The Service in table tennis changed dramatically in 2002. Or that was at least the ITTF‘s intention. A new rule was introduced to prevent the players from hiding the ball when performing the service. The expected outcome, according to the 2002 AGM in Zagreb, was:
- A new service rule which is clear and easy to implement.
- Minimum amount of judgement required by the umpire.
- Reduce the advantage to the server.
- Improve the image of our sport.
Let’s check the difference, first watching Jan Over Waldner serving before the new rule:
And now, after the new service rule:
Quite a difference, isn’t there?
In this article, we will first examine the service regulation. Then, we will discover which top players obey it and which players are cheating. Finally, we will look at the consequences of the new rule.
The service rule
The ITTF Handbook contains all table tennis regulation, and is updated every year to include minor changes. The 2017 edition states, in article 2.06 on The service, the following rules:
2.06 The service
2.06.01 Service shall start with the ball resting freely on the open palm of the server’s stationary free hand.
2.06.02 The server shall then project the ball near vertically upwards, without imparting spin, so that it rises at least 16cm after leaving the palm of the free hand and then falls without touching anything before being struck.
2.06.03 As the ball is falling the server shall strike it so that it touches first his or her court and then, touches directly the receiver’s court; in doubles, the ball shall touch successively the right half court of server and receiver.
2.06.04 From the start of service until it is struck, the ball shall be above the level of the playing surface and behind the server’s end line, and it shall not be hidden from the receiver by the server or his or her doubles partner or by anything they wear or carry.
2.06.05 As soon as the ball has been projected, the server’s free arm and hand shall be removed from the space between the ball and the net. The space between the ball and the net is defined by the ball, the net and its indefinite upward extension.
2.06.06 It is the responsibility of the player to serve so that the umpire or the assistant umpire can be satisfied that he or she complies with the requirements of the Laws, and either may decide that a service is incorrect.
2.06.06.01 If either the umpire or the assistant umpire is not sure about the legality of a service he or she may, on the first occasion in a match, interrupt play and warn the server; but any subsequent service by that player or his or her doubles partner which is not clearly legal shall be considered incorrect.
2.06.06.02 Exceptionally, the umpire may relax the requirements for a correct service where he or she is satisfied that compliance is prevented by physical disability.
In a much simpler way, we could say that a legal service should be performed this way:
- Throw the ball vertically, at least 16cm from your open-palmed hand and from above the table level.
- Hit the ball when it is falling, removing your arm to allow the opponent to see the ball.
- Make the ball touch your court first and your opponent’s later. Repeat the service if the ball touches the net provided the previous rules were fulfilled.
- The umpire can adapt these rules in the case of physical disability.
Although the rules seem simple enough, umpires usually struggle when applying them. Specifically article 2.06.05 about the arm covering the ball, that is always difficult to judge. Considering it gives more advantage to the server, some players disobey it on purpose to make it difficult for the opponent to see the ball.
Let’s focus now on some top players serving in recent matches to analyze their commitment to the rule.
Cheating: current state of play
We are going to evaluate 12 top players regarding their service rule commitment. There will be the following points to be considered:
The ball resting on the free-hand open palm above the table
The ball is thrown near vertically, at least 16cm, without spin
The ball is hit when falling, without being hidden by the arm or hand
The best player in the world performs quite a legal service. The only aspect which could give reason to sanction his services as a fault is ball throwing. Checking the distance where the ball is thrown and hit, we can observe this:
However, the ball is thrown quite high, which reduces the tilt of the ball trajectory and therefore becomes a nearly vertical toss.
Fegerl’s service is one of the most disturbing amongst the top players. He is breaking two of the rules. The first one, which has a lighter impact, is that he is throwing the ball towards himself. The second one, he uses his free arm to hide the ball from the opponent. Take a look at the following screenshots which were taken at the moment he struck the ball:
According to the article 2.06.05, he shall remove his free arm from the space between the ball and the net limits (chess-pattern in the picture). As can be observed, the arm is always there.
The Chinese school does a good job regarding service rule training, as Ding Ning’s fulfils most of the rules. As with Ma Long’s, her service has the ball hit more than 50cm from the throwing point. As the ball is not projected high enough, it could be considered as a fault at some point.
The young Chinese star usually breaks one of the service rules. He does not have the ball above table level during the whole service. Although it is not the whole ball under the table, the ball is almost completely below table level. Let’s see it:
Article 2.06.04 does not specify whether the ball can be partially below the table level. However, we can assume it should not be, which would make some of his services illegal.
Here we have one of the best servers in this article – according to rule fulfilment. The ball is thrown almost vertically, with only a small deviation. Liu Shiwen’s service video could be used as an example of how to serve properly.
At first sight, Chuan Chih-Yuan is performing a perfect service. However, there is a less obvious rule he is breaking: he is slightly hiding the ball beneath the table. Check these captures which serve as proof of this fact:
Georgina’s backhand serve is as simple and effective as it is legal. Not much more to say. The umpires will not struggle with her services at any time.
Once more, the Chinese school seems to put great value into the service rule. Xu Xin’s service is close to perfection.
Wong Chun Ting
The service of Hong Kong’s current best player has only a single flaw: he is projecting the ball towards himself. Although the ball rests freely on the palm of his hand before starting the service, he suddenly flips it when moving it upwards. Then, the ball is thrown with a 55º tilt. The proof:
The Korean player is replicating the same mistake that Fan Zhendong makes: the ball goes below the table level before rising up. The proof:
As we analyzed in a previous article, Dimitrij Ovtcharov is one of he best servers in the world. He has a big variety of services, using both sides of the racket. However, being a good server is sometimes in conflict with serving according to the regulation.
Dimitrij has the ball under table level when starting the service. Check the following capture:
We have saved the last position in the list for one of the biggest cheaters in the circuit. The Swedish player has an outstanding service, which Liu Guoliang had the chance to experience in this video. However, he is the only player in this article who breaks all 3 points.
First of all, he embraces the ball with his fingers, instead of using the open palm of his free hand:
Secondly, he is obviously throwing the ball with a strong deviation:
Thirdly, he is using his free arm and body to hide the ball from the opponent:
Where is the problem?
Taking into consideration all the insights just shown, it is clear that there are issues with the service rule. Most of the players are not fulfilling one or more of the articles the rule is composed of. Is it the rule that makes no sense or the players who do not obey it?
The most repeated broken rule is the one present in the article 2.06.02 about projecting the ball vertically upwards. If we consider that the ball should rise at least 16cm from the projection point, is it really necessary to force the players to throw it vertically? It seems there is no clear advantage gained from it as long as it is visible to the opponent.
The same thing happens with article 2.06.01 about having the ball resting in the open palm. Some of the players are lowering it under the table level or even grabbing it with their fingers. Is it really giving any advantage to them? It is difficult to say.
Regarding article 2.06.05 about removing the free arm to prevent hiding the ball, this aspect seems to be, by far, the most disturbing broken rule. Not being able to see which spin the ball has makes it difficult for opponents to return the ball properly.
The umpires seem to struggle with the rule, as there is no consistency in the rule’s application. Considering their position in the playing area, the size of the ball and the speed it moves, judging, for example, whether the arm is hiding the ball or not seems quite a difficult task.
Remember one of the goals of the new service rule: having a minimum amount of judging by the umpires. Has it really been a successful change then? Umpires have the final say.