One aspect of table tennis gets people more animated than any other.
Or more precisely, illegal serves.
I play local league table tennis and illegal serves are very common. I’ve seen full-grown men (it’s always men!) argue, swear, throw chairs and threaten physical violence because of the questionable legality of a player’s serve.
Most of the time, players who serve illegally are unaware they are doing so. But there are players who do it on purpose to gain an advantage.
So in this blog post, I will state very clearly what the service rules are and encourage you to play by these rules. I have even made some videos which will help you see exactly what you need to do to serve legally.
Table tennis service rules
So let’s start with the official rules from the 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 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.
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.
220.127.116.11 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.
From my experience, the rule which is violated most often is not tossing the ball. Some players serve straight from the hand. This is not allowed. You have to toss the ball 16cm and contact the ball as it is falling.
16cm is not actually that high. It is roughly the height of the net. Or the height of your table tennis bat (excluding the handle).
The ball toss needs to be “near vertically”. So you shouldn’t excessively toss the ball backwards or excessively toss the ball into your body. This rule is a bit vague. Umpires can have a different definition of “near vertically”.
My advice is try to toss the ball vertically, but don’t worry too much if it is a bit back or a bit sideways. I think a little bit of backwards or sideways movement can be described as “near vertically”, so this is within the rules.
Another rule which is often violated, especially at advanced and pro levels, is hiding the ball from your opponent when you serve. Typically these players, will use their upper body or arm to hide the contact with the ball. This makes it very hard for their opponents to see what type of spin is on the ball.
For the serve to be legal, your opponent needs to be able to see the ball throughout the service action. This means you have to keep the ball above the table, on an open palm. As you toss the ball, it falls and you contact it, you can’t put any part of your body in the way to obscure the view of your opponent.
Sometimes, a visual explanation is easier to understand, so here is a short video where I explain some of these rules, but with actual demonstrations…
And if you have read the rules above and watched the video, here’s a little challenge for you. In this next video below, I do 10 different serves. Some are legal, some are illegal. Can you work out which serves are good and which serves are a bit naughty?
How to change your illegal service habit
Finally, I coach a few players who have illegal serves. They want to serve legally, but struggle to do so. Their serves are illegal, usually because they don’t toss the ball.
When they try to serve legally, their serves become much weaker.
The part they find most difficult is changing the timing of their swing when serving. With their illegal serve, they essentially release the ball and swing straight away.
But for a legal serve, you have to toss the ball up and wait for it to come back down again. This is what causes the problems. Some players mis-time the swing and miss the ball completely. Other players end up following the toss with their bat and contacting the ball high above the table, resulting in a very bouncy serve.
So the key here is timing. You have to get used to the very different timing when contacting the ball as it goes up and comes back down again.
How do you do this? Well, again I think a visual explanation will work better, so here’s another short video where I show you what to practice…
Do you have to serve legally?
If you only play for fun, in a social setting, and no one cares about the service rules, then it doesn’t matter how you serve. As long as everyone in the room agrees, then serve however you want.
But if you play competitively, or aspire to play competitively, you really should serve legally. The rules are very clear. And it’s pretty easy (with a bit of practice) to serve legally.
When you toss the ball up and contact the ball as it’s falling you’ll find you can generate more spin, speed, variations and deceptions. So there is a real incentive to serving legally. You can develop much stronger serves!