Author: Kevin James, 19/02/2020
We all have played Ping Pong (officially known as Table Tennis) at some point or another. The sport is quite engaging and fun to play with literally everyone, from friends, family to co-workers. But we've to agree, playing Ping Pong with correct rules can make the game more exciting and fair.
Whether you're starting with the sport and are looking to learn the basics or you need clarification on a specific rule, this complete ping pong rule guide is all you need to refer to. The best part of Ping Pong is that the rules are quite straightforward and easy to grasp.
Basic rules are almost the same for the recreational and competitive level. However, at the competitive level, there are few more restrictions which we will explain below.
Please note that we have simplified the rules for easier understanding, which should be enough to get you going. To view the complete rules, visit the ITTF rule page.
Official Table Tennis Rules - Explained
Table tennis can be played with either one player on each side - Singles Match or two players on each side - Doubles match. While the singles matches are more popular, the real fun is in doubles. Broadly the rules for singles and doubles are the same.
In the next section, we'll be discussing the rules for each of them.
Meaning of the various commonly used terms:
- Rally - Simply put, a rally starts the moment server performs the service and ends as soon any of the players wins a point.
- Let - The rally, which does not result in a point, is known as a let.
- Fault - Failure of the server to do a legal serve.
- Re-serve - When an otherwise legal serve touches the net. The server needs to serve the ball again.
How does the game start?
The game starts with first deciding who serves first and from which end.
Competitive Level: As per the official ITTF rule (2.13.1), the game starts with the toss of the coin with two distinct sides.
Recreational Level: Players play a rally, and whoever wins gets to decide who starts. Another common way is hiding the ball in one of the hands and keeping both the hands under the table, and asking the opponent to guess is also common.
The winner can either choose to serve first or choose the side.
- If the winner chooses to serve first, then the opponent has the option to select the end.
- If the winner chooses the end, the opponent has the option to decide who serves first.
- For Singles match: A valid serve should be such that it bounces once on the server's court and at least once on the receiver's court without touching the net. There is no restriction on where the ball may bounce on either side.
- For Doubles match: The serve should be done diagonally from right half court of the server to the right half court of the receiver such that the ball bounces successfully on each court without touching the net.
If the ball hits the net while serving,
- If the ball touches the net and falls on the opposite side, then the server needs to serve again, and it's often referred to as 'RE' or 'Re-serve'. No point is lost or gained.
- Contrary to popular belief that if the ball touches the net in two consecutive serves, then the server loses a point is WRONG. There is no limit on how many re-serves that a player can do.
- If the ball hits the net and remains on the side of the server, then the server loses the point.
How to Serve
For a legal serve,
- The server should start by placing the ball on his/her palm, completely visible to the opponent.
- While serving the server should be behind the end line of the table.
- The server should throw the ball at least 16 cm above the table level without imparting any sort of spin on the ball.
- The server should hit the ball with his paddle during the fall.
What is a Valid Return?
What is a Let?
When a serve or return results in no point, then it's called a Let.
- While serving when the ball bounces once on the server's side, touches the net before falling on the receiver's side, then the service needs to be redone, and no point is lost or gained. There is no limit on the number of times the player can do a re-serve.
- During play, if there is an external disturbance like a ball falling from another court, then the service needs to be done again.
- When the receiver is not ready.
When is the point Scored/Lost?
A point is won or lost,
- When the server does an illegal serve, i.e., when the service does not clear the net, the receiver GAINS a point.
- When the receiver or the server is unable to return the ball successfully i.e., either the ball hits the net and remains on his/her, side or ball goes out of the table without bouncing on the opponent's side.
- When either of the players moves the table, touch the table with their free hand (non-playing hand) or touch the net.
- When any player intentionally double-hits the ball. However, if the ball touches the playing hand above the wrist during play, it is legal and does not constitute a point loss.
- A table tennis match is played in a 'best of 3, 5 or 7' format. Most of the international tournaments are of 7 games. The player who wins the majority of matches (4-3, 4-0 etc.) wins.
- Each game is of 11 points, with each player getting two consecutive serves before switching.
Let's say player A wins the toss and decides to serve. He wins a point and then loses a point, so the scores are level at 1-1. Then player B will do two consecutive serves. And the match will proceed.
- The winner is the one who is first to reach 11 points.
- A deuce happens when the score is level at 10-10. At this point, each player gets to serve once before switching. The player who takes a lead of 2 points wins.
Example: Let's say, Player A is at 9 points, and Player B is at 10 points. Player A is serving, and he wins the point. So the scores are level, and it's called a deuce.
- Now, Player B will serve once, and he needs to win two consecutive points i.e., 12-10, to win the match. Suppose, player B wins the point, and the score is 11-10.
- Now Player A will serve once again. Suppose Player A wins the point, and the scores are level at 11-11.
- The match will continue until either of the players is leading with two points.
- After the match is complete, the players switch sides.
Table Tennis Double Rules
The primary rules of the game remain the same, but there is a slight difference in the flow of the match.
Let's see how it differs:
- Like in a singles match, the doubles match is also of 11 points with each server getting two serves at a time.
- The serve must be done diagonally across the right half court of the server and the receiver such that the ball touches each court successively.
- After the server does a successful service, the receiver must legally return the ball. Next, the partner of the server must hit the ball, which will be followed by the partner of the receiver returning the ball. One thing to note here is that the return can be anywhere on the opposite court, i.e., it's not required to return the ball diagonally.
- After each service change (after two serves), the previous server switches sides with his/her partner, and the previous receiver becomes the new server.
The Rules of Table Tennis - Video Explanation
Here is a great video by Judy from PaddlePalace.com, explaining the rules of table tennis in detail.
General Equipment Rules
- There is no limit on the dimension of the table tennis paddle, i.e., it can be of any size, but the paddle should be made up of at least 85% natural wood.
- One rubber of the paddle must be red, and the other should be black. You cannot use any different set of colors.
- The thickness of the rubber cannot be more than 2mm for pimpled rubber and 4mm for inverted rubber.
- The rubber should not overhang the blade by a significant amount.
- An ITTF approved table tennis table should produce a uniform bounce of at least 23cm when a standard ball is dropped from 30cm above the table.
- For competitive tournaments, the rubber and the blade used must be ITTF approved.
Frequently Asked Questions AKA Mythbusters
Q: Can you return the ball around the net?
Yes, that's perfectly legal! Check the video below for some of the amazing around the net shots.
Q: If the ball hits the net post/clamp, is it a dead ball?
No, the posts are also part of the net. So, if the ball hits the posts and still falls on the opposite side, it's perfectly legal.
Q: If the ball hits the side of the table, is it still a valid point?
No. Balls hitting only the edge of the table are only counted as valid.
Q: If the ball traveling out of the table, hits the player, then it leads to the player losing the point?
This is referred to as volleying, and it is illegal only when the ball hits the player before the white baseline. However, if the ball hits the player after the baseline, then it will be considered a missed shot.
To Wrap it Up
Among all the indoor sports, table tennis has the most straightforward and logical rules. The above guide covers most of the aspects of the table tennis rules and regulations to get you started.
Please refer to the official handbook of the ITTF rule book for a detailed overview of the rules.