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How to execute a table tennis serve

Table tennis, also known by the more colloquial ‘ping pong’, is a sport in which players hit a lightweight, hollow plastic ball over a small net with their racket such that it bounces on the other side of the 2.75m table. It is essentially a miniature version of tennis, with the one major exception being that volleys are not allowed. In this article, I explain the rules and techniques of the serve in the game.

Determining serve

The first serve (and, indeed, second) of the game is officially decided by lot, typically a coin toss (a common but unsanctioned method of determining serve is ‘playing to serve’ - playing ¾ friendly shots and then playing a competitive rally with the winner serving). The player with the serve gets two serves, then hands over to the opponent for his/her two serves, and the process is repeated until the game is finished (first to 11 points with 2 clear points). The first server alternates in each game.

Rules of the serve

The server stands behind the ‘end line’ (table edge) and holds the ball with an open palm in his ‘freehand’ (non-serving hand). He then tosses the ball directly upwards at least 16 cm (approximately 6 inches), without spinning and without encroaching upon the ‘playing surface’ (table and area above), hitting the ball on its descent. Not observing this rule can be a great advantage to professionals, so it is illegal for pros, but its effect is negligible for casual players who often do not observe this rule, or at least, not strictly. Players are not allowed to obscure their opponent’s view of the striking of the ball and thus perceived imparted spin. The player hits the table tennis ball so that it first hits his side of the table then bounces over to bounce on his opponent’s. It used to be that the ball had to land in opposite diagonal quarters, but now that rule is reserved for doubles play. The rally then progresses with each players shot only bouncing on the opposite side.

Techniques

Due to the lightweight nature of the ball a lot of spin can be imparted on it. The need for this is pronounced with the serve because it is hard to generate power on it naturally. Therefore, players will do a topspin serve or, more usually cut down on the ball to create backspin and/or cut to the side of the ball to create side spin. Typically players from East Asian countries like China are particularly good at this.

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