Want to know how to play table tennis? In this guide I will explain table tennis rules for both singles and doubles, show you how to play all the main strokes, give advice on how to serve and how to return serves. This guide includes all the information you need to play and improve at table tennis.
Rules of table tennis
Let’s start with the rules for singles play:
- Games are up to 11 points.
- A typical match is best of 5 games, although in international tournaments it is often best of 7.
- Each player has two serves before swapping.
- You can serve to any position on the table.
- When serving the ball must bounce on your side of the table and then your opponent’s side of the table.
- When serving, if the ball clips the top of the net and bounces on your opponent’s side, you call a let and replay the point.
- In a rally, the ball must bounce on your opponent’s side of the table. You are not allowed to volley the ball. If your ball goes into the net, you lose the point. If the ball does not hit the table, you lose the point.
- In a rally, if the ball clips the top of the net and bounces on your opponent’s side, and he/she cannot return, it is your point.
- In a rally, if the ball clips the edge of the table and your opponent cannot return, it is your point.
In doubles play, there are some additional rules:
- Every serve most go cross-court, starting from the right hand side of the table and landing on the opponent’s right hand side of the table.
- If the serve lands on the wrong side of the table, you lose the point
- After two serves, the server and his partner switch positions
- After the serve, you can hit the ball to any position and players can move anywhere
- Players must take it in turn to hit the ball
If you want to know all of the table tennis rules, please look at the handbook on the ITTF website.
Main table tennis shots
There are a range of shots you can use when playing table tennis. Here are the main ones.
Drive – A drive is an attacking shot. It’s played with a little bit of topspin, but mainly it’s a flat hit and can be very powerful. It can be used to hit winning shots.
Push – A push is a defensive stroke, where you contact the bottom of the ball to generate backspin. It is a safety shot which can make it difficult for your opponent to attack.
Topspin (or loop) – A topspin is an attacking shot where you brush the top area of the ball. Topspin is highly consistent way of attacking, as the spin generated makes the ball dip down onto the table.
- How to play a forehand topspin vs backspin
- How to play a backhand topspin vs backspin
- How to play a forehand topspin vs block
- How to play a backhand topspin vs block
Block – A block is a defensive shot which can be used to return a drive or topspin attack. It is a very short stroke, but it executed correctly, can return the ball very fast.
Flick – A flick is an attacking shot which can be used to return short balls, typically short backspin serves. It can be a very effective way of putting your opponent under pressure.
Smash – A smash is an attacking shot which can be used when the ball is very high. It is usually a very flat contact and very powerful.
Chop – A chop is a defensive stroke, usually played away from the table. It involves slicing under the ball to generate lots of backspin. It can be used to return topspin attacks.
Lob – A lob is a defensive shot, where you hit the ball high into the air. A lob can be played with topspin, sidespin or even backspin. It can be effective against players who struggle to smash.
Serving is a key aspect of table tennis. If you can serve well, you can gain a huge advantage against your opponent. But before we look at different types of serve, it’s important to understand how to do a legal serve.
- Before serving, your opponent must be able to see the ball. This means your palm should be open and above the table.
- You must toss the ball upwards at least 16cm and hit the ball as it is falling.
- You must contact the ball behind the table.
- You cannot obscure the contact with the ball with any part of your body.
- The ball must bounce on your side of the table and your opponent’s side of the table.
Read more about how to do a legal table tennis serve (includes video tutorial)
There are three main types of serve:
Backspin serve – This is a serve where you brush under the ball to generate backspin. It is used to make it hard for your opponent to attack. If you generate lots of backspin your opponent may hit the ball into the net.
Topspin serve – This is a faster serve, which is usually used to set up an open attacking rally. You can do a basic topspin serve, where you brush over the top of the ball or a disguised topspin serve where you brush up the back of the ball. If you generate lots of topspin, your opponent may hit the ball off the end of the table.
Sidespin serve – This is a very popular type of serve. To generate the sidespin you brush the side of the ball. It is possible to generate sidespin with backspin, and sidespin with topspin. Sidespin serves can make it harder for your opponent to keep the ball on the table.
If you would like to learn more serves, please look at these video lessons.
Returning serves is often the hardest part of table tennis for many players. If you can get good at returning serves it will help you win a lot more points and matches. Here’s how you can return the main types of serve:
Backspin serve – Return with a push, flick or topspin. The easiest method to return a backspin serve is with a push. This will prevent the ball going into the net. But as you improve you should try returning short backspin serves with a flick and long backspin serves with a topspin.
Topspin serve – Return with a block, drive or topspin. The easiest method to return a topspin serve is a block. You don’t have to try very hard and the ball will still be returned with speed. As you improve you should try returning topspin serves with a drive or your own topspin shot.
Sidespin with backspin serve – Return with a push, flick, block, topspin. Return in the same way as you would return a backspin serve, but aim more to the middle of the table to counteract the sidespin. You may find it easier to push to start with, but as you improve try to flick or topspin.
Sidespin with topspin serve – Return with a block, drive or topspin. Return in the same way as you would return a topspin serve, but aim more to the middle of the table. Start by returning these serves with a block, but as you improve try returning with a drive or topspin.
Reading the spin – It is also very important that you can read the spin of the serve. Make sure you are watching your opponent’s bat when he/she serves. If the bat is moving down when it contacts the ball it is likely to be a backspin serve. If the bat is moving up when it contacts the ball it is likely to be a topspin serve. Here’s a useful video on how to read service spin.
If you would like to learn more about returning serves, please look at these video lessons.
Improving your skills
If you play for an hour or more each week, then you should experience some improvement. But if you want to improve quicker, then it is useful to practice with a purpose, e.g. doing training drills, learning new shots, developing existing skills.
There’s lots of table tennis coaching videos available online to help you improve. These videos will teach you how to play various shots and give you ideas on how to practice.
On my website, I have 70+ video lessons with advice from myself and other coaches. My videos cover technique, tactics, service, receive, training and more.
I also recommend the Table Tennis Daily Academy coaching site. This is a site you have to pay for, but the videos are very good quality and worth the money in my opinion. They have a range of coaching videos on technique, tactics, service, returning serves, psychology and training drills. New content is added every month.
There are lots more options which you can read about on my Online Table Tennis Lessons page.
Finally, I have 150+ articles about table tennis on website – training tips, match tactics, equipment advice and much more. The content of every article is inspired by my own coaching and playing experience. These articles contain loads of useful advice to help you improve at table tennis.
I hope you have found this guide to table tennis useful. If you need help with your table tennis game, then please feel free to ask me a question.