Table tennis serving rules

Table tennis serving rules

There are the basic serving rules that every table tennis players should know! The official rules and regulations of ITTF help you to avoid doing the illegal serve in table tennis. I also explain some study cases of “fault serve”. The hand signals (gesture) of the umpire are also discussed.

Read more about the official laws of table tennis here.

The rules of serving in table tennis.

Here are the 5 basic table tennis serving rules with explications:

  • Throw the ball at least 16 cm
  • Throw near vertically
  • Use open palm
  • Serve behind the end line
  • Don’t hide the serve

1. Throw the ball 16 cm

You should throw the ball up, and the distance should be at least 16 cm from your fee arm.

Official serving rule - You must throw the ball higher than 16 cm
Official serving rule – You must throw the ball higher than 16 cm

2. Throw the ball near vertically

To do the legal service, you must throw the ball near vertically! If you throw toward your body, the umpire can call the “fault serve”.

Throw the ball horizontal toward your body is not allowed in table tennis
Throw the ball horizontal toward your body is not allowed in table tennis

3. Open palm

Your free arm which holds the ball must be open. The ball must rest on the palm, but not on your fingers.

Based on the regulation, you must open your palm while serving
Based on the regulation, you must open your palm while serving

4. Serving behind the end line

You hold the ball, and contact the ball behind the end-line. If you serve from the side of the table, it’s an illegal serve.

I’ve seen that Jun Mizutani was called “fault serve” when he served at the side of the table.

If you serve when the ball is inside the playing surface (the table’s surface), it’s illegal!

Hitting the ball inside the table is forbidden in table tennis
Hitting the ball inside the table is forbidden in table tennis

5. Not hide the serve

Hidden serve is very common in table tennis. It is considered as “tricky serve” in table tennis. Serveur can hide the ball with the head, the arm, and the shoulder.

Don’t hide your serve! It counters the official table tennis rules.

    Basic table tennis rules doesn't allow you to use any part of the body to hide the serveBasic table tennis rules don’t allow you to use any part of the body to hide the serve

Umpire hand signals for illegal serves

I’ve shown you some examples of the most used “illegal service” in table tennis. Here are some additional rules that you should know!

Sometimes the umpire won’t explain you “word by word” how to serve. They just call a “fault serve” with their gestures. So here are the hand signals of umpire about the serving rule that you understand!

Basic hand signal of the official table tennis umpire
Basic hand signal of the official table tennis umpire

Here are common 8 common table tennis serve fault (Based on the official ITTF Serving laws with Umpire Study Case)

  • Throwing not high enough
  • Palm is not open during the serve
  • Hidden serve
  • Throwing the ball behind the line
  • Throwing below the table
  • Ball rests on the palm
  • And serving inside the playing surface

1. Not high enough

To do the legal service, you need to throw the ball near vertically upwards, and at least 16cm after leaving your free arm.

This is how the umpire will explain your fault.

Her finger represents the ball, she can also say “Not High Enough”.

"Not High Enough" gesture from umpire
“Not High Enough” gesture from umpire

2. Palm Not Open

You should hold the ball with an open palm. This rule is to avoid impact spin on the ball with your hand.

The ball shall not be hidden by the server body or by anything they wear or carry.

Palm Not Open - Table Tennis Rules
Palm Not Open – Table Tennis Rules

3. Hidden Serve

In general, the player uses his body to hide the “contact point”. Here are the 3 most common cases:

  • Hidden By Arm
  • By Shoulder
  • By Head

Hidden serve by the head, and shoulder is the most used trick, by top players. ITTF umpires should focus more on this aspect to keep the game fair.

The umpire will fold her arm to her body and can say “Hidden serve” by your body.

Hidden serve hand signal from the ITTF umpire
Hidden serve hand signal from the ITTF umpire

4. Ball toss below the table

You can not throw the ball from below the table. It against the official ITTF table tennis rules.

The umpire will use the finger (represent the ball), her palm open downward represents the table. And this hand signal means “ball below the table”.

Throwing the ball below the table is not legal in table tennis
Throwing the ball below the table is not legal in table tennis

5. Ball toss from below playing surface

In table tennis, you should serve with the ball above the table surface and behind the server’s end line.

The umpire gives the point for your opponent. She uses her finger to show the ball, her palm opens downward to show the table.

She could say “inside the end line”.

6. Ball toss from inside playing surface

This fault is very common at the amateur level. Many new players throw the ball with their fingers! It’s not correct. The ball must stay on your palm, not your finger!

Don't serve inside the table surface. It's illegal
Don’t serve inside the table surface. It’s illegal

7. Ball resting on fingers

The umpire called a “fault serve”, and showed you that you throw the ball with your fingers. Her palm is open and upward which represents your free arm. Her finger shows the ball (which touches the fingers of your free arm).

Throwing the ball with your fingers is forbidden by ITTF
Throwing the ball with your fingers is forbidden by ITTF

8. Not Vertical

This is very subjective! ITTF didn’t cite how many angle (60 degrees, 80 degree, etc) which is an accepted angle. So you should throw the ball “near” vertically!

Some umpire will say, it’s OK! But another one could say “Fault Serve”. So it depends!

During your serve, it's a fault serve if the ball is not vertical
During your serve, it’s a fault serve if the ball is not vertical

Bad or good call of “Fault Service”?

Some of the ITTF umpires are “bad umpires”. Bad call affects not only the players but also the viewers. Let’s study and discuss this case, for example!

No offense! But some umpires don’t even know to serve correctly. Give them the racket and ask them to serve, you will laugh. Because they don’t play table tennis, they apply the rule in the “harsh” way.

Bad call of the ITTF international umpire
Bad call of the ITTF international umpire

The most “annoying” and “illegal” serve is “hidden serve”. If you play table tennis, you will understand this. In this case, the umpire made the “fault serve” of Ma Long, because he didn’t throw high enough, at least 16 cm. Let’s see.

You can clearly see that Ma Long threw the ball high enough. I’m sure that this is higher than 16 cm. Even with the camera angle is put high above, there is no problem with this service. It’s definitely a bad call! 🙁

I’m sometimes “angry” with the quality of some ITTF umpire, even the International level umpire. Some umpires even don’t play table tennis, they just take some formations about the rules, and try to “teach” the pro players how to serve!

I will make a video about 3 types of umpires in table tennis “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly”.

Now, you know the principles of the official table tennis serving rules. If you get the “fault serve”, you will understand the umpire’s message. And if the umpire is wrong! Please show your opinion! Don’t let the bad umpire ruins your match!

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