Ping Pong Doubles Rules Explained: How to Play Table Tennis Doubles

Singles is usually the table tennis game of choice for many, and we rarely stray from it, But, table tennis doubles provides an excellent alternative and adds a fun level of teamwork that’s not usually characteristic of table tennis.

But to be successful in table tennis 2 players, you mustn’t just throw yourself in the deep end during matches. You need to effectively train for it like you would singles. And more importantly, you need to know the rules for ping pong doubles.

Rules for Ping Pong Doubles

As most players favor singles, it’s quite common for them to know some, but not all of the rules for ping pong doubles. Fundamentally, ping pong doubles rules build upon the rules of singles, making them stricter.

Service

Unlike singles games where you can serve anywhere on the table, the rules for ping pong doubles restrict where the ball can bounce. You’ll note that most table tennis tables have a line down the center of the table breaking it into quarters.

For doubles, you must serve on the right sides of each half of the table with the ball bouncing once on either side. Each player has two services before switching, just like for singles games.

Table tennis table with center line

Order of Play

Casual players may simply allow whoever is closest to the ball to play the shot; but, this breaks the rules for the order of play in doubles. To follow ping pong doubles rules accurately, players must in fact take turns to play their shots and alternate between one another.

To better understand the sequence, imagine two teams with players A & B and X & Y.

Player A serves to player X. who makes a return. Following this, player B must strike the ball, followed by player Y.

This same sequence of A, X, B, Y continues until a winner emerges.

If a team breaks the sequence, they forfeit the point.

Serving and Receiving

Once a team has been selected to serve first, that team decides which player will begin and serve. The opponent then has the luxury to select which of them would like to receive. And the sequence of play continues, as specified above.

In the following game, the original receiving team decides which of them would like to serve first. However, this time around, the opposing team cannot choose who will receive. The receiver is instead whoever the server did not serve to in the previous game.

So if in the first game player A serves to player X; and in the second game player X chooses to serve first, the receiver is player A.  

Each consecutive game follows this format. The service switches teams, that team chooses who serves, and the receiver is the player who served to them in the proceeding game.  

Swapping Ends in the Final Game

In the interest of both fairness and probably a desire to spice things up a bit, the teams swap ends and receivers at 5 points if the games are tied going into the deciding game.

As soon as the first team reaches 5 points the end swap occurs. The receivers then change to break the sequence of the game. So if player A was serving to player X they instead serve to player Y.

What Happens in the Event of a Sequence Mistake?

As there are quite a lot of rules to follow on top of the standard singles’ rules, mistakes in ping pong doubles are quite common. This is why it’s best to have an umpire keep track of the game.

If a mistake occurs in regards to who is serving or receiving, or if you forget to change ends, all prior points accrued remain. You then correct the sequence.

Doubles Strategies

Having an effective strategy is really important in singles, but perhaps even more so in doubles.

You must not only think about your own actions, but also those of your partner. You can adjust on the fly during singles games, but it’s much harder to do so in doubles. You might not be able to communicate your ideas to your partner, or they may simply disagree with your strategy.

Choose Your Partner

The best way to become a successful doubles player is to train doubles regularly and to find a compatible partner.

We’ve all played with partners over the years with whom we meshed horribly, which led to matches we would rather forget…

Instead, select a partner whose style complements your own. Due to the wonderful variety of styles, you can get creative and form a bond with a partner that just clicks.

One such example would be an aggressive looper and a chopper. Chops often lead to opponents playing slow rollover loops which the aggressive looper can loop kill. Frankly, this is a dreamy combo. If I had a chopper at my club, I would be itching to play doubles with them.

Playing table tennis with a doubles partner

Know Your Partner

Once you’ve selected your partner, it’s important you learn the ins and outs of their game. Observe what they do well and what they struggle with.

Try to adjust your game so that your partner can play to their strengths. If, for instance, their reaction time isn’t the best and they are more of a tricky player, I wouldn’t be feeding my opponent topspin serves.

Another somewhat harsh reality is that you have to assess the strength of your partner in relation to those of your opponents’. If they are outmatched, you’ll have to adjust your game to go for more kill shots.

Know Your Opponent

Due to the nature of doubles matches in competitions, you’ll often have prior experience playing against your opponents.

This gives you valuable knowledge that you can put to use in doubles. If you don’t get the opportunity to play beforehand, the knock-up will instead serve as your information-gathering period.

As always, formulate a plan with your partner and exploit your opponents’ weaknesses. There is almost always something you can exploit, and a good game plan can be the difference between a win or a loss.

As a side note, try to take advantage of the serving sequence however you can. If one of you has a particularly dangerous serve and you win the coin toss, make sure the winning server serves first. Alternatively, if you lose the toss and face a threatening serve from your opponent, have the better receiver receive first.

You’ll often find in doubles that there is a favorable sequence for your team, and you want to get that for the first game. If both teams are evenly matched, it could be the needed morale boost going into the final game.

As an example, here are two possible scenarios:

Favorable sequence: 1-0 → 1-1 → 2-1 → 2-2 → Final game 5-3 before end change

Unfavorable sequence: 0-1 → 1-1 → 1-2 → 2-2 → Final game 3-5 before end change

You can see that the favorable sequence from the first game had a knock-on effect throughout the match. Of course, this won’t always happen, but it’s a trend I have noticed here and there.

I don’t know about you, but I would rather be leading 5-3 in the final game as opposed to trailing 3-5.

Use Hand Signals

Hand signals are a great way to communicate with your partner without your opponent being able to decipher your message. Players predominantly use hand singles to inform their partners of the type of serve they’ll be performing.

When you first get training with your doubles partner, assign gestures to various types of serves. You then repeat these gestures underneath the table before your serve so that only your partner can see.

For instance, pointing at the ground may signal a backspin and a fist may signal a float serve.

Hand gesture to signal serve
Use hands signals to communicate with your doubles partner.

Serving Short

As mentioned earlier, table tennis rules for doubles force players to serve to their opponent’s forehand side. This makes deadly forehand openers easier than ever to execute.

This is dissimilar from singles games, where you can serve anywhere. Your opponent knows you have to serve on the forehand side. This means they don’t need good footwork to execute a forehand opener if the ball drifts long on the table.

As such, short serves are very important in doubles. 

Make Your Opponents Work

Just because you’re standing across the table from great table tennis players it doesn’t mean that they are great doubles players. Use the ping pong rules for doubles to your advantage.

If players haven’t trained for doubles, it will likely show.  

You want to make them work for their shots, and a great way to do this is to try and force them to get in each other’s way.

This works especially well against slower players. They can’t move fast enough to play their shots, and they don’t get out of the way quick enough for their partners to play theirs.

Exploit the Weaker Player

You can almost always identify a weaker player among your opponents. Sometimes the difference is so great that one of their players is far better than you and your partner, but the other player is far worse than everyone else.

Whatever the case is, you should focus your efforts to exploit the weaker player. This ties in with the favorable sequencing I mentioned earlier. Assess how you can best exploit the weaker player and execute.

Get Out of Your Partner’s Way

Something that may be difficult to get used to in doubles is getting out of your partner’s way. You will need to be aware of this both when serving and during open play.

When you serve, fade off to the right to give your partner the space they need.

In my experience, certain serves have made it difficult for me to get out of the way quickly. My tomahawk is a good example. Through training though, it will become second nature.

If you both favor the looping style, you will need great footwork. The forehand loop especially takes up a lot of space. So get out of the way as soon as you have played your loop or else you could find a bat clatter into your leg! This happened to a friend of mine once. Luckily no one was hurt… except for the precious bat that is!

Doubles partner standing far away from table
Learn to leave room for your partner, as otherwise you’ll end up interfering with each other’s play.

Time to Get Training Doubles!

Now that you know ping pong double rules and the strategies needed to play effectively, it’s time to hit the table.

Doubles is a great way to break up the sometimes monotonous drills we do to improve our games. It provides a fresh format, improves our analytical skills, and even improves our service accuracy. These are skills we can all translate back to singles, so I can’t really see a reason why you wouldn’t want to give it a go!

Who knows? You could even become a ping pong doubles specialist in the future!

Looking for a new paddle to level up your table tennis skills? Check out our Best Ping Pong Paddles Guide here.

Alex Horscroft
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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.

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