Common Illegal Ping Pong Serves You Should Know

Ping pong is truly a sport of precision, and one of the most important parts of being a good table tennis player is to have a masterful service. Of course, having a service that leaves your opponent helpless when trying to return it is not enough.

While many serve variations might be effective, it is important that your service is also a legal serve. There is no point in mastering a serve that would be considered illegal. Moreover, once you know what a legal serve looks like and what sorts of pitfalls there are to avoid, you can focus on making your serve as lethal as possible within the bounds of the rules of table tennis.

In this article, we will first go over the aspects of a legal serve. Then, we will go over some of the most common types of illegal serves that people make. After this article, you should have all the basic information you need for upping your service game within the bounds of ping pong rules. 

Tie Yana, Hong Kong serves the ball to Feng Tianwei of Singapore at the Volkswagen 2010 Women's World Cup

Table Tennis Service Rules 

According to the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) Handbook, the table tennis service rules are as follows: 

  1. Service shall start with the ball resting freely on the open palm of the server’s stationary free hand.

  2. The server shall then project the ball near vertically upwards, without imparting spin, so that it rises at least 16cm after leaving the palm of the free hand and then falls without touching anything before being struck.

  3. As the ball is falling the server shall strike it so that it touches first his or her court and then touches directly the receiver’s court; in doubles, the ball shall touch successively the right half court of server and receiver.
  4. From the start of service until it is struck, the ball shall be above the level of the playing surface and behind the server’s end line, and it shall not be hidden from the receiver by the server or his or her doubles partner or by anything they wear or carry.

  5. As soon as the ball has been projected, the server’s free arm and hand shall be removed from the space between the ball and the net. The space between the ball and the net is defined by the ball, the net and its indefinite upward extension.

  6. It is the responsibility of the player to serve so that the umpire or the assistant umpire can be satisfied that he or she complies with the requirements of the Laws, and either may decide that a service is incorrect.

  7. If either the umpire or the assistant umpire is not sure about the legality of a service he or she may, on the first occasion in a match, interrupt play and warn the server; but any subsequent service by that player or his or her doubles partner which is not clearly legal shall be considered incorrect.

  8. Exceptionally, the umpire may relax the requirements for a correct service where he or she is satisfied that compliance is prevented by physical disability.

List of Common Illegal Serves

  1. Hidden serve
  2. Throw in serve and low toss serve
  3. Quick serve
  4. Excessively delayed serve
  5. Inside table serve

Common Illegal Serves Explained 

1. Hidden serve

A hidden serve occurs when the server uses a part of their body to obscure the contact point between the paddle and the ping pong ball, making it impossible for the opponent to see what type of serve it is (i.e. backspin serve, topspin serve, etc.). Such action used to be completely legal, which is probably why it is the most common illegal serve. Eventually, the ITTF made such a serve illegal.


2. Throw in serve and low toss serve

A common illegal serve occurs when a server does not throw the ball high enough or throws the ball directly at the paddle. Propper serves must be thrown directly up at a height that reaches at least 16cm. By not adhering to this rule, the server gains an unfair advantage. 


3. Quick Serve 

The “quick-serve,” which is also known as the “bad manner serve” occurs when a player serves the ball when their opponent is clearly not in the ready position. This is not only bad manners, but is actually illegal, and if your opponent does a quick-serve, you can appeal to the referee not to include that point. 


4. Excessively Delayed Service

While there is no formal rule stating a time limit that a player has to serve, there are rules against taking excessive time to delay the flow of the game. A player can lose of point if they wait to long to serve where it seems like they are delaying the service on purpose to achieve some end against their opponent. 


5. Inside Table Serve 

The inside table serve occurs when the server starts the service beyond their edge of the table. For a propper serve, the ball must remain behind the edge-point of the table before the server makes contact with the ball with their paddle. Otherwise, this will be an illegal serve. 

Ready to Serve

Now that you know what is required for a legal serve and some of the common illegal serves to avoid, you should be all set to up your service game!


Riley Draper

Avid table tennis player, world traveler, and content creator. Follow on Twitter. Connect on LinkedIn.