How to Serve Legally in Table Tennis / Ping-Pong

01
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Start of the Service - Law 2.6.1

Photo of Ways to Hold the Ball Before Service
Correct and Incorrect Ways to Hold the Ball Before Serving. © 2007 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

The serve is one of the most important strokes in table tennis - after all, every rally has to start with a service! Unfortunately, the service rules are also one of the most complex areas of ping-pong, and are subject to change on a regular basis as the ITTF try to find the ideal service laws.

In this article, I'll walk you through the current service rules, and explain how to follow them properly and serve legally. I'll update the content as any new changes to the service laws are introduced, so you can be confident that you are always getting up to date information.

In the Laws of Table Tennis, Law 2.6.1 states

2.6.1 Service shall start with the ball resting freely on the open palm of the server's stationary free hand.

In the accompanying photograph, you can see a number of incorrect methods of holding the ball prior to starting the toss.

  • The top right method is illegal, since the ball is resting on the fingers of the free hand, not the open palm.
  • The bottom left method is illegal, since the ball is being held in the fingers themselves.
  • The bottom right method is illegal, since the palm is not open, but cupped. The ball is not resting freely, but is held in place by the fingers and bottom of the palm.
  • The top left method is legal, since the palm is open and flat, allowing the ball to rest freely. Note that even though the thumb is over the table, the ball is still held behind the endline - so this does not make the serve illegal (I will explain this in more detail later).

The free hand must also be stationary when beginning the serve, so it is illegal for a player to pick up the ball and throw it into the air for service, without pausing to hold the free hand stationary before tossing the ball.

Video - Explanation of Law 2.6.1 - 5MB, 640x480 pixels
Video - Can You Serve With Your Hand Over the Table? - 2.9MB, 640x480 pixels

Intention of this Service Law

The main intention of this service law is to ensure that the ball is thrown into the air with no spin. Because the ball is not allowed to be gripped during the service, it is difficult to put spin on the ball without the umpire noticing and calling a fault.

02
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The Ball Toss - Law 2.6.2

Diagram of The Ball Toss - Legal and Illegal Examples
The Ball Toss - Legal and Illegal Examples. © 2007 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

In the Laws of Table Tennis, Law 2.6.2 states:

2.6.2 The server shall then project the ball near vertically upwards, without imparting spin, so that it rises at least 16cm (6.3 inches) after leaving the palm of the free hand and then falls without touching anything before being struck.

The above Law ties in with Law 2.6.1, in that it specifically states that the ball shall be thrown up without imparting spin on the ball.

The requirement that the ball must be thrown up at least 16cm after leaving the palm of the free hand has a couple of consequences, one being that the ball must go up at least that distance, so simply moving your free hand up high and allowing the ball to drop more than 16cm is not allowed. This is why the bottom right service method in the diagram is illegal, since the ball has not risen more than 16cm, even though it is allowed to fall more than 16cm before being struck. Note, however, that provided the ball does get thrown up 16cm, it does not have to fall the same amount before being hit. If the ball has been thrown up the required amount, it can then be struck as soon as it starts falling (but not before, as I discuss on the next page).

The requirement that the ball must be thrown near vertically upwards often is interpreted differently by different umpires. Some players will also argue that a ball toss of around 45 degrees to the vertical is "near vertical". This is not correct. According to Point 10.3.1 of the ITTF Handbook for Match Officials, "near vertical" is with a few degrees of a vertical throw.

10.3.1 The server is required to throw the ball "near vertically" upwards and it must rise at least 16 cm after leaving his hand. This means it must rise within a few degrees of the vertical, rather than within the angle of 45° that was formerly specified, and that it must rise far enough for the umpire to be sure that it is thrown upwards and not sideways or diagonally.

This is why the service shown in the bottom left of the diagram is considered illegal - it is not a near vertical ball toss.

Video - Explanation of Law 2.6.2 - 10MB, 640x480 pixels
320x240 pixels version - 4.3MB

03
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The Ball Toss Part 2 - Law 2.6.3

Diagram of The Ball Toss Part 2 - Hitting the Ball on the Way Up
The Ball Toss Part 2 - Hitting the Ball on the Way Up. © 2007 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

In the Laws of Table Tennis, Law 2.6.2 states:

2.6.2 The server shall then project the ball near vertically upwards, without imparting spin, so that it rises at least 16cm (6.3 inches) after leaving the palm of the free hand and then falls without touching anything before being struck. In the Laws of Table Tennis, Law 2.6.3 states:

2.6.3 As the ball is falling the server shall strike it so that it touches first his court and then, after passing over or around the net assembly, touches directly the receiver's court; in doubles, the ball shall touch successively the right half court of server and receiver.

I have bolded the parts of Law 2.6.2 and 2.6.3 that are of interest here, which relate to the fact that the ball must be allowed to start falling before it can be struck. The accompanying diagram illustrates this type of illegal serve, where the ball has been hit while it is still rising.

It can be difficult for an umpire to tell if a ball has been struck just before it has stopped rising, or if it has been struck at its peak. In this case, the umpire should warn the server that he must allow the ball to fall, and if the server once again hits the ball so that the umpire is not sure if the ball has started falling, the umpire should call a fault. This is according to Laws 2.6.6.1 and 2.6.6.2, which state:

2.6.6.1 If the umpire is doubtful of the legality of a service he may, on the first occasion in a match, declare a let and warn the server.

2.6.6.2 Any subsequent service of doubtful legality of that player or his doubles partner will result in a point to the receiver.

Remember, he umpire does not have to warn a player before calling a fault. This is only done where the umpire is doubtful about the legality of the serve. If the umpire is sure the serve is a fault, he is supposed to call a fault straight away. This is according to Law 2.6.6.3, which states:

2.6.6.3 Whenever there is a clear failure to comply with the requirements for a good service, no warning shall be given and the receiver shall score a point.

04
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Hitting the Ball Over the Net - Law 2.6.3

Diagram of Hitting the Ball Over the Net
Hitting the Ball Over the Net. © 2007 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

In the Laws of Table Tennis, Law 2.6.3 states:

2.6.3 As the ball is falling the server shall strike it so that it touches first his court and then, after passing over or around the net assembly, touches directly the receiver's court; in doubles, the ball shall touch successively the right half court of server and receiver.

The diagram illustrates the case of serving in singles. The server must hit the ball so that it hits his own court first (the table on his side of the net), and then the ball can go over or around the net before hitting the table on his opponent's side of the net.

This means that it is technically legal for a server to serve around the side of the net assembly, provided he can curve the ball enough to bring it back on to his opponent's court. This is by no means an easy serve to perform - since the net post is supposed to project 15.25cm outside the side line! (According to Law 2.2.2)

Note that there is no requirement that the serve must bounce only once on the opponent's side of the table - it may in fact bounce once or many times. The server may only bounce the ball once on his own side of the table though.

Video - Law 2.6.3 - 8MB, 640x480 pixels
320x240 pixels version - 3.4MB

05
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Serving in Doubles - Law 2.6.3

Diagram of Serving in Doubles
Serving in Doubles. © 2007 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

In the Laws of Table Tennis, Law 2.6.3 states:

2.6.3 As the ball is falling the server shall strike it so that it touches first his court and then, after passing over or around the net assembly, touches directly the receiver's court; in doubles, the ball shall touch successively the right half court of server and receiver.

The bolded text is the only extra requirement of the service rules for doubles play. This means that all the other rules for service still apply, with the extra requirement that the ball must touch the right half court of the server, then the right half court of the receiver.

This also means that technically it is legal for the server to serve around the net rather than over it, just as for singles. In practice, it is virtually impossible to achieve this feat, so I doubt there will ever be any cause for argument!

Video - Law 2.6.3 - 8MB, 640x480 pixels
320x240 pixels version - 3.4MB

06
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Ball Location During Service - Law 2.6.4

Diagram of Ball Location During the Service
Ball Location During the Service. © 2007 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

In the Laws of Table Tennis, Law 2.6.4 states:

2.6.4 From the start of service until it is struck, the ball shall be above the level of the playing surface and behind the server's end line, and it shall not be hidden from the receiver by the server or his doubles partner and by anything they wear or carry.

This means that the ball must always be inside the shaded area from the beginning of the ball toss until it is struck. This means that you cannot start with your free hand underneath the table. You must bring the free hand holding the ball up into the shaded area, then pause, then start your ball toss.

Video - Law 2.6.4 - 4.9MB, 640x480 pixels

Note that nothing is said about the location of the server (or his partner in doubles), or the location of his free hand, or his racket. This has several implications:

  • It is legal to hold the free hand so that the thumb is over the table, provided the ball is resting behind the endline and above the playing surface. This is why the service method shown in the first photograph of this article is legal.

    Video - Can You Serve With Your Hand Over the Table? - 2.9MB, 640x480 pixels

  • It is not legal to begin the serve with the ball held over the playing surface and in front of the endline, even if the hand is then moved back behind the endline. The ball must be behind the endline at all times.
  • It is legal to hide your racket underneath the table at the start of the serve, or even during the service. No mention is made in the service laws about the location of the racket.

    Video - Can You Hide Your Bat During the Service? - 2.8MB, 640x480 pixels

  • It is legal for the server to stand outside the sidelines of the table, or to stand so that part of his body is in front of the endline. No mention is made in the rules as to where the server must stand during service.

    Video - Can You Serve From Outside the Sidelines? - 3.2MB, 640x480 pixels

  • The ball must not be hidden from the receiver at any time during the service. This means that hiding the ball with your torso is illegal, and shielding the ball with the free hand or free arm is also illegal. It also means that you cannot put your racket in front of the ball before it struck. This rules also takes care of the case where a sneaky receiver might turn around to face in another direction, and then claim that he cannot see the ball during the serve. Since the umpire would see that the server is not hiding the ball, no fault would be called.

07
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Hiding the Ball - Law 2.6.5

Diagram of Hiding the Ball
Hiding the Ball. © 2007 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.

In the Laws of Table Tennis, Law 2.6.5 states:

2.6.5 As soon as the ball has been projected, the server's free arm shall be removed from the space between the ball and the net. Note: The space between the ball and the net is defined by the ball, the net and its indefinite upward extension.

The accompanying diagram shows two separate serving locations, and how the space between the ball and the net changes depending on the location of the ball.

In essence, this rule has made it illegal for the server to hide the ball at any point during the service motion. Provided the receiver is standing in a conventional location, he should be able to see the ball throughout the service action.

Video - Law 2.6.5 - 7.8MB, 640x480 pixels
320x240 pixels version - 3.4MB

Note that the rule says that the free arm shall be kept out of the space between the ball and the net as soon as the ball is thrown up. This means that you must move your free arm out of the way as soon as the ball leaves your palm. Unfortunately, this also appears to be one of the most commonly violated rules by players, and since the umpire is side on to the server, it is not always easy for the umpire to be sure whether a player is getting his free arm out of the way. But, as mentioned before, if the umpire is unsure whether the serve is legal, he should warn the player, and fault the player for any future serves of doubtful legality. So get used to getting your free arm out of the way immediately.

Next: Learn How to Perform the Serve in Table Tennis - Videos, Photographs, and Explanations