Table Tennis 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. I, for one, always have a lot of fun when I play doubles. 

But to be successful in table tennis with 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 table tennis doubles rules.

Rules for Ping Pong Doubles

Women play doubles table tennis, ping pong players

As most players favor singles, it’s quite common for them to know some, but not all of the rules for table tennis doubles. Fundamentally, ping pong double’s rules build upon the rules of singles but make them stricter. Below you’ll learn about the differences between singles and doubles table tennis rules. 

Table Requirements

Before we get into gameplay specifics, you need the right table to play doubles. Fortunately, over 99% of tables are eligible. The distinction here between doubles and singles is that the rules explicitly state that the table must include a white center line. This is essential as doubles serving uses this center line to determine a legal or illegal serve. 

As I say, almost all tables have this white center line. The only ones that don’t are designer tables, outdoor tables, and select models by Killerspin.

Service

Unlike singles games, where you can serve anywhere on the table, the rules of ping pong doubles restrict where the ball can bounce. This is where the white center line comes in — it breaks the table 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. If the ball lands on the line, it is counted as in, and if you fail to adhere to this rule, you lose the point.

On the other hand, table tennis serving rules for doubles are the same as singles when it comes to quantity. Each player has two services before switching.

Point Format

Fortunately, the point format for doubles is exactly the same as it is for singles, so there is nothing new to learn here. You play games first to 11, and either team must win by a 2-point clearance. In the event teams are tied at 10-10, service switches after every point, and the winner is the first team to achieve a 2-point clearance.

Matches are commonly played best of 5 games. However, you can also play double games to best of 3 or best of 7 games. 

Order of Play

Casual players may allow whoever is closest to the ball to play the shot, but this breaks the order of play as specified in the doubles rules for table tennis. 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, and 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 by serving. The opponent’s team then has the luxury of selecting 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 who would like to serve first. However, this time around, the opposing team cannot choose who will receive it. The receiver is instead whoever the server did not serve 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 halfway through the deciding game.

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

Rules for Wheelchair Players

Wheelchair rules apply to your team if at least one of you is in a wheelchair. And the only change it makes is to the order of play and your positioning.

Unlike normal doubles ping pong rules, you are not mandated to alternate between striking the ball. Instead, either of you may hit the ball. However, this leniency is in place for good reason. Each of you must remain in your own half, one on the left and one on the right (imagine an extension of the table’s center line). 

What’s more, the rules specify that you must follow the standard beginning sequence of play. This means the server shall serve, the receiver shall receive, and only then are either of you free to hit the ball.

What Happens in the Event of a Sequence Mistake?

As there are many 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 regarding who is serving or receiving, or if you forget to change ends, all prior points accrued remain. You then correct the sequence to what it was when the game first began. For instance, if you’re halfway through a game and realize that you have forgotten to change ends, the game pauses, and you switch to the end that you’re supposed to be playing on.

Read More: Table Tennis Beginners Guide

Table Tennis Doubles Strategies

Couples playing ping pong

An effective strategy is important in singles, but perhaps even more so in doubles table tennis.

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 how to play doubles in ping pong is 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.

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.

Adjust your game so 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 your partner’s strength concerning your opponents. You’ll have to adjust your game to go for more kill shots if they are outmatched.

Know Your Opponent

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

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 opponent’s weaknesses. You can almost always exploit something; a good game plan can be the difference between a win and 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, ensure the dangerous 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 than trailing 3-5.

Use Hand Signals

Hand signals are a great way to communicate with your partner without your opponents deciphering your message. Players predominantly use hand singles to inform their partners of the type of serve they’ll perform.

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 backspin, and a fist may signal a float serve.

table tennis doubles rules
Use hands signals to communicate with your doubles partner.

Serving Short

As mentioned earlier, the rules of table tennis 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 doesn’t mean they are great doubles players. Use the doubles table tennis rules 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 own 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.

Whatever the case is, you should focus your efforts on exploiting 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

Perhaps the most difficult part of learning how to play doubles in ping pong is the act of 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, in particular, 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!

table tennis doubles rules
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 table tennis doubles rules and the strategies needed to play effectively, it’s time to hit the table.

Playing doubles is a great way to break up the sometimes monotonous drills we do to improve our performance for singles. 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.

Read More: Ping Pong vs Table Tennis

FAQs

Do You Have to Alternate for Table Tennis Doubles?

Yes, you must alternate with your partner when striking the ball in doubles. You also alternate the order of play. So after performing your two serves, the serving switches to your opponents, and your partner switches to receive the ball. They then receive twice before getting their two serves. 

How Many Points Is a Doubles Game of Table Tennis Played To?

A doubles game is always played first to 11 points. However, the number of games played varies. Usually, it is the best of 5 games. However, some people play the best of 3 games or best of 7 games as well.

Is One Member of a Doubles Team Allowed to Play Alone Against the Opponents?

No, one player cannot play alone against two people in doubles. This is because doubles table tennis rules specify that you must alternate striking the ball with your partner. Without a partner, you have nobody to alternate with and are therefore at a major advantage. 

Alex Horscroft

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.