The Official Table Tennis Rules (Singles & Doubles)

If you want to learn more about the game of ping pong (also called table tennis), there are a few things to note as you get started. If ping pong is a relatively new game to you, then you have certainly come to the right place. Although the rules for singles and doubles are slightly different, there will certainly be lots of overlap.

Basic Beginner’s Skills

Before you can learn how to play at a higher skill level, you need to learn the skills that you can use to further develop your game. Some of the terms that you might hear to describe different types of shots can seem very complicated. The forehand and backhand are the only two basic skills you’ll use in every game. Every other shot builds off these types of shots. If you are right-handed, a backhand shot refers to when you hit it on your left side.

A forehand shot refers to when you are hitting the ball on your right-hand side. As a beginning player, you will need to be able to hit basic shots confidently before you try more difficult shots like topspin, backspin, or sidespin. If there is a table tennis club in your area, try to find someone to play with. A few informal hours of simply hitting the ping pong ball back and forth with either backhand or forehand shots will quickly improve your skills.

 

Some Basic Equipment

Two table tennis or ping pong rackets and balls on a blue table

It was the invention of sponge paddles that brought the speed and spin we see in ping pong games today.

Like almost every sport, you will first need to get a few pieces of equipment so that you can enjoy the game and learn how to play it properly. Ping pong is one of the cheapest sports there is and it can also be really fun to play. There are three basic things to consider before you start your first game of ping pong.

Ping Pong Paddles

Also known as bats or rackets (sometimes even racquets in Britain), these are the tools that you will use to strike the ball. A ping pong paddle is made up of four different components: 

  • The blade: the main body of the paddle, which is made of multiple layers of wood (and sometimes carbon). 
  • The rubber: on top of the sponge is a layer of rubber which is what actually makes contact with the ball. 
  • Sponge layer: on top of the blade is a thin layer of sponge. As a beginner, try to select a paddle with a thinner layer of sponge because this will give you more control over the ball.
  • The handle: the part of the paddle that you hold.

Ping pong paddles are usually optimized for control, spin, and speed. If you are a beginner, look for a paddle with a high control rating and lower spin and speed ratings. As you improve, you can progress to paddles with lower levels of control and start working on generating more speed and spin with your shots.

Ping Pong Balls

As in a lot of other sports, you will need balls to play with. Table tennis balls are made of plastic, and they are small and round. The standard regulation size is 40 millimeters and they usually come in orange and white. Ping pong balls are also rated in terms of quality by a star system from 1 – 3 stars. One-star balls are used for recreational play, but official tournament balls should be three stars.

Ping Pong Tables

Ping pong tables can be expensive, but they are important because the whole game is built around the tabletop. You can spend anywhere from a couple of hundred dollars to a few thousand for the top-of-range competition standard tables. But, you don’t necessarily need to get a table because bars and clubs with tables can be easily found.

Other Helpful Accessories

You might want to look into other accessories and table tennis gear. For example, a good pair of shoes can be important. For beginners, most sports or gym shoes will work fine, but, as you progress and play more, get a pair of shoes designed specifically with ping pong players in mind. You can also get a paddle case to store your paddles when you are not using them.

Official Rules of Ping Pong

Jan-Ove Waldner

While it might seem that there are lots of complicated rules in ping pong, you don’t need to know all of them at the beginning. If you don’t feel like reading the official rules of table tennis now, you can catch up on some of them after you have played the game for a little while. 

Playing an Actual Game

  • Once you start playing a set of games with another person, it’s called a “match”. Most of the time, matches will consist of a best three out of five games; so you could end up playing any number of games overall. 
  • When two players play a single game, the first person to reach 11 points wins. The player who serves first can be determined in several ways (such as by a coin toss). 
  • The first player serves the ball twice, and then the second player serves twice, and this continues throughout the game. If both players reach 10 points, it is called a “deuce.” 
  • If you hit your last of two serves and you lose or win the point with a good return to make the score 10-10, you will still give the ball to the other player to serve as usual, but he will only serve once rather than twice. 
  • If he wins that next point, even though the score is 11-10, he does not win the overall game yet. 
  • If you win the next point to even the score, it would again be a “deuce”. This continues until one player gains a two-point lead and ultimately wins the game. 
  • After each game is played, the players often switch sides of the table, but the service always starts on the same side of the playing surface.

Some Popular Types of Serve

The official International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) and USATT rules and regulations that deal with serving are a little complicated, so we have summarised some of the basic laws of table tennis that determine legal serves:

  • To prevent table tennis players from spinning the ball as they toss it into the air, the serve must begin with the ball in an open palm. 
  • To prevent table tennis players from serving quickly or hiding the ball to deceive their opponent, the ball must be thrown into the air at a height of at least 6 inches.
  • To prevent table tennis players from getting very close to the net before serving, they must strike the ball behind the end line of the table.
  • Once making contact, the ball must first bounce on the server’s side of the table, bounce over the net, and finally bounce on the receiver’s side.

Other Helpful Ping Pong Rules

timo ball

Here are a few other rules that might come in handy. If someone hits the ball to you and it hits the white line at the very edge of the table on your side, (even if it barely hits it and goes straight to the floor) it is the other person’s point. While it’s almost impossible to return, it really doesn’t happen that often. Also, if your opponent hits the ball and it hits the net (not on a serve) and it still goes over onto your side, it is their point.

These kinds of shots are hard to take sometimes but they are part of the game. Once your reaction time gets good enough, hitting these types of shots on purpose can sometimes be possible. If you hit the ball too hard over the end of the table, and the other player hits the ball anyway, whether intentionally or accidentally, you still lose the point as long as the ball was clearly going out of bounds anyway. 

Finally, you must let the ball bounce before hitting it. This is one of the many ways that the game of table tennis differs from real tennis. If your opponent hits the ball before it bounces, and the ball was clearly going to hit the tabletop, then they lose the point.

Current International Rules as Used in the Olympics

For a full list of all of the current international rules, it is best to consult the Official ITTF Handbook for 2021, available here as a pdf file. In summary:

Scoring and Games:

  • Games are played to 11 points.
  • Players serve two service alternates. A player does not have to win specifically off their own serve to win a point.
  • If a game ties at 10-10, a player must win by 2 points. In this situation, players serve one serve each, alternating.
  • In competition, games are played best of 5 (first to win 3 games) or best of 7 (first to win 4 games). 
  • Social games can also be played best of 3 (first to win 2 games).

Legal Serving Rules:

  • You must throw the ball up straight, from a flat palm, at least 6 inches (16 centimeters).
  • Your toss and service contact must be behind the table surface (not over).
  • You cannot hide the ball from the ball toss to contact, with any part of your body.
  • If the ball hits the net during service, it is a let, the point is replayed. There is no limit or point deductions for let serves. 

Equipment Basics:

  • A table tennis racket must be one side black, one side (recently approved) any approved color.
  • The officially approved ball is the 40 millimeter+ plastic ball.
  • The dimensions of an approved table tennis table are 9 feet long, 5 feet wide, 2.5 feet high.
  • The approved height of a table tennis net is 6 inches.
 

Table Tennis Doubles Rules 

Table tennis doubles match

Table tennis doubles matches were first played in the Commonwealth Games in 2002.

Whether you are playing singles or doubles, the basic rules of table tennis are mostly the same, but for doubles play, there are a few variations. The main differences are the service rules and the order of play, but there are also some other rules to consider. 

The service itself is exactly the same as in singles except that, rather than the ball bouncing on the table, it must bounce only on the right half of the table for both the server and the receiver. The service still alternates every two points between teams, but it also alternates between players on the same team. The other main difference for table tennis doubles rules is the order in which the players have to play. 

The Table Design

Rule 2.01.06 states: For doubles, each court shall be divided into 2 equal half-courts by a white center line, 3mm wide, running parallel with the sidelines; the center line shall be regarded as part of each right half-court. This means that to play doubles, the rules state that you must have a table that has a center line marked on it. If the ball touches the center line during service in doubles, the service is in. 

Order of Play 

Rule 2.08.02 states: In doubles, except as provided in 2.8.3, the server shall first make a service, the receiver shall then make a return, the partner of the server shall then make a return, the partner of the receiver shall then make a return and thereafter each player in turn in that sequence shall make a return. This means that you must follow the correct sequence for serving and receiving to comply with the table tennis doubles rules.

Wheelchair Users 

Table tennis doubles rules are slightly different when the players are in wheelchairs. Rule 2.08.03 states: In doubles, when at least one player of a pair is in a wheelchair due to a physical disability, the server shall first make a service, the receiver shall then make a return but thereafter either player of the disabled pair may make returns. 

Rule 2.10.1.15 states you lose the point: if, where an opposing doubles pair includes at least one player in a wheelchair, any part of the wheelchair or a foot of a standing player crosses an imaginary extension of the center line of the table.

So for players who are in wheelchairs, table tennis doubles rules are slightly different. After returning serve, either player may play the next shot, and they do not have to play alternately. However, each player must remain in their own half, otherwise, they will lose the point. 

Playing Out of Order 

Rule 2.10.01.11 states: If a doubles opponent strikes the ball out of the sequence established by the first server and first receiver. This means that if you hit the ball out of sequence, the table tennis doubles rules say you lose the point. 

Order of Serving and Receiving 

The Backhand Flick

Rule 2.13.04 states: In each game of a doubles match, the pair having the right to serve first shall choose which of them will do so and in the first game of a match the receiving pair shall decide which of them will receive first; in subsequent games of the match, the first server having been chosen, the first receiver shall be the player who served to him or her in the preceding game. 

This means that you must follow the correct sequence for serving and receiving in doubles throughout the match. Once it has been decided which team will serve first at the beginning of the match, that team will decide which player in their team will serve first. Their opponents will then decide which player in their team will receive first. This sequence will then be maintained throughout that game, but in the next game, the sequence will be reversed. 

Change of Service 

Rule 2.13.05 states: In doubles, at each change of service the previous receiver shall become the server and the partner of the previous server shall become the receiver. This means that to abide by the table tennis doubles rules, all players must follow the correct sequence throughout each game.

Changing Ends and Order of Receiving 

Rules 2.13.06 and 2.13.07 state: The player or pair serving first in a game shall receive first in the next game of the match and in the last possible game of a doubles match, the pair due to receive next shall change their order of receiving when first one pair scores 5 points.

The player or pair starting at one end in a game shall start at the other end in the next game of the match and in the last possible game of a match the players or pairs shall change ends when one player or pair scores 5 points. This means that in the last possible game of a match, as soon as the one team has scored 5 points, the teams must change ends and the receiving pair must change their order of receiving.

Errors in Serving or Receiving 

Rule 2.14.01 states: If a player serves or receives out of turn, play shall be interrupted by the umpire as soon as the error is discovered and shall resume with those players serving and receiving who should be server and receiver respectively at the score that has been reached, according to the sequence established at the beginning of the match and, in doubles, to the order of serving chosen by the pair having the right to serve first in the game during which the error is discovered. 

This means that if during the course of a game you discover that you are not playing in the correct sequence, you must stop the game and resume playing in the correct sequence. The rules of table tennis say that all points scored before the discovery of the error shall remain. 

Errors in Changing Ends 

Rule 2.14.02 states: If the players have not changed ends when they should have done so, play shall be interrupted by the umpire as soon as the error is discovered and shall resume with the players at the ends at which they should be at the score that has been reached, according to the sequence established at the beginning of the match. 

This means that if during the course of a game you discover that you are not playing at the correct end of the table, you must stop the game and change ends. The table tennis doubles rules say that all points scored before the discovery of the error shall remain.

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Riley Draper

Riley Draper

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