How to Serve Like a Ping Pong Pro

Have you ever seen professional table tennis players serving? It is amazing how much speed and spin they can get on their serves, and these types of serves have really become some effective weapons in their games overall. Most of the best players have serves that are really hard to return. 

We’ve found that many beginner and intermediate players prefer not to practice their serves because they sometimes see it as a boring and overly repetitive exercise. However, the service remains one of the most important shots in table tennis and new players can never get enough practice. In fact, the service is the only shot where you have complete control over during the entire game, so you’d better make sure you know what you are doing. Let’s take a quick look at the development of service rules in table tennis.

Official ITTF Table Tennis Serves 

Before learning the different types of serves, you will need to be familiar with the official table tennis rules of serving so that you know what you are doing. So we’ll start with the official rules from the International Table Tennis Federation ITTF, taken from pages 36-37 of the ITTF Handbook: 

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

2.6.2 The server shall then project the ball vertically upwards, without imparting spin, so that it rises at least 6 inches after leaving the palm of the free hand and then falls without touching anything before being struck. 

2.6.3 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. 

2.6.4 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. 

2.6.5 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. 

2.6.6 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. 

2.6.6.1 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. 

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

Flat Hand With the Ball in Your Palm 

Now that you are familiar with the rules of table tennis, you can think about your own serving style. The first step of serving is holding the ball in an open flat hand with the ball placed in the palm of your hand. In general, remember that you can’t grip the ball and hide it or hold it with the tips of your fingers. This is to prevent players from spinning the ball and inadvertently causing a topspin serve when they throw it up. 

Striking the Ball From Behind the End of the Table 

As explained in the previous paragraph, when serving you have to throw the ball up behind the end of the table. You also have to make contact with the ball while you are behind the line. You can’t lean forward and hit the ball close to the net. You also can’t start with the ball below the tabletop. It must be above the table surface and visible to your opponent throughout the serve. 

Tossing the Ball Into the Air 

throwing serve in the air

For a legal serve in table tennis, you must throw the ball up into the air at least 6 inches. You can’t just hit the ball straight out of your hand which is a common thing for beginners to do when first starting to play. To give you an idea of how high that is, six inches is about the width of your ping pong paddle. You must also throw the ball up straight into the air. You can’t toss it forward or backward or to any one side.

Again, it must be visible to the other player during the toss. This is to prevent players from hiding the ball with their body or clothing. This means that the opponent cannot see the ball being struck or judge the type and amount of spin on the ball. 

Ball Placement When Serving 

During a table tennis serve, you can hit the ball from either side of the table to anywhere on the opposing side of the table. It is only during a game of doubles that you have to serve from one part of the server’s side to the other part of your opponent’s side. And in case you were wondering: that is what the middle white line down the center of the table is for. 

Some Common Types of Serves in Table Tennis and Ping Pong 

Serving in table tennis refers to the simple process of hitting the ball over the net with one bounce on your own side and then one bounce on your opponent’s side of the table. However, there are several different types of table tennis serves. In this section, we are going to take a look at the four most common serves. There are also some more difficult serves to learn, but you can get into those ones later when you become more proficient in the sport.

table tennis player serving

A forehand serve is basically hitting the ball with your hand’s most natural position

Ping Pong Serve 1: The Forehand

The forehand serve is usually the first type of serve you will learn, and it is the most common. Basically, you just have to hold your arm so the underside of it is facing the other player. Then, you simply hit the ball with the back side of the paddle. This is the serve that most beginners are taught first, and it is likely one of the serves you will use the most. 

Ping Pong Serve 2: The Backhand

The backhand serve involves using pretty much the same motion as the forehand serve. There is only one major difference, and that is that the back of the hand is facing the other player. You hit the ball in the same manner as you would with the forehand serve. 

Ping Pong Serve 3: The Pendulum

pendulum serve

The pendulum serve is when you move the paddle from side to side, or right to left and left to right. This will give you two different types of spin, clockwise and counter-clockwise. You can also get two other types of spin, topspin, underspin, as well as no spin at all. You have a lot of variety and options when using this type of serve, depending on where the ball and paddle come into contact with one another, and how hard you are hitting the ball. 

Ping Pong Serve 4: The Ghost 

A ghost serve is another backspin serve that lets the ball bounce and then go backward. This is pretty deceptive, and very difficult for your opponent to prepare for. When you use this type of serve, you are often likely to win the point, unless you use it too often so that your opponent knows what to expect every time. To achieve this kind of spin, you must move your paddle horizontally, beneath the ball, from right or left. 

Serves That Are Illegal 

Just like in any other sport, you will often find players who try to bend the rules a little to give themselves a slight advantage in their games. There are, not surprisingly, several types of serve that, while effective, are actually illegal serves and so they should be avoided even when you are playing informal games of ping pong in your basement. If you watch this video, you’ll quickly learn what types of serves would be considered illegal and you’ll see how these players are almost trying to trick their opponents while they are performing their serves. 

As soon as you know what to look for, it is easy to identify an illegal serve. So now that you’ve seen a few of these illegal serves in action, you’ll be a little more familiar with some of the basic serving rules that every table tennis player should know. Here are some of the official descriptions of the types of serves that are illegal and therefore, should be discouraged at all levels of play.

Leaning Over the Table 

Some players, especially really tall ones, try to serve the ping pong ball after leaning far over the table (instead of serving from behind the end line of the table like they are supposed to). This type of serve can give the player the advantage of serving from a much better angle to make the serve harder for the opponent to reach. 

Short Ball Toss 

This is when the server either blatantly drops the ping pong ball onto the paddle or throws it up just slightly so that it does not reach the required 6 inches in height. This type of action makes it difficult for the opponent to judge the amount of spin on the ball or to get prepared to return it.

Hiding the Ping Pong Ball 

This is when the serving player obscures the ping pong ball from their opponent using a piece of clothing or parts of their body. The advantage of this is that it can prevent the opponent from determining what type of serve will be coming when the ball touches the paddle (for example, will it be a hit with topspin, backspin, sidespin, or simply a flat serve?). 

A Serve That is Too Quick 

Some players try to get an advantage by catching the opponent off guard by attempting to serve the ball to them when they are not quite ready or prepared to return the ball. While not technically illegal, this is a somewhat dirty tactic that is often used to try and gain an advantage.

Taking Too Much Time 

While there is no set time limit for the process of serving, some players deliberately try to get some type of advantage by taking much longer than necessary to serve the ball. They might do this to help slow the pace of play or to disrupt their opponent’s momentum during a crucial stage of the game. 

Changing the Style of Your Serve 

One legal way to win a game of table tennis is to keep your opponent just off guard enough to keep guessing about the style of your serve. This is another reason to be proficient at many types of serves so that you can change your style and score points when your opponent is least expecting it. 

Try to change your serve as often as possible while you are playing, to make your opponent never quite sure about what you are going to do next. Of course, if you realize that your opponent is struggling to return a certain type of serve, you should continue to use this serve as much as possible. An excellent strategy is to use the serve you know your opponent struggles with the most to win points that are crucial in the game.

Cropped image of bearded ping pong player serving ball

Being able to serve well can give you a huge advantage over your opponent.

Some of the Real Advantages of Having a Killer Serve 

The serve is the only time in a game of table tennis where you have complete and total control over your shot, at least when it comes to speed, spin, and placement. There are several benefits to having a great serve, including forcing errors out of your opponent. When you have a really great serve, you are going to be forcing your opponent to try harder, and they are going to end up making mistakes, which could cost them the entire match. 

You can really pile up the points quickly and easily with a powerful serve. Your opponent may miss the shot altogether, or not hit it well enough to score a point against you. This is especially the case if your opponent is struggling to read the type of spin you are putting on your serve. 

Another thing to remember is that even if you don’t necessarily win a point with your serve, a weak return by your opponent is going to be an easy shot for you to hit, and then you can possibly score a point. You can see this in action frequently among professional table tennis players because they are always looking to play an attacking shot as soon as it is possible.

Using Your Serve to Work for You 

Ultimately, the points that you win as a result of your service can often be the difference between you winning or losing an entire match. There have been countless games in the Olympics and other international tournaments that could have so easily gone the other way if one of the players had just been a tiny bit better at serving. To become the best player you can be, it is important that you devote plenty of time to practicing your serve alone on your own to purposefully work on varying the spin, speed, and placement of your serves.

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Riley Draper

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