Illegal Ping Pong Serves to Watch Out For!

The most common illegal ping pong serve is the no-throw serve. It is incredibly prevalent among casual players as they do not know that they need to throw the ball up.

But there are 8 ping pong serves to watch out for:

  1. No-throw serve
  2. Hidden serve
  3. Throwing the ball onto the paddle serve
  4. Not throwing the ball vertically
  5. Serving in front of the end line
  6. Serving before the opponent is ready
  7. Serving to the wrong side in doubles
  8. Spinning the ball with your throwing hand

Some provide little to no advantage, while others provide a major advantage. In this guide, I cover each and my opinion after playing for years in my county tournaments. Later, I also discuss the best course of action when faced with illegal serves.

What Makes a Serve Illegal?

legal ping pong serve

As with all sports, there are rules you must follow, and when it comes to serving in table tennis this is no different. In fact, the rules are fairly stringent compared to other sports.

Here is a clear breakdown of the rules you must abide by when serving:

  • Throw the ball from a still, open palm
  • Throw the ball vertically, at least 16 cm before making contact
  • Strike the ball as it is descending
  • The ball must be in full view of the opponent throughout
  • The ball must bounce once on your side and then at least once on the opponent’s side of the table

It should go without saying that any violation of these rules constitutes an illegal serve!

The 8 Most Common Illegal Ping Pong Serves

In total, there are 8 illegal ping pong serves that you should be aware of. These include:

1. No-Throw Serve

illegal ping pong serves no throw

By far the most common illegal serve in ping pong is the no-throw serve. This involves playing the ball straight out of the hand. It goes against the requirement to throw the ball up the required 16 cm.

No-throw serves are not only much easier to perform, but they are also harder to return as the server has more control over how they hit the ball. They can use little wind-up, serve more accurately, and serve much quicker. It’s the speed of these serves that is the most troubling.

However, the clear difference between this illegal serve and most, is that generally people commit this foul because they are oblivious that they have to throw the ball. So it’s not that they are trying to gain a competitive edge; they just don’t know any better. For this reason, you seldom see no-throw serves at a high level.

2. Hidden Serve

illegal ping pong serves hidden

Next up is hidden serves, and this is my least favorite to encounter by a longshot. Hidden serves involve obscuring the ball from the receiver’s view. This directly violates the rule that the receiver should be able to see the ball at all times.

I have such a disdain for these illegal table tennis serves because they are the most difficult to return. If the contact of the ball is not visible, you have to guess what spin is on the ball based on what you can see. The trouble is, a proficient server can trick you quite easily, and this almost guarantees them the point.

Hiding your serves is one of the most blatant forms of cheating in table tennis, and in fairness, not many players do it.

It was even legal at one point. But to make rallies longer, a rule was introduced to ensure the ball remains visible throughout the service.

3. Throwing the Ball Onto the Paddle

illegal ping pong serves throw onto paddle

Fortunately, you won’t encounter this type of serve very often. This is mainly because any half-decent player knows to throw the ball up when serving. As such, only beginners will do it.

The first time I saw this illegal table tennis serve was at home, playing my dad! He used to retract his throwing arm into the paddle. While technically, you throw the ball into your racket for this serve. You only do so at the very last second so that you don’t strike your other hand. So, essentially, it’s very similar to the no-throw serve.

By throwing the ball onto the paddle for serving, you violate almost every rule (except for the fact that it lands in the right place).

4. Not Throwing the Ball Near Vertically

illegal ping pong serves not thrown near vertically

Even if you throw a ball the required 16 cm, you can still break the service rules. This is because your throw has to travel nearly vertically from your throwing hand.

This rule is because a sideways throw makes it easier to produce spin. However, you won’t see many true sideways throws. Rather, diagonal tosses. Interestingly, there is no specific allowable threshold for the angle of your throw. The rules quite literally state ‘near vertically upwards,’ therefore it’s up to the interpretation of the umpire.

Formerly, this rule stated throws must be less than 45 degrees. I have no idea why the new version of the rule is so open-ended. Perhaps it’s because they want to give more control to umpires, but that’s just a guess on my part.

In any case, ambiguous tosses provide little competitive advantage so I wouldn’t worry about them too much. This is also one of the most common illegal serves in ping pong committed by professional players — they get away with it all the time. I was just watching the WTT Contender Taiyan recently, and it’s clear a decent portion of Lin Gaoyuan’s serves are illegal, and he’s 7th in the world!

Read More: The Best Ping Pong Paddles: Reviews and Buying Guide


5. Serving in Front of the End Line

illegal ping pong serves serving in front of the end line

To give players ample time to make a return, the rules require players to serve behind the end line of the table. As such, you must throw the ball and make contact while behind the line.

Like many of the other rules that are commonly broken, beginners are the culprits here. All amateur table tennis players know about this rule, and they might only break it if they perform a poor toss.

I distinctly remember serving in front of the end line when playing on holiday before I was serious about the sport. I, like most others, leaned as far forward as possible to play an unexpectedly fast short serve (as I didn’t throw the ball). If you ever play with beginners, you’ll likely see this serve occasionally.

6. Serving Before the Opponent Is Ready

As you probably expect, you must serve when your opponent is ready. However, surprisingly, the rules aren’t very specific in this regard.

In fact, no rule explicitly states you will have points deducted if you serve before the receiver is ready. Rather, it is referenced in the ‘Let’ section. So, if you serve before the receiver is prepared, you will simply replay the point.

Taking this info into account, serving before your opponent is ready is, for all intents and purposes, illegal. However, you might not get punished for it. Again, like with serving near vertically, this particular type of serve is more up to interpretation than most, meaning umpires have to use their judgment.

7. Serving to the Wrong Side in Doubles

illegal ping pong serves serving to the wrong side in doubles

Unlike singles serving, doubles requires you to serve diagonally from the right-hand side of the table. If the ball lands on the left at either end, it’s an illegal ping-pong serve.

However, unlike other kinds of illegal serving, players commit this fault exclusively by accident rather than purposefully. This is because it provides no competitive advantage, and these types of illegal serves are strongly enforced, whereas some are not.

8. Spinning the Ball With Your Throwing Hand

illegal ping pong serves spinning ball with throwing hand

The rules state you must throw the ball from an open palm. This is to prevent players from throwing the ball with their fingers. The increased dexterity of your fingers enables you to impart spin on the toss — something essentially impossible with the palm.

Serves are tough enough to return with spin produced from your rubbers, so it makes no sense to permit producing spin with your throwing hand. However, imparting spin in such a way is very difficult in practice. The ball barely rotates at all.

It’s not a very effective way of cheating. I can’t say I have ever seen somebody serve this way, and I doubt I ever will.

Read More: Table Tennis Doubles Rules Explained


How to Manage Illegal Serves

illegal ping pong serves spinning ball with throwing hand

In table tennis, illegal serves are a nightmare to deal with. I’ve encountered my fair share over the years. However, you shouldn’t just stand there and take them. They violate the rules and put you at an unfair disadvantage! Here is my 3 step guide to tackling them.

1. Analyze the Advantage

The first step is to consider whether the faulty serve gives the opponent an advantage. If, for example, your opponent is hitting a slow serve straight out of the hands, the advantage is very low. I, for one, would probably let it slide.

However, if the opponent is performing very spinny serves and hiding their contact, you should contest their serve. The advantage is far too great to let them keep doing it.

From my experience, there are also times when you may want to scrutinize relatively weak illegal serves, too. My friend faced such a serve last week and decided not to call it up. However, it was clearly affecting his confidence to play — he became very stiff and nearly lost the match.

2. Appeal to the Umpire

If you’ve determined to contest a serve, raise your hand and do not attempt to play the ball. Explain the rule violation to the umpire, and then it is up to them to enforce it. If you’re correct in your assessment, they may well penalize the player. However, they won’t always do so, which is incredibly frustrating.

That being said, most of the time, the player will change their serving to accommodate your complaint — nobody wants a reputation as a cheater. They may also be serving illegally without knowing it, so they will almost certainly correct their service.

3. Serve Illegally Yourself

If the umpire fails to enforce the rules even when they are being broken, you can choose to fight fire with fire. It’s not a fun thing to do, but ultimately, you are simply making the best of the situation.

The umpire can’t scrutinize your illegal serving if your opponent does the same thing. So I say go for it. It puts you back on a level playing field with your opponent, which is the fairest measure if you have an incompetent umpire.

There’s only one time I can recall ever adopting this strategy, and it felt weird trying to serve illegally!

Closing Thoughts

Illegal ping pong serves are incredibly prevalent, especially at a casual level. These players don’t know the rules so they break them, fortunately, their serves are usually easy to deal with.

Advanced players, on the other hand, are far less guilty of performing illegal serves in table tennis. But when they do, they are significantly harder to return. In my opinion, the hardest illegal serve to return is hidden.

Use your judgment as to whether you want to scrutinize a serve. Sometimes, it might not be worth the hassle it will cause. However, if you call your opponent up on it, they will likely start serving legally, ensuring that the game proceeds fairly.

Read More: 5 Best Ping Pong Serves: How to Do Serves the Pros Use


Frequently Asked Questions

What Is an Illegal Serve in Table Tennis?

An illegal serve violates the service rules. This includes not throwing the ball straight up 16 cm, obscuring the ball from your opponent, hitting the ball as it is rising, and failing to make the ball bounce once on your side and at least once on your opponent’s side of the table.

What Happens if a Serve Hits Your Finger When Serving?

Anything below the wrist is considered an extension of your paddle, so striking the ball with your finger is completely legal.

What Happens if I Double-Hit the Ball When Serving?

Double-hitting the ball is legal if it is unintentional, so if you strike the ball in this way when serving, the ball is still live.

Can My Serve Bounce Twice in Ping Pong?

The ball must bounce once on your side of the table and at least once on your opponent’s side.

Freelance writer. Table tennis enthusiast. Lover of all things online. When I’m not working on my loop game I’m probably binge-watching some fantasy show.