Rules of Table Tennis

Invented in England over a century ago, Table tennis is now played all over the world. It is extremely popular as a competitive sport in Asia. It was initially called Ping-Pong because of the sound the balls make as you hit them. This article explores the game’s history and explains everything you need to know about table tennis rules. 

The origins of table tennis

Originally called Ping-Pong, the game of table tennis was invented in England in the early 20th century. The sport began as an improvised game using a table and books for both the bats and the net. The term ‘table tennis’ was adopted in 1921 during the revival of the old Ping-Pong Associated, formed back in 1902. 

By the 1920s, table tennis was played in many different countries. In 1926 The International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) was formed with fewer than ten national members, but numbers reached 165 by the mid-1990s. 

Table tennis as an Olympic sport

In 1988 table tennis became an Olympic sport. The sport debuted at the Seoul, Korea, games and included both men’s and women’s doubles and singles. The competition has consisted of women’s and men’s singles and team events since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The postponed 2020 Olympics – which is due to be held in the summer of 2021 – will include a mixed doubles table tennis event. 

Olympic table tennis operates on a knockout format. Teams and individual players progress through the draw, attempting to make the finals and win a prestigious Olympic medal. 

How to score and win at table tennis

Before 2001, the aim in table tennis was to score 21 points. However, this was changed, and today players are aiming for 11 points. To score, players attempt to outmanoeuvre their opponent into hitting the ball off the table, into the net, or missing altogether. 

Table tennis matches are typically contested as best of 5, 7, or 9 games. This means that the player that reaches 11 points in either 3, 4, or 5 games is the winner. If scores become level at 10 points each, the first player to gain a 2-point lead wins the game. 

When a player fails to make a good serve, their opponent wins a point. A valid serve is when the ball bounces on the server’s side of the table and clears the net in the middle. A point is also scored when a player forces their opponent to miss the ball or hit it long or wide of the table. 

In table tennis, the table’s sides are ‘out,’ and the edges, or the lines, are ‘in.’ Players are not permitted to obstruct or volley the ball. The opponent is awarded a point when a player makes a double hit. 

Player numbers and equipment

Professional table tennis is played as either singles or doubles. Singles refer to matches of one against one, while doubles refer to two teams of two. Sometimes table tennis is played informally with uneven teams or more players. 

Table tennis tables are typically green or blue and measure 1.52m wide, 2.74m long, and 76cm high. The table has a 6-inch net in the middle, across its width. The table tennis ball weighs just 2.7g, is 40mm in diameter, and is usually white but sometimes orange. Players use what are officially called rackets to hit the ball, although these are commonly referred to as bats or paddles. They are black on one side and red on the other. 

The rules of table tennis 

To determine which player will serve first in a game of table tennis, a coin is typically tossed, but other forms of lot drawing can also be used to make this decision. The number of games is pre-agreed, and the first player to reach 11 points is the winner. 

Table tennis players take turns to serve, with each serving twice. Valid serves must be made from an open palm. When serving, the ball must be tossed 6 inches before being struck with the bat. The ball must bounce first on the server’s side of the table before clearing the net and bouncing on the opponent’s side. 

A lead of 2 points is needed to win games. This is why, when scores level at 10-10, each player will take a turn to serve once until one of them has established a lead of 2 points to win the game. 

After the first game, players will rotate to the opposite end of the table to start each subsequent match. The player who served first in the last match will receive first in the next one. A match refers to the total number of games being played, which is pre-agreed. In deciding matches, players switch ends of the table after one player reaches 5 points. 

In doubles, the ball needs to be hit on the right side of the opponent’s half of the table when serving. However, this does not apply in matches of one against one. The server must stand behind the end line of the table. When serving, the ball should be visible and above the surface of the table. The receiver is permitted to stand wherever they choose. 

In a rally involving doubles, partners must alternate hitting the ball. This is the case regardless of where the ball lands on the table. 

Provided the ball stays behind the end line at the beginning of a serve, it is permissible for the server to serve far outside the table’s sidelines. However, this is rarely done because it can place the server out of optimal position for the duration of the game. 

If the ball hits the net during a serve but still bounces on the opponent’s side of the table, this is a ‘let.’ A let means that the shot needs to be replayed. If this occurs during a rally, it is not a let, and play continues without a point being awarded. The opponent is awarded a point when the ball hits the net and does not bounce on their side of the table. 

Providing the ball goes to the opponent’s side, it is considered to have passed over or around the net unless it goes under the net or between the net and net post. This is the case regardless of whether the ball has traveled over or around the net when hit. Hits are invalid when they go to the side of the table, but hitting the white line is acceptable. 

When players reach across the net and make contact with the ball, they immediately lose the point. When they hit the ball in their court, this is an invalid return, and they lose the point. 

Players are not permitted to hit the ball when it is on its way to the table. Such a move is considered an obstruction whether it is hit with the bat or any part of the offending player’s body. In these cases, the opponent is awarded a point. In short, the ball should touch a player’s side of the table before they can hit it. 

A player can get the point if they hit the ball after it has passed the end line of the table without hitting the table, but they must ensure the ball’s path is not obstructed before it passing the end line

If a player touches the table with their non-batting hand during a rally, their opponent will automatically be awarded a point. The same applies if the table is moved by anything a player is carrying or wearing. Touching the ball with the paddle hand is allowed. 

Whether it is during a serve or rally, a point is awarded to a player when they hit the ball; it hits the opponent’s side of the table and bounces back to their end without the opponent touching it. This can happen due to extreme spin. 

Table tennis is well known for being a fierce but fair game. If players disagree and there is no referee – or umpire – the honor system applies. This means that players should either communicate to reach an agreement or play the point again. 

Table tennis is great fun and an excellent way for people of all ages to keep fit. Understanding table tennis rules can help you better enjoy the game, whether you are a spectator or an aspiring player. Players that don’t know the rules of table tennis are at risk of inadvertently breaking them and losing out on points. While the rules may seem complicated at first, they are easily absorbed with regular play.