There are the basic serving rules that every table tennis player 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.
Illegal serve in table tennis
There are 5 types of illegal serves in table tennis. To make the game fair, you need to follow these official table tennis serving rules.
1. Hidden serve:
2. Throw in serve and low toss serve:
3. Quick serve (bad manner serve):
4. Taking a too long time to serve
5. In the table serve:
Table Tennis Serve Rules
Here are the 5 basic table tennis serving rules with explications:
- Throw the ball at least 16 cm
- Throw 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 free arm.
2. Throw the ball vertically
To do the legal service, you must throw the ball almost vertically! If you throw toward your body, the umpire can call the “fault serve”.
The angle is acceptable when you throw the ball smaller than 30 degrees.
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.
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!
5. Not hide the serve
Don’t hide your serve! It counters the official table tennis rules.
Umpire hand signals for illegal serves
The umpire hand signals are very well explained by the official ITTF rules.
There are 8 umpire hand signals that every players and umpire need to learn and understand.
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 to you “word by word” how to serve. They just call a “fault serve” with their gestures. So here are the hand signals of the umpire about the serving rule that you understand!
Here are common table tennis serve faults (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
- The 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”.
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.
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.
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”.
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 the 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!
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).
8. Not Vertical
This is very subjective! ITTF didn’t cite how many angles (60 degrees, 80 degrees, 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!
How to do a legal serve in table tennis?
Above are the basic example of a legal table tennis serve. The ITTF official service rules are explained in detail here.
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.
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.
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.
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!
You should read
Coach EmRatThich was born in Hanoi, Vietnam in 1983. He started playing table tennis at the age of 8. After finishing his Ph.D. in Paris, University Pierre Marie Curie (Sorbonne University) in 2011, he is now a table tennis coach in a small club in France (about 153 players). Interested in table tennis coaching for a global audience, he founded pingsunday.com, one of the best online coaching programs for table tennis players. Using the Chinese coaching philosophy, his table tennis lessons are free, which allows many table tennis players to improve fast. He can speak English, French, Vietnamese, and a little bit of Chinese.