Contrary to what many players think, the serve is arguably the most crucial shot in table tennis. You can expect to serve at least half the time in your average game of singles.
The serve is also the best time to get one over your opponent. You have total control of the ball at this point, and you also don’t want to give ‘free’ points to your opponent.
You can learn to exploit your opponent’s weaknesses as you get better at the game. A good serve is one that makes it difficult for your opponent to make an effective or powerful attack. In this guide, we will go through the service rules, learn how to serve, and go through a few quick tips to improve your table tennis serve.
Table Tennis Serve Rules According to the ITTF
The International Table Tennis Federation handbook lays out the rules for what makes a legal serve. Once you understand these rules, the section on how to serve in table tennis will make much more sense. We will cover the most important regulations related to serving.
Holding the Ball for Service
The main thing to remember here is that it is illegal to spin the ball when you toss it in the air for service. The main reason for this rule is to prevent the ball from spinning during the toss.
The ball should rest still on the palm of your hand. Open your free hand with the fingers pointing forwards. Your free hand is the one you are using to hold the ball for service. The ball should be on the palm, not on the fingers. Also, do not cup your hand when holding the ball for service.
Ball Location for Service
The ball should be visible to the receiver at all times. This is why it must rest on your open palm. Additionally, make sure that your free hand is above the table and behind the end line.
You may have a finger (usually the thumb) in front of the end line, provided that the ball is behind the line. Again, you can have part of your body in front of the end line as long as the ball remains behind the line.
You can also hit the ball from the side of the table. You do not have to be behind your side of the court while serving.
Tossing the Ball
The ball should go up at least 16 cm or 6.3 inches in the air for the serve to be considered legal. This distance also accounts for the distance between your palm and the ball. In short, do not raise your hand to the required height and release the ball to let if fall. You are tossing the ball in the air.
Also, you hit the ball on its way down. It is illegal to hit the ball before it has reached its peak. Similarly, you should toss the ball near vertical. Near vertical means that the ball can only go a few degrees from perfect vertical.
Striking the Ball
Remember to wait for the ball to start falling before striking it. The ball should bounce on your side of the court first, before bouncing on the opponent’s side. It is okay if the ball goes around the net rather than over the net. This move can be challenging to execute, but it is perfectly legal.
The ball should bounce on the server’s side only once. It may bounce more than once on the opponent’s side.
In a game of doubles, the server must bounce the ball diagonally. This means that the ball must first hit the server’s right half of the court; and the receiver’s right half of the court.
Types of Serves in Table Tennis
There are at least a dozen different types of serves in table tennis. We are going to cover the four most common types. These are the serves you can expect to learn as a beginner. You can look forward to executing plenty more techniques as you get better at the game.
The forehand serve is the most common type of serve and the one that most beginners start with. Hold the paddle with the palm side of your hand facing the receiver. Then, simply hit the ball with the flat side of the paddle. Once you are comfortable with this serve, you can learn to spin the ball. Simply hit the ball with a grazing or brushing motion.
The backhand serve is very similar to the forehand serve. This time, you have the back of your hand facing the receiver. Learning a combination of the forehand and backhand serves can give you more variety. You will have more control over where you would like the ball to land.
The pendulum serve offers you the most variety. You can put different types of spins on the ball, depending on how you hit it. A forehand pendulum serve can give you no spin, under-spin, top-spin, or side-spin. To the opponent, the stroke looks similar. A slight adjustment on your part puts the spin you want, surprising the opponent each time.
You will almost have your back to the opponent for this shot. You also take the shot from the corner side of the table, using a slicing motion.
As the name suggests, a ghost serve is meant to deceive your opponent. This is one of the most challenging serves to predict and prepare for. Most table tennis professionals also prefer this serve, mainly the backspin ghost serve. You brush the underside of the ball with your paddle. You hold the paddle horizontally for this serve.
The objective here is to get the ball bouncing back towards you on the opponent’s side of the court.
How to Serve in Table Tennis Step by Step
Now comes the easy part. The initial basic serves are incredibly easy. As you get better, you can learn the more complex and versatile service styles.
Step 1: Grip your paddle correctly.
The correct way to grip your paddle may depend on the type of serve you choose. For beginners, the shake-hand grip is the best for basic serves. Place the paddle in the V-shape between your thumb and index finger with your hand in the handshake position.
Rest your index finger across the bottom of one side of the paddle. Rest the thumb across the bottom of the other side of the paddle. You will also have the remaining three fingers wrapped around the top of the paddle handle.
Step 2: Prepare for the serve.
Stand behind the end line. Place the ball on the open palm of your free hand, making sure that it does not touch your fingers. Make sure that the hand is on top of the table.
Step 3: Set up the serve.
As you get better at the game, you can decide the best service style to use depending on your opponent’s stance or grip. For now, figure out where you would like the ball to land on the opponent’s side.
Aim for the back of the table if your opponent is standing close to the table. The opponent will have a harder time returning the shot if the ball bounces too close to their body.
Similarly, aim for near the net if the opponent is standing far from the table. These shots are typically slow, and a seasoned play may return the shot with greater accuracy.
Step 4: Toss and strike the ball.
Remember that the ball needs to go up at least 16 cm before hitting it. Toss the ball in the air and wait for it to drop before hitting it. With a little practice, you will find out when and how hard to hit the ball.
As a rule of thumb, the higher up in the air you hit the ball, the higher it bounces on the table. Aim for lower serves, which are quicker and more effective.
Quick Tips for Serving in Table Tennis
Now that you know how to serve in table tennis, a few tips should come in handy at this point.
- Make sure you know the table tennis serving rules, especially when playing competitively. Watch out for faults. You can easily give points to your opponent, regardless of how good your serve is.
- Practice one type of serve at a time. Ideally, you should have at least four kinds of serves at your disposal. Additionally, learn to vary spins on each type of serve. Versatility will make you more effective and wear down the opponent.
- Learn how to put spins on your balls to confuse your opponent. Also, learn how to put various amounts of spin so that your opponent cannot easily anticipate the return shot.
- Try to aim for your opponent’s elbow, on the hand holding the bat (playing elbow). This shot will most likely force your opponent to move before taking the shot. Additionally, the opponent has to figure out whether to use the backhand or forehand. This can quicly become frustrating to the opponent.
Table tennis is one of the more comfortable sports to master, with enough dedication and practice. The serve is arguably the most critical part of the game. It is a great area to focus your attention on. You don’t need to follow the rules exactly when playing friendly matches. Learn to hit the ball consistently before you can move to master the legal serve.