How To Play Table Tennis

The rules of table tennis will be different for a college table tennis tournament than they are in your basement during a raucous house party. For one thing, official games of table tennis don't involve beer bottles. Additionally, hitting the ball off the wall is against the rules (I know, I'm taking the fun out of it)... and the ball has to be completely spherical, too (the dented, warped ball you trampled won't work, I'm afraid). How you play table tennis in your basement is your business. The following are official rules for playing table tennis.

  1. Duration. A table tennis match can be any odd number of games you want it to be, but the "best-of" format is the rule; you can make your match "best three games out of five," "five games out of seven," seven of nine," or any odd-numbered "best-of" length you choose. When a player wins that designated majority, the match ends.

    So what is a game, you ask? A game consists of however many rallies it takes a player or doubles team to score 11 points. In the event that the score is tied at 10-10, the first player or team to pull ahead by two points wins the game.

  2. Scoring. Many people mistakenly think that table tennis is scored like volleyball, where you must be serving in order to add a point to your score. A player or team can score on any point they win, regardless of who's serving.
  3. The serve. During a game, players or teams take turns of two serves.
    • The server must begin by holding the ball in the flat upward palm of his free hand. That way, the server can't give the ball any wild spin while tossing the ball.
    • The ball must remain behind the server's end line until the ball is hit. None of those looming serves you do in the basement!
    • The ball must never be below table-level. In fact, the ball has to be in plain sight of the returner during the entire serve. Neither the server's clothing nor body can prevent the opponent from seeing the ball. In your basement, you may have had a hard time staying above table-level, so this rule might come as a surprise to you.
    • The server must toss the ball at least 16cm upward in the air and let it begin its descent before making contact with the racquet. I'm bringing my ruler, so don't try anything funny.
    • The server must hit the ball so that it bounces once on his side of the table, passes either over or around the net, and lands on his opponent's side of the table.
    • If the ball touches the net during serve, it is considered a "let," which basically means a non-scored "do-over." (Many believe the song "Let It Be" was actually written about a devastatingly close table tennis match, but they're sadly mistaken.)
    • In a doubles game, the server must hit the ball cross-court to the opponent diagonal from him, so that the ball bounces in both the right-half of the server's court and the right-half of the returner's court.
  4. The return. Now it's the returner's job to send the ball back to the server's court.
    • There aren't as many technical rules for the returner to follow. The returner must hit the ball so that it doesn't bounce on her side of the table, but rather flies over or around the net to bounce on her opponent's side.
    • In the event that her return touches the net, the point continues as long as the ball makes its first bounce on her opponent's side after touching the net.
    • If this is a doubles game, the return must land on the opponents' court specifically on the side of the partner who didn't serve.
  5. The rally. Now the all-out battle rages! Subtle spins, delicate touches, fierce cross-court angles - and did I mention fast pace? There are, however, some basic rules about how a player can use the racquet and hit a ball.
    • The thin edge of a racquet can't be used to hit a ball, and no matter how funny you think it'll look, trying to hit the ball with your racquet handle is against the rules, too.
    • A player must not let the ball touch any part of his or her body or any article of clothing either.
    • One of the most basic rules of table tennis is that the ball must only bounce once on your side of the table. If you let the ball bounce twice before hitting it back to your opponent, then you lose the point (and a tiny sliver of confidence, maybe).
    • You will also lose the point if you hit the ball into the net or hit the ball so that it misses your opponent's side of the table.
    • In doubles, the order of rallying is pretty rigid. The server hits cross-court to the returner, who in turn hits it to the server's partner. At this point, the server's partner has to hit the ball over the net to the returner's partner. That player hits it back to the server, and the same order continues throughout the entire rally until the point is won.
  6. Coin toss and the order of serves. Whether singles or doubles, a coin toss or something similar determines which person or team serves first in the first game of the match. In the next game, the person or team who returned first now gets to serve first.

    In doubles, the team that wins the right to first serve must decide which of the two players serves first. The partner of the server becomes the receiver when the other team gets to serve. The receiving player becomes the server next.

May you be victorious in all of your matches!



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