You’re probably familiar with the basic rules of table tennis, but knowing the key official rules of this sport is also important. In this article, we’ll cover some of the laws of table tennis created by the ITTF (International Table Tennis Federation).
First things first: the ping pong table. Its upper surface, commonly referred to as the playing surface, should be ~8.99 ft (2.74 m) long and 5 ft (1.525 m) wide, and it shouldn’t include the vertical sides of the table top.
The rectangular playing surface should have two equal courts separated by a vertical net parallel with the end lines. If the ping pong table is used for doubles, it should have two equal half-courts separated by a white center line parallel with the side lines.
The playing surface can be made of any material.
The Net Assembly
The net assembly is supposed to be made up of a net, suspension for the net, supporting posts, and clamps to attach the net posts to the table. The top of the net should be 6 inches (15.25 cm) above the surface of the table, while the bottom of the net should be as near as possible to the playing surface.
The table tennis ball should be spherical and have a diameter of ~1.57 inches (40 mm). It should be made of plastic (like celluloid) and weigh ~0.09 ounces (2.7 g). Color-wise, the ball is supposed to be white or orange and matte.
When it comes to the racket, the rules aren’t very strict. The players can use rackets of any size, shape, and weight. However, the racket’s blade must be flat, rigid, and made of at least 85% natural wood (by thickness).
The ITTF has made a new rule regarding the racket: the surface of the material covering one side of the blade should be matte black on one side and of a vivid color on the other (one that’s different from black and the ball’s color). This new rule will become effective on October 1, 2021, after the 2020 Summer Olympics.
Each player must show their racket to their opponent and the umpire before the match begins as well as whenever they replace it with a new one. The opponent and the umpire have the right to examine the racket.
Some of the most important official definitions in table tennis are:
- “A rally is the period during which the ball is in play.”
- “The ball is in play from the last moment at which it is stationary on the palm of the free hand before being intentionally projected in service until the rally is decided as a let or a point.”
- “A let is a rally of which the result is not scored.”
- “A point is a rally of which the result is scored.”
- “The racket hand is the hand carrying the racket.”
- “The free hand is the hand not carrying the racket; the free arm is the arm of the free hand.”
For a legal serve, the server must hold the ball in the open palm of their stationary free hand behind the end line. Then, the server must throw the ball upwards; it should rise at least 6.3 inches (16 cm) and fall without touching anything before the server hits it. The ball has to first bounce on the server’s side of the table and then touch the opponent’s side.
Both the umpire and the assistant umpire can interrupt the match and warn the server if they aren’t certain about the legality of the service the first time it happens. However, all subsequent services by that player or their doubles partner that don’t comply with the official service rules are going to be considered incorrect.
To return the ball correctly, the player must hit it so it touches their opponent’s court with or without touching the net assembly before that happens.
The Order of Play
If the match is singles (involves two players), the server should serve correctly, the receiver should make a good return, and then both players should make returns alternately.
If the match is doubles (involves two teams of two players), the play begins with the server making a legal service and continues with the receiver making a good return. After that, the server’s partner must make a return, and then the receiver’s partner should return the ball. The game continues with every player returning the ball correctly in that order.
A rally is considered to be a let in a number of different situations. For example, a rally will be a let if a served ball touches the net assembly (but the service must be otherwise legal), if the server makes the service when the receiver (or the receiving team) isn’t ready (doesn’t try to hit the ball), and if a player fails to serve or return the ball as a consequence of factors they cannot control.
In table tennis, a player can score a point in numerous situations (provided the rally isn’t a let), including:
- When their opponent serves incorrectly;
- When their opponent doesn’t make a good return;
- When their served or returned ball touches anything before the opponent hits it (the net assembly is an exception);
- When their opponent strikes the ball and it passes over their side of the table or beyond their end line without hitting their court;
- When their opponent double hits the ball on purpose; etc.
The first player or pair who scores 11 points wins the game. However, if the score is 10:10 (a deuce), a player or pair will have to subsequently gain a 2-point lead to win the game.
This wasn’t the case until 2001 when the ITTF introduced the current rule. Before that, a game of table tennis was won by the first player or pair who scored 21 points.
The International Table Tennis Federation’s rule is that a match consists of the best of any odd number of games, which is usually 5 or 7 games.
The Order of Serving, Receiving, and Ends
According to the current official rules of table tennis, the winner of a random draw has the right to choose to serve first, receive first, or begin the match at a particular end of the table. The other player or team is left with the other choice.
The order of serving and receiving changes after each 2 scored points – the server becomes the receiver and vice versa until the end of the game. This doesn’t apply when both players or teams have scored 10 points (a deuce) and when the expedite system is in operation. In these situations, the order of serving and receiving is the same, but the players serve once at a time (1 point in turn).
Out of Order of Serving, Receiving, or Ends
The umpire has the right to interrupt the play as soon as they discover that a player serves or receives out of the established order at the start of the match. The play will continue according to the serving and receiving sequence at the reached score. Similarly, the match will be stopped if the umpire realizes that the players haven’t changed the ends of the table when they should have done so. The play will continue when the players switch their courts.
The good thing is that the players won’t lose any of the points they score before such an error is discovered.
The Expedite System
In ping pong, the expedite system is introduced when both players or teams request it or when a game lasts for 10 minutes or more. However, if the players or teams have scored 18 points or more in a given game, the system won’t come into operation.
When it comes to serving when the expedite system has been introduced, there are two different scenarios. The first one is when the ball is in play when the time limit is reached and the play is interrupted, and the second one is when the ball isn’t in play when the system is due to be introduced. In the first situation, the play will continue with a service by the player who served in the rally that was stopped, while in the second situation, the play will continue with a service by the receiver in the last rally.
It’s interesting to know that the receiving player or team will be awarded a point if they return the ball correctly 13 times in a rally. Plus, the players will serve once at a time (1 point in turn) until the game ends.
The expedite system will remain in operation until the match ends.