels that this godlike move deserves not to be punished.
- The ball can bounce twice on the opponent’s end of the table. If it does, the striker wins a point. This also applies to serving.
- If a player hits the ball straight into their opponent’s body without bouncing on the table first, the striker does not win the point.
- If the ball passes over the end of the opponent’s side of the table without bouncing, the opponent wins a point, even if the opponent hits the ball back with their racket.
The Rules of Doubles Matches
To keep things simple, we’re going to discuss this section purely as exceptions to the above rules. If it’s not included as a rule below, all the other rules above apply to a doubles match.
In a doubles match, the serve must travel diagonally from the serving “quarter” of the table – which is marked by the line running down its center – to the quarter diagonally opposite it. Basically, the ball must traverse both the net, and the center of the table’s length.
The serve is always taken from the server’s right-hand side of the table and it must be struck to the right-hand side of the receiver’s side of the table. This applies to left-handed players too.
The sequence of serving and receiving is a little complicated, so stay with us here. The team serving first chooses which player will do so, and the opposing team decides who will receive the serve. The server serves twice to the same receiver.
At the end of the two serves, the player who was the receiver becomes the server and serves to the previous server’s partner. This sequence is maintained throughout the remainder of the game.
At the end of the game, the sequence is reversed. The team who was on the receiving end during the first game decides who will serve, but the receiver is automatically the player whom they didn’t serve to in the previous game. This reversal of server/receiver sequence is maintained throughout all the games in the match.
Still with us? Still conscious after all of that? Great! Let’s move on.
If the ball touches the 3 mm-wide center line, it is a legal serve. The umpire is ultimately the person who makes this call. If you’re playing without one, you may have to come up with some other method of arbitration. We recommend an arm-wrestling match.
Once the rally starts, the player who strikes the ball must alternate after every shot. Once one player has hit the ball, they must make way for their partner to step in and do the same. Playing out of this order immediately awards a point to the other team.
Some Final Words
Not everyone who takes table tennis seriously has access to a qualified, unbiased umpire. Rules aren’t always possible to interpret correctly and disputes will happen.
Our advice is to be the bigger person. You’re playing a game. Enjoy it. If your opponent continues to claim a dodgy point, letting them have it is always a better option than losing your cool.
You may lose the game or the match as a result, but you’ll be winning at life.
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