Official table tennis rules and regulations

There are some myths about the actual rules of table tennis, so it’s time to clear out the picture and provide a comprehensive guide that is strictly based on ITTF principles. 

The aim of the game

Before we dive deep into the details, let’s see what the actual goal of the game is and how it’s played. Table tennis, otherwise known as ping pong, is a game played as singles – when one person plays against another person – or doubles – where two people play against two other people. The aim of the game is to win 3 or 4 sets faster than the opponent player(s). To win a set one must score 11 points and be at least two points ahead. For instance, if the scores are 10-10, the game carries on until one player or double pair has a two-point lead. To score a point, you must aim to hit the table tennis ball with your paddle over the net and onto your opponent’s side of the table without the opponent returning the ball.

Table tennis must-have equipment

The table

The upper surface of the table, known as the playing surface, has a rectangular shape, with 2.74m in length and 1.525m in width. The surface can be made of any material and the ball should bounce about 23cm when a standard ball is dropped onto it from a height of 30cm. The color of the surface should be dark and/or matt. The most usual colors are blue and green. There is a central line that divides the table, but this is practically used only in doubles. The surface is divided into 2 equal courts by a vertical net running parallel with the end lines. The net is 15.25cm above the table surface.

The ball

In 2014, ITTF introduced to all World title events the plastic balls instead of the traditional celluloid balls. One of the major reasons breaking with the celluloid balls lies in its flammability. Due to the high-risk factors, ITTF had to act and come up with a new idea.

As they wanted to move from the classic, celluloid balls, new regulations came into place regarding the size, shape and material of the ball. As the rule states now, the ball shall be spherical and 40+mm diameter. The color of the table tennis ball is either orange or white and has a stamp on the surface, which – among others – indicates the brand. 

There were a lot of concerns about whether the new plastic ball would have a big impact on the game, which was actually another major goal of introducing it. But this hasn’t really happened. ITTF also intended to slow down the rallies in order to make the game more traceable for the fans. However, the players adjusted their techniques and tactics quickly and the game is actually becoming even more rapid.

Professionals shall use the new plastic table tennis balls, which are identified by the “40+” printed on them. The + symbol indicates that it is a new size. If the ball just says 40 or 4mm, without the + symbol, it will most likely be the old celluloid ball.

The table tennis racket

Another crucial equipment of the game is clearly, the table tennis racket or so-called paddle.

The racket may be of any size, shape or weight but the blade shall be flat and rigid. At least 85% of the blade by thickness shall be of natural wood; an adhesive layer within the blade may be reinforced with fibrous material such as carbon fiber, glass fiber or compressed paper, but shall not be thicker than 7.5% of the total thickness or 0.35mm, whichever is the smaller. A side of the blade used for striking the ball shall be covered with either ordinary pimpled rubber, with pimples outwards having a total thickness including adhesive of not more than 2.0mm, or sandwich rubber, with pimples inwards or outwards, having a total thickness including adhesive of not more than 4.0mm

Racket control

During most of the professional competition, there’s racket control. This might happen randomly or voluntarily. The former means that the referee staff decides to check both players’ rackets without their intent, and the later when the players take to test their racket by choice. 

In general, the racket control includes the following steps:

  • Checking the supplier and brand name of the rubber.
  • Measuring the flatness of the racket.
  • Measuring the thickness of the racket.
  • Checking glue, gas and rubber cleaner substantials and their measures.
  • Checking the brightness of the racket. It’s also called a glass check.

If the racket meets all requirements, the player is allowed to use it for the game.

The gameplay

First, flip a coin

Before the game starts the referee decides who’s going to serve first. She flips a coin and asks one of the players – mostly who’s indicated as a guest – to choose from either starting a game with a service or selecting one side of a table.

Once it’s decided, the actual game begins with a service itself. A serving player must serve with the ball in his open palm behind the table. As the rule states, the ball must be thrown up 16cm height in the air and bounce on each side of the table. The opponent then tries to return the ball and makes the opponent miss hitting the ball back. This can go back and forth, which is called a “rally”. Hitting the ball over the net onto the table so that the opponent can’t return it, sounds simple enough, but it’s actually quite hard in practice, especially on a professional level. 

The order of the play

In singles events, the server begins with a service, the receiver shall then return and thereafter the players alternately shall each make a touch. In doubles, it differs a little bit. As in singles, one of the players begins with a service, the receiver shall then make a return, the partner of the server shall then make a return, the partner of the receiver shall then make a return and thereafter each player in turn in that sequence shall make a return. It sounds complicated, but actually it’s quite simple once you get used to that.

Things you can’t do in table tennis

There are a lot of things you should keep in mind, if you want to win a rally: 

  • One cannot hit directly onto the ground outside the area of play. 
  • One cannot hit the ball twice in succession. 
  • One cannot allow the ball to bounce more than once. 
  • One cannot hit the ball before it has bounced on one side of the table
  • One shouldn’t hit the ball into the net and let it land on one’s half of the table.
  • One shouldn’t touch the ball with any part of the body, except with the bat. According to the new rule, if one of the fingers touches the ball, then the racket that counts as valid.
  • One cannot put the non-playing hand on the table.

If you commit any of these errors, it results in your opponent being awarded a point.

Regulations which deals with time

It’s necessary to talk about time and its limitations as they may have quite a big impact on the game.

2 minutes warm-up before the start

The players have two minutes to play some rallies – as a warm-up – before the actual game. Although, if they wish, they can decide to start the match earlier. In this period, normally the players only practice some basic shots and check whether the selected ball is alright.

When the two minutes warm-up is over, the referee calls time and the game shall begin.

1 minute-long break between the sets

Once one of the players reaches 11 points or is 2 points ahead the set is over. Until starting out the new set, the players can consult with their coaches and come up with new tactic ideas if needed. It’s a must-have refresher and resting time that adds excitement to the game.

According to the new regulations, the players can even take a sit behind the court barrier during the break. It’s a good opportunity to take a few deep breaths and gether strength for the upcoming set.


Both players (as well as double partners) can claim a one-minute long time-out period once in a match. To do so, they have to either say it out loud or shape a T-sign with their hands. Afterward, the referee holds up and places a white card on the side of the player who makes the request. Once, the 1-minute break is over, the referee calls time and the players are obliged to continue playing.

Some amazing comebacks happened after a well-timed time out call. Players have managed to turn back the whole game from even seemingly impossible situations.

Towel break

During the match, the players are allowed to take short towel-off breaks after every 6 points, so for example, when the score is 4:2, 6:6, 10:6, etc. This is more like a mental break when the players have a chance to prepare for the upcoming rallies or clear their heads.

It’s really rare to see professionals not taking this opportunity. Even if a player is leading or legging behind it’s a cumposlory ceremony.

What about the time limit between rallies?

The short answer, there isn’t an official time limit between the rallies. However, the play should be continuous, so it’s the referee’s responsibility to eliminate time-wasting, which sounds quite subjective, right?

The fact that some players use time-wasting as a tactic to annoy their opponents. Others prefer to begint the next rally as quickly as possible. If these players meet each other, there might be some misunderstanding regarding the fair time limit. And here comes the referee who’ll decide who’s right and who’s wrong.

Photo credit: ITTF

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