What is Table Tennis?

table tennis

Sometimes referred to as ping pong, table tennis is a sport enjoyed by people all across the world. The game involves either two (singles) or four (doubles) players hitting a small ball back and forth attempting to keep it in the boundaries of play while making their opponent either miss the ball entirely or hit it out of bounds. The sport is unique in that there is minimal running because the playing surface is fairly small. The game requires strategy and consistency for that reason.


Table Tennis History

Table tennis began in the 1880s in England when lawn tennis players were searching for a way to continue their racquet sport indoors during the winter. The sport began as a “parlor game” because of its ease to play and availability to anyone who had paddles, a ball, and a table. The game quickly became popular and developed into a competitive sport as the 1900s began, culminating in large tournaments being played amongst hundreds of competitors.

Playing Surface

Table Tennis Playing Surface

According to the rules of table tennis, each table must be roughly 108 inches in length and 60 inches wide. The surface can be made up of any material as long as the ball bounces about 9 inches when dropped from 12 inches above the table. The table is split equally into two ends with a net running across the middle of the table splitting the two sides. On the table itself there are a few lines:

  • Side Line: Runs along each vertical end of the table
  • End Line: Runs across the back of the table on each players side horizontally
  • Center Line: Runs across the middle of the table from one player's end to the others creating two boxes on each side of the table.


Table Tennis Equipment

Table tennis is unique because it requires minimal equipment to play. Along with the table, all you need is a set of paddles, a ball, and a net. Some players chose to wear additional equipment such as wrist and headbands, but those are optional. Here is a list of equipment you may need for table tennis:

  • Table
  • Paddles
  • Balls
  • Net
  • Athletic Clothes
  • Athletic Shoes
  • Wrist/Headbands


Table Tennis Gameplay

Table tennis matches differ in terms of how many points the games are played to as well as how many games are played until a winner is determined. Each point is awarded by a player either making the opponent miss-hit the ball out of bounds or miss the ball entirely.

At the highest level of singles table tennis in the Olympics, the games are played to 11 points in a best of 5 series where the player to win 3 games first wins the entire match. There are other variations played amongst more casual players such as a best of 3 series in which games are played to 21. In the Olympic setting, each player gets two serves and then alternate back and forth until the game is decided.

If a game is tied 10-10, someone must win by two points, meaning the game goes on as long as it takes for someone to win two points in a row. In this win by two scenario the players alternate every serve as opposed to every two serves. In games played to 21 points, players alternate every 5 serves. The best of 3 and 5 are the most common series lengths, but some matches are best of 7 or even 9!

Positions and Roles

Table Tennis Positions and Roles

There are not many positions in table tennis as it is mostly an individual sport. That being said, in doubles there is a server and non server for the team serving and a returner and non returner for the team returning. The server serves the ball to the returner, at which point only the returner can hit the ball. After that, the positions somewhat go out the window and either player on each team can hit the ball. In singles, there is only a server and returner so once the point begins the players move wherever they like.

Rules and Regulations

Table Tennis Rules and Regulations

Table tennis rules are straightforward. There are two main focuses: points and serving rules.

Serving Rules

  • Before hitting the ball, the ball must be thrown straight from a flat palm into the air at least 6 inches (16 cm) high. 
  • Both the toss and contact the player makes with the ball must be behind the table on the server's side. If the ball is tossed or hit over the table, the serve is deemed illegal.
  • The ball can’t be hidden at any point during the toss and serve itself meaning the opponent has to be able to see the ball at all times
  • The ball must clear the net during a serve. If it makes contact with the net but lands in bounds this is deemed a let, and the serve is done over again. There’s no limit on how many lets in a row you can have.
  • Singles players are allowed to serve anywhere on their opponents side of the table.
  • Doubles players must serve into a specific serving box each point diagonally across the table.

How to Win Points

  • The service is missed by your opponent
  • The service in not returned into the playing boundaries by your opponent
  • Your opponent hits his or her shot into the net
  • Your opponent hits the ball out of bounds during a point
  • If your opponent does any of the following they automatically lose the point because of a rule break: touches the net with their paddle or any body part, moves the table during the point, or touches the table at any point with their free hand (hand without the paddle).

Referees and Officials

Table Tennis Referees and Officials

In table tennis, referees and umpires are present for the high level matches. A referee is responsible for overseeing the entire tournament being played which includes supervision of the umpires. Any executive decisions or arguments in a specific match are to be dealt with by the referee. The umpires are responsible for focusing on an individual match and determining who wins each point based on the rules of the game. Additionally, at the high level tournaments there are timekeepers, stroke counters, and even a jury!

Lingo and Terminology

Table Tennis Lingo and Terminology

There are some terms you should know in order to understand what people are talking about when it comes to table tennis. Here is a list of a few terms and words commonly used in the table tennis world.

Block: Refers to a player not swinging their paddle to return a shot rather just putting their paddle face out using the power from their opponent's shot to return the ball. This strategy is often used when the opponent slams the ball.

Chopper: A playing technique where a player hits down on the ball and “chops” it resulting in the ball not bouncing as high as it normally would when it hits the other player's side of the table.

Let: Refers to when a player is serving and hits the ball off the net but still lands the serve in bounds. When this occurs, the server gets a do over.

Pusher: Refers to a player who doesn't fully swing through and just pushes the ball back. This playing style is frowned upon and is used by players who aren't very good.


Table Tennis Coaching

Coaching in table tennis is unique given that it's mostly an individual sport. Therefore, coaches do a lot of one-on-one tutoring and play an important role in preparing a player mentally and physically. Most competitive table tennis players start playing the game at a young age through training programs known as academies. At these academies, players learn the game weekly through training sessions and competitions. If you reach the highest level, you will have a coach who attends competitions with you and gives you advice throughout matches.

Skills and Techniques

Table Tennis Skills and Techniques

In table tennis, there are two main strokes each player must possess: a forehand and a backhand. Each stroke is a fairly simple motion in which the player holds the paddle in their dominant hand and swings through the ball. The two strokes differ in that each is performed from a different side of the body. The forehand pushes from your dominant side while the backhand hits with your hand tucked in towards your non-dominant side. There are also many variations of each shot, such as different pushes, drives, spins, drop shots, and slams. Each player has a different playing style, meaning that some only use spin while others use every kind of shot.


Table Tennis Strategy

Table tennis is a unique sport in which you must know your opponent’s strengths and weaknesses just as well as you know your own. In order to properly strategize, you must exploit your opponents weaknesses rather than playing into their strengths. For example, if your opponent has an amazing forehand but struggles with their backhand, you will most likely focus on hitting the ball to their backhand side.

Additionally, players utilize different spins to counter their opponents' play. For example, if a player hits the ball really hard, his or her opponent may add top spin so the ball has an extra kick to it when it bounces off the table, making it harder to slam the ball back in a return.


Table Tennis Drills

Table tennis emphasizes consistency. The longer you can keep the ball in play, the more effective a player you will be. In order to work on this, players must continually hit their strokes over and over. They do so by rallying with coaches or other players focusing on proper form and technique. 

Drills such as crosscourt rallies, down the line rallies, or a combination of both are commonly used to work on these skills. In such drills, players hit the same stroke (backhand or forehand) as many times as they can until they miss. Occasionally, if a player doesn't have another person to practice with you will see them fold one half of the table up creating a wall they can rally against.

Olympic Table Tennis

olympic table tennis

Table tennis debuted in the Seoul, South Korea Summer Olympics in 1988. The games at the time hosted four table tennis specific events including men’s and women’s singles and doubles. Currently, the Olympics still holds the men’s and women’s singles tournaments, but instead of the doubles they have what are called team competitions for both the men’s and women’s side. These competitions involve three players per country on a team.

As with any Olympic sport, there is a cap on how many participants can attend and compete. For table tennis, the maximum number of participants worldwide is 86 men and 86 women with at most 3 men and women from each country.

Table Tennis Brands

Table Tennis Brands

There are various table tennis brands available, but players tend to rely on a select few for their equipment needs. Here are a few popular table tennis brands:

  • Butterfly
  • Killerspin
  • Cornilleau
  • Joola

Youth Organizations

There are various youth table tennis organizations throughout the world that have different objectives. Some are aimed at training players to become professionals one day while others are simply after school programs that introduce kids to the sport. Here are a few youth table tennis organizations:

  • American Youth Table Tennis Organization (ATTYO)
  • World Junior Table Tennis Championships
  • After School Learning Tree Table Tennis Club


Table Tennis Players

Throughout the history of table tennis there have been a few dominant players. These individuals have continually performed at a high level and won almost every tournament. Here are some of the top table tennis players ever:

  • Ma Long
  • Zhang Jike
  • Jan-Ove Waldner
  • Ichiro Ogimura
  • Zoran Primorac


Table Tennis Leagues

There are various table tennis leagues around the world that the top players compete in. These leagues are usually a combination of singles and doubles play. Below is a list of a few of the world's most competitive table tennis leagues.

  • German Bundesliga
  • Chinese Super League
  • Russian Premier League
  • Austrian Premier League
  • French Pro A League


Table Tennis Teams

The most notable of table tennis teams are the Olympic level teams. These teams are composed of the best players in their respective country. There are also teams that are less competitive such as amateur and club teams. Below is a list of the top table tennis teams that compete in the Olympics.

ChinaMa Long, Xin Xu
JapanTomokazu Harimoto, Mima Ito
GermanyTimo Boll, Dimitrij Ovtcharov


Table Tennis Events

As is with any competitive sport, there are plenty of events that occur throughout the year where players get to showcase their skills in table tennis. Below is a list of a few of the top table tennis events that occur throughout the world.

  • Olympics: Every 4 years
  • World Juniors Table Tennis Championships: Annually
  • World Championships: Annually


Table Tennis Tournaments

Table tennis tournaments occur year round because they are played indoors negating any problems with weather. There are competitions for every age ranging from children's tournaments to senior citizen tournaments. At the professional level, there are a few highly recognized tournaments that hold the most significance. Below is a list of them:

  • Olympics
  • ITTF World Tour
  • World Cup
  • Commonwealth Games


What is table tennis?

Table tennis is a game where two or four players hit a small ball back and forth. It can be played at a competitive level or just for leisure purposes, but the goal is always to make their opponent miss the ball or miss-hit the ball so it goes out of bounds. Games are played on a table with a net in the middle which the players have to hit the ball over. 

Table tennis is popular all around the world, but table tennis is most popular in China, Japan, South Korea, and Germany. As a result, most of the top athletes on the international stage are from these three countries. This has created long-held rivalries which peak during the ITTF World Tour and the Summer Olympics.

Is table tennis an Olympic sport?

Table tennis is an Olympic sport and has been since 1988. There are currently four events that are played every four years at the summer Olympics: Men's singles, Women's Singles, Men's Team, and Women’s Team.