How To Serve In Table Tennis: A Complete Guide

Many beginner and intermediate players dread having to practice their serves, often viewing it as a boring and overly repetitive exercise. I mean it is only one shot, so it can’t be that important right?

The reality is quite the opposite, service remains one of the most important shots in table tennis and a player can never have enough practice in trying to improve their service game. In fact, a player’s service is the only shot in which they will have complete control over in a point and consequently it is essential to utilise this opportunity. Just to highlight how important service really is in table tennis, it is worthwhile to briefly consider the development of service rules in table tennis.

The rules of a table tennis serve

Before learning the different types of serve, it’s essential to be familiar with the rules of serving so that you don’t get faulted during a game.

Flat hand with the ball in your palm

table tennis bat and ball in serving position

The first step of serving is holding the ball in an open flat hand with the ball placed in the palm of your hand. You can’t grip the ball hiding it or holding it with the tips of your fingers. This is to prevent players from spinning the ball when they throw it up.

Striking the ball behind the end line of the table

When serving you have to throw the ball up behind the white end line of the table. You also have to make contact behind the line. You can’t lean forward and hit the ball close to the net. You also can’t start with the ball below the tabletop. It must be visible to your opponent throughout the serve.

Tossing the ball

table tennis player tossing ball for serve

For a legal serve in table tennis you must throw the ball up into the air at least 6 inches (or 16cm). You can’t just hit the ball straight out of your hand which is a common thing for beginners to do when first starting to play. To give you an idea of how high that is six inches around the width of your ping pong paddle. You must also throw it up straight into the air. You can’t toss it forwards or backwards or to one side.

Again, it must be visible to the other player during the toss. This is to prevent players from hiding the ball with your body or arms as in the 1980’s and 1990’s players began to completely block the opponent’s view of the ball. This meant that the opponent could not see the ball being struck, making it very difficult for the receiver to judge the type and amount of spin on the ball and accordingly play a good return.

Ball placement when serving

During a table tennis serve, you can hit the ball from either side of the table to anywhere on the opposing side of the table. It’s only during a game of doubles that you have to serve from the one side to another. That’s what the middle white line down the center of the table is for.

Examples of illegal serves

The video below shows some examples of serves that would be illegal.

Types of table tennis serves

There are several different types of table tennis serves. In this post, we are going to take a look at the four most common serves. We aren’t going to get into the more difficult serves in this article. You already have enough to learn, and you can get into that later when you are more proficient in the sport.

Forehand serve

The forehand serve is usually the first type of serve you will learn, and it is the most common. Basically, you just have to hold your arm so the underside of it is facing the other player. Then, you simply hit the ball with the back side of the paddle. This is the serve that most beginners are taught first, and it is likely one of the serves you will use the most.

The video below goes through the steps of how to do a forehand serve.

Backhand serve

The backhand serve involves using pretty much the same motion as the forehand serve. There is only one major difference, and that is that the back of the hand is facing the other player. You hit the ball in the same manner as you would with the forehand serve.

Ghost serve

A ghost serve is another backspin serve that lets the ball bounce and then go backwards. This is pretty deceptive, and very difficult for your opponent to prepare for. When you use this type of serve, you can almost be guaranteed of a point, unless of course, you are playing against a table tennis master who is prepared for any serve. For this spin, you must move the racket horizontally, beneath the ball, from right or left.

Pendulum serve

The pendulum serve is when you move the paddle from side to side, or right to left and left to right. This will give you two different types of spin, clockwise and counter-clockwise. You can also get two other types of spin, topspin, underspin, as well as no spin at all. You have a lot of variety and options when using this type of serve, depending on where the ball and paddle come into contact with one another, and how hard you are hitting the ball.

The benefits of a great serve

The serve is the only time in a game of table tennis where you have complete and total control over your shot, at least when it comes to speed, spin, and placement. There are several benefits to having a great serve, including forcing errors.

When you have a really great serve, you are going to be forcing your opponent to try harder, and they are going to end up making mistakes, which could cost them the game. You can get points quickly and easily with a really great serve.

Your opponent may miss the shot altogether, or not hit it well enough to score a point against you especially if your opponent is struggling to read the type of spin which you are putting on your serve. Even if you don’t win a point with your serve, a weak return is going to be an easy shot for you to hit, and possibly score a point. You can see this in action frequently at the top level, as these players are always looking to play an attacking shot off of the opponent’s receive of serve whenever possible.

Knowing when to change your serve

One way to win a game of table tennis is to keep your opponent just off-balance enough that they can’t easily return your serves. This is why it is good to be proficient at many types of serves. That way, you can switch it up when your opponent is least expecting it, and you will score points. Try to change your serve as often as possible in every game, so your opponent will never be quite sure what you are going to do next and is not able to prepare for the shot.

player about to serve in ping pong game

However, if you do realise that your opponent is struggling to return a certain serve this does not mean that you should continue to do this serve every point. The key is to variate your service as much as possible, as this means that your opponent will be constantly unsure of what serve you will be doing. A good tactic is to save the serve you know your opponent struggles with for points that are crucial in the game such as at 10-9 or when your opponent has gained a slight lead over you.


Ultimately, the points which you win as a result of your service can often be the difference between you winning or losing a match. It is important that you devote some time to practicing your serve alone to purposefully work on variating the spin, speed and placement of your serves.

Eugene (Gene) Sandoval has been one of those guys who spent too many hours around ping pong tables in high school. However, soon enough, Gene understood that there is more to ping pong than having fun. That is how he started a journey that made Eugene one of the experienced semi-professional ping pong players in the United States. As the founder of the PingPongRuler, Eugene spends most of his time surrounded by ping pong tables and research. He always has this knack for coming up with new ping pong strategies and telling the good and bad equipment apart.