5 Service Rules You Need to Know

Wednesday, November 11th, 2009

Table Tennis Service Rules

I’ve heard a number of ridiculous rules brought about by recreational players that are just silly. I’ll try to dispel some of these myths and give a short-list of the essential rules you need to know when serving. If you can follow the rules outlined here, this should prevent 99% of the conflicts that often arise from not following rules.

The Myths

  1. Myth #1: In a singles match, you have to serve diagonally (like in doubles).
    In Doubles, you’re required to serve from the right half of your side to the opposite side in the opponent’s half (diagonally). But this rule doesn’t apply at all in Singles. You’re free to serve anywhere, diagonally or straight, from any location.
  2. Myth #2: When you serve, the ball cannot fall off the side of the table. It must bounce twice or fall off the far end.
    When you serve, the ball is allowed to go anywhere, whether double-bouncing on the table, going off the end, or going off the sides. There’s no restriction on location as long as it hits both sides of the table. Update: Apparently this myth comes from the rules regarding players in wheelchairs but has been mistakenly applied to standing players. It’s there to prevent serves from going out of reach while seated.
  3. Myth #3: After you toss the ball, you can catch the ball and re-serve.
    This isn’t normal tennis. Once you toss the ball, the ball is in play and you cannot decide that you don’t like your toss and re-do it. Just make the best of it and complete the serve!

Service Rules

Here are the rules you need to know:

  1. You must toss the ball upward at least 16cm or 6 inches. (Rule 2.06.02)
    A lot of players players don’t get the required height from their toss and will either hit the ball right out of their hand or do a quick drop-and-hit. This creates an unfair advantage because it takes more skill and focus to control a ball on a higher toss than a drop-and-hit where the ball is practically stationary in the air.
  2. Your toss must be “near vertically upward”, not heavily sideways or backward. (Rule 2.06.02)
    It’s common to see players throwing the ball backward (away from the table) to help generate more underspin, but try to avoid this practice. Your toss should be mainly vertical, with very little horizontal movement in any direction. It’s somewhat problematic that the rule is vague as it doesn’t give a definition of how straight your toss must be. Can you toss it at a 45° angle? Is that vertical enough? Referees will use their own discretion, but try not to dance on the fine line. My own tosses are generally about 15° from the vertical.
  3. You must strike the ball as it is on its way down. (Rule 2.06.02)
    You can’t hit the ball as it’s on the rise from your toss, it must have started falling before you make contact. It doesn’t have to drop all the way down to the point where you tossed it, but it has to be falling. So if you tossed it 20cm high, you can hit it when it drops even 1cm from the top of the toss.
  4. The entire serve (from toss to first contact with racket) must start behind the end line and above the table surface. (Rule 2.06.04)
    Some players will either start the toss with the ball already inside the table, or will strike the ball while the ball is over the table, which is illegal. Also, the ball height must always be above the table surface, so you can’t wind up your super-high toss by starting the toss below the table surface.
  5. You cannot hide the ball with your body or arm during serve. (Rule 2.06.04 and 2.06.05)
    According to the old rules, you could leave your free arm in front to obscure the view of the receiver so they can’t see what serve you’re doing, but that has changed. Now you must remove your free arm (and body) so that the receiver has full view of the ball throughout the entire serve process.

If you can just follow these rules, you should be able to avoid any fisticuffs and expletives at your next tournament. If you’re very thorough you can have a look at the ITTF rule book, but it’s a pretty dry read, so you would do fine by just following this post. Or just check out the service rules.

And if you want to improve your serves, check out the Serves section in the Coach Wiki, or the Serve Training Videos section.

Have you ever had a bad encounter due to opponents breaking the rules?

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65 Responses to “5 Service Rules You Need to Know”

  1. Tauqeer Ahmad says:

    Yes in my office every body is doing wrong services and I have bad encounter with them.

  2. Ryan says:

    I’m sorry but your #2 myth is actually true. Here’s the rule:

    The serve is a let when: in singles leaves the receiver’s court after touching it by either of its sidelines.

    The wording is a little strange here. I read this as if your serve touches the receiver’s court and then exits the receivers court by the sideline, the serve is a let. So, the only 2 ways to get around this is to have the ball exit the baseline or bounce twice.

    I know the rules are being updated regularly, so maybe this is new since you wrote this.

    • Arthur Lui says:

      Actually, that applies to players in wheelchairs: ( if the receiver is in wheelchair owing to a physical disability and in service the ball, provided that the service is otherwise correct, after touching the receiver’s court returns in the direction of the net; comes to rest on the receiver’s court; in singles leaves the receiver’s court after touching it by either of its sidelines.

      And yes, it’s also very awkwardly worded.

      • Ryan says:

        Very true, thanks for the clarification. I failed to look at the numbering and thought all lines in the Let Section applied to any serve.

      • Jackson R says:

        I would like some clarification on the serve. The ball is allowed to exit the table on the end or either side; however, if (on the serve) it hits the 2cm white and then goes off the side is it fair? I read that it is a let if it happens in that way.

    • phil leiff says:

      just ignored the not legal serves and moved on
      should we now start calling bad serves and pretend to know more than the server
      who will be appointed referee
      if it isn’t broke do not fix it

    • Joe says:

      This rule is specifically for players in wheelchairs.

    • Bill Bradbury says:

      I’m pretty sure that’s when it hits the edge

  3. Kalifa says:

    Hi am just wondering if u can answer me a small question, where r u supposed to stand when u serve? Or more specificly where rnt u allowed to stand when u serve? Do u have to Stand in the middle between the sidelines or can u serve from the outside of the sidelines?

    • Arthur Lui says:

      It’s not where YOU stand, it’s the position of the ball. I believe the ball must be behind the end line, between the sidelines, and above the height of the table.

      • kiran parry says:

        In table tennis you can serve from the left edge, right edge or behind the backline. You can not serve anywhere from the side of the table left of right. If you are right handed and have your left foot first you want to make sure when serving from the edge all of your right foot is behind the backline and your left foot being to your backline. You can stand anywhere behind the backline, left corner, right corner but serving from the side is illegal even though the ball may still be thrown from behind the backline.
        Arthur the ball must be behind the end line I am not sure what you mean though between the side lines. You can serve in any angle. In singles you don’t have to serve into a certain box that only applies with the doubles rules. You can serve from the right box into your opponents left or right box or more towards the middle of their side if you like. Its up to you what corner or side you serve from and where you want the ball to land has long has the serve is held in your hand for your opponent to see and is thrown vertical for your opponent to see and the ball is behind your backline then it is okay. The serve mainly must be held in your hand, thrown up and you can’t serve until the ball has fallen. The ball must be visible for you opponent at all times on the serve.
        I hope all this now makes sense.

        • Arthur Lui says:

          Hi Kiran,

          By “side lines”, I’m referring to the lines that run along the side of the table (the long edge of the table). So if you extend those lines further, off the table, I think the ball must still be between the two side lines (but behind the end line of the table, not over top of the table). So the ball cannot be left of the left edge of the table, or right of the right edge of the table. That’s the part I’m not sure of, whether the side lines matter.

          • starkey says:

            The only stipulation for where the ball must be during service is behind the end line and in full view of your opponent and the umpire. You can hold the ball at the left or right side barrier and serve from there if you wish, as long as the ball is behind the end line (this includes the infinite extension of the end line).

            There is also no rule about where a player must be positioned. You can stand with your back to your opponent and stretch your arms back behind the end line and serve if you wish.

  4. Anser Ahmedi says:


    My friend was saying that when you hold the ball before the toss, your hand should be flat, so the ball is shown. Is this true? I will find it hard to toss a ball with a flat hand!

    • Arthur Lui says:

      Yes it’s true. But you can still make a “slight” cup in your hand by raising your fingers by 20 degrees so the ball comfortably rests in one spot, not rolling around on a perfectly flat hand. Just don’t curl your fingers up and cover the ball. You’ll get used to it after a while.

    • Arthur Lui says:

      You’ll also need a more controlled toss to prevent the ball from rolling mid-toss.

  5. Howard says:

    When preparing to serve, I know that you must not obscure the ball from your opponent. Does the umpire need to be able to see the ball at all times before you serve?

    • Arthur Lui says:

      That I’m not totally sure of. If the umpire is on the side facing your back, then it’s impossible, so ‘no’. On your front side, I’m not sure how you’d be able to hide it from the umpire.

  6. Aaron says:

    When you toss the ball, can you let it drop? or once intending to hit the ball (exp. executing a toss) are you forced to use that one. Thanks

  7. Jack says:

    Going back to service: a) is it a let if the ball bounces once and goes off side (or not end line) of opponent? b) is it a let -or a point- if it bounces twice on opponents side?

    • Arthur Lui says:

      I’m not sure I get the first situation (a). If you serve, and the ball bounces on your side, then on the opponent’s side, and goes off the side of the table, then it’s the server’s point. This is essentially referring to Myth #2 in the post. There’s no rule saying that the ball shouldn’t go off the side.

      For (b), if the ball lands on the opponent’s side and bounces twice, the server gets the point. Again, there’s no restriction on where the ball must go, except that it must first hit the server’s side, then the receiver’s side. It’s all fair game.

      If you watch the pro matches, you’ll see a lot of low, short serves that would double-bounce on the receiver’s side. And you would see some that would fall off the side after the first bounce on the receiver’s side.

    • Mannchu says:

      Its a let if it hits your side of the table, hits the net then goes over to the other side of the table.

  8. ed says:

    Number 4 states that the whole serve must be behind the line, but I see many pros hold the ball over the table when preparing to serve. Presumably they toss the ball backwards, which is illegal, right?

    • Arthur Lui says:

      When I watch the pros, I rarely see the *ball* starting over the table. I often see them hang their *arm* over the table, but the ball is just off the end of the table, so it’s legal. I’ve only seen one or two pros start the ball over the table.

      But again, tossing backwards is legal depending on the angle. If the angle is too far backwards, the umpire might call it. But most pro players on a forehand serve toss the ball around 15 degrees backward (measuring from the release point to the top of the height of the toss. 45 degrees backward would likely get called by the umpire.

  9. thomas bailey says:

    A serve is a let if it touches the net but still bounces in the opponent’s area.
    What if the serve is good but only touches the top outside edge of the white line on the table and does not bounce up but dips down (unplayable!!). Is this a let??? If it is in normal play the net ball and the edge ball are all fair play and you just say bad luck but what about the top edge service

    • Arthur Lui says:

      The edge counts as part of the “top” of the table, so it is a live ball. It’s not “unplayable”, it’s just very “difficult” to play.

      If you can master your serves so you always hit an edge, you’re free to do that, but nobody will like you 🙂

  10. vrishank says:

    Can our racket cross the sideline during service!???

  11. Jos Kelly says:

    What is the protocol when an opponent isn’t really throwing the ball up 16cm but rather only throws it a few cm but started with their hand high and dropped their hand down quickly so that at a casual glance it appears the ball was thrown high enough. Is this considered acceptable or should it be challenged? I watch my son play a lot of local league matches where this happens an awful lot but no umpire yet has bothered to pick up on it.

    • Arthur Lui says:

      Well technically, the height of 16cm only counts once the ball leaves their hands, so your son can politely tell both the umpire and his opponent that the toss isn’t high enough. But it should be your son who asks him, not yourself. Parents calling out fouls from the sidelines usually just raises tensions and creates conflict. So between games, you can remind your son to talk to the umpire and the player. But if the umpire doesn’t call it, then there’s probably nothing you can do. Is the umpire a trained umpire, or simply another player in the round robin group and all the players rotate being the umpire for the other players?

  12. Jos Kelly says:

    Thanks. That’s really useful information. I do keep my mouth shut as I know parental interference is not a good thing! He’s a kid playing in an adult league where the standard of serving is appalling. I asked an opposing team captain about it recently and he said he believes there’s a gentlemans agreement to not take any notice of the ‘new’ service rules which I know is untrue but it’s not easy to get it sorted. Sometimes my son looks more like he’s a goalie in a penalty shoot out than playing TT! Most blatant infringements are now being dealt with but the one I asked about is one that seems to be lingering and one that is not properly understood so your clarification will help a lot.

    • Arthur Lui says:

      As far as calling illegal serves, I only call it if I think it’s actually creating an advantage. The classic example is the toss that barely goes up 2cm, and the player strikes it at the top of the toss (essentially able to hit a stationary ball and impart lots of spin), which would be much harder to do if it was a 16cm toss. In those cases I call it. But there are infractions that are minor that really don’t create a benefit, such as cupping the ball with the hand instead of having an open palm at the start of the toss, so I just let those slide. No point creating all this conflict when it doesn’t even impact the result of the game, though official umpires may call them (and often do).

      Based on your description of the offense, I’m not totally clear whether it’s creating an advantage.

  13. Jerry says:

    I have a question about serves.
    If after you serve the ball it hits the end of the table on the server’s side and goes straight back, is it a let or the opponents point?

  14. Rexa says:

    Hi everyone, maybe you already answered this but I didn’t get it! If the serve hits the the server side and after hits the side line on the opponent side, just nipping the edge and not really bouncing up, is a let, a point for the server or a point for the opponent? Thank you

    • Arthur Lui says:

      It depends whether you’re saying it’s an “edge ball” (which counts) or hits only the side of the table (out).

      As with all edge balls, the ball is still playable as if it hit the top of the table. And if it hits only the side of the table then it counts as “out” and the receiver gets the point.

      This case is never a let.

    • Peter Ozanne says:

      It’s a point for the server. I can’t think of any way that a serve could hit the vertical side of the table, below the edge – unless you were playing outside: you serve, the ball goes over the net, over the side, there’s a gust of wind, and the ball blows back, but hits the table below the edge – then it WOULD be a foul serve; but how likely is that?
      Other shots could be hit from wide of the table, and thus hit the edge or below. generally, if they go down, they are out – but even referees find it hard to get these right in every case!

  15. James says:

    Can I serve to openents side (edge I say you can’t he says you can

    • Arthur Lui says:

      You can serve to the opponent’s edges (either on the end of the table or either side), and you would win the point. But if you serve to his “side” (lower than the edge), your opponent gets the point.

      Note that it’s much harder to hit a true “side” lower than the edge, as you’d have to use sidespin to exit the side of the table and then curve back in to miss the side edge and hit the side below the edge.

  16. Peter Ozanne says:

    There is a serious problem calling serves “in” or “out” in doubles. I wonder if anyone has any ideas about this.
    This is what often happens: Server serves, ball lands either ON the line or 1, 2, or 3 cm INSIDE it (i.e. as much as, or even over, 1 inch), and the receiver calls “out”!
    With a bit of to and fro, usually a let can be obtained, but I think I am not the only one who finds this frustrating.
    The difficulty is this: the receiver – and I have also observed this in myself – has the WORST view of the serve, his partner almost as bad, and the server and his partner have the best view. Why? Because;
    1. The ball is moving much faster across the receiver’s field of vision, so it’s physically harder for him/her to follow it. Try this yourself: hold out 2 fingers horizontally, and imagine the ball crossing the net, then landing in front of you. It moves several HAND-widths thru your f.o.v. BUT, if YOU hit a ball, between crossing the net and landing on the other side, it might only move a couple of fingers’ width thru your F.O.V.
    2. The ball may have swerve on it, because of sidespin. The service may approach the receiver at some angle, and it may APPEAR to be heading for the “foul” side of the table -but the swerve brings it across the centre line at the last moment, and it lands in. The problem here is that expectation – prejudgement – can affect our perception – we get visual signals that the ball may be going to land on the wrong side, and we also WANT it to land out, so that’s what we “see”.
    These are the 2 main causes of wrong calls by the receiver. This causes annoyance, and even argument if it happens repeatedly, so my suggestions are:
    First, if possible, players should walk through the mental and physical difficulties that any receiver faces when calling.
    Second – and this is IMO the best way to minimise the hassle of wrong calls – suggest that all 4 players actively watch the serve land. Call AGAINST your serving partner if you see the serve out. Ask the other players opinions: if there’s a clear 3 to 1 call – either “in” or “out”, go with that. If not, and if it was very close to the line, play a let.
    Beyond that, as a player trying to hit the ball, I am acutely aware HOW HARD it really is to WATCH the ball all the way until it hits my bat. If I MYSELF practice that, I know I will also reduce the difficulty of judging the serves I MYSELF am receiving.

  17. Matt Walton says:

    Yeah this jerk in my office tried to pass off Myth #2 as a real rule. Even though he forfeited that game, he still beat me 3 games to 2.

  18. moe zaid says:

    What if the ball touches my finger during playing ??? Is it FOUL??

  19. Jim Lee says:

    I’ve met older players who still think that the serve must be performed between the two side lines, that they can’t break the sidelines and serve from a wide angle. I wonder if that “rule” use to exist.

  20. Konrad says:

    What if you have multiple let serves in a row? Is their a limit by which the receiver gets a point? So if the server serves the ball and it hits the net and the ball lands in the receivers court it is a let. If this happens again immediately on the next serve, is it a point for the receiver?

  21. Aneeket adhlakha says:

    What will happen if the ball touches your hand while you areserving?

  22. augurybot says:

    Myth #2 is no myth. The ball must pass over the receiver’s front line. It’s ridiculous to serve off the side of the table… You could put the receiver at a major positional disadvantage every time
    In concerning a “let”….
    In singles leaves the receiver’s court after touching it by either of its sidelines.

    • Arthur Lui says:

      As addressed in an earlier comment, the rules apply only to those in wheelchairs. if the receiver is in wheelchair owing to a physical disability and in service the ball, provided that the service is otherwise correct,…

      The pros don’t use these kinds of serves that often because the top players can take a serve like that and loop it around the net. But I use it occasionally as a surprise.

      This serve is actually one of the signature serves from He Zhi Wen and it’s a big part of his game. He likes moving his opponents to the wide angles to make them run around.

    • Bradley Worthy says:

      If you read some of the other rules before that one you will see a couple that will convince you. Its a let if the ball comes to rest on the receivers end, bounces backwards towards the net after landing on the receivers end…. ect. Under the bit about wheelchairs, the following rules all refer to wheelchair play.

  23. Max says:

    In singles or doubles game, if a player serves the ball, it bounces once on server’s court and than on receiver’s court it just touches the side lines and goes off the track, will the server has to do the serve again (like we do re-serve when ball touches the net) or it’s a point.
    We also call it Lucky Point.

  24. Saurabh says:

    Is their any limit to how far one can stand behind the end line while serving… I like to stand 2mtrs behind the end line while serving

  25. Anoop says:

    In doubles,while doing serve,the ball touches the net and bounced on the receiver’s left hand box.Is that a re-serve ,or the receiver gets the point?

    • Arthur Lui says:

      When you say it lands on the “left” side, is that the side it’s normally supposed to land on for a valid serve, or the wrong side? If it’s the correct side, then it’s a “let” and you re-serve. If it’s the wrong side, then it’s the other team’s point.

  26. Hector says:

    Hi, in a doubles game, in service, the ball touch de net an fall in the wrong side (left part of the table of the receiver player) this is a bad service? loose the point?
    thanks !!

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