When watching top-level table tennis I often see players touching the table between points. Sometimes it is just the fingertips of their free hand touching the edge of the table while at other times it will be rubbing the palm of either hand on the table near the net. I was curious as to why, so I started asking around. This is what I learned.
The most common way players touch the table is an accidental bump during a rally that could lose a point if the table moves. Players touch the table with a free hand before the start of a point to check their distance from the table. Finally, players rub their hands on the table to dry off sweat.
Let’s take a more in-depth look at all of the ways that players can touch the table both during a rally and between points so that we can better understand what the rules say about each scenario.
Why Do Table Tennis Players Touch The Table?
There are two main instances when a table tennis player will touch the table and both of these will be between points.
The first of these is the practical matter of wiping sweat from their hand to have a better grip on the bat. The spot on the table where a player will wipe sweat from their hand will nearly always be near the net where the ball almost never lands. This is because a ball bouncing on the damp patch will bounce in a less predictable way and if one side of the ball is damp it will be more difficult to control through the air.
The second reason for touching the table will be to accurately gauge distance from the table before receiving a service. This is done with the fingertips of their free hand (in other words the hand not holding the bat). It is important to note that any touch of the table with the free hand must be done before the ball is in play, or before the service has been played. According to table tennis rules, if a player touches the table with their free hand during a point they will lose the point.
If you touch the table with your free hand during a rally you will lose the point. Your free hand is the hand holding the bat. If you are left-handed your free hand will be your right hand and conversely if you are right-handed your free hand will be your left hand.
For instance, for players like Timo Bol who switch their bat from their left hand to their right hand during a rally, their free hand will also change. Even though Timo is a left-handed player, his left hand becomes his free hand during the time that the bat is in his right hand.
You are permitted to touch the table with your playing hand or paddle hand. By this, I mean the hand that is holding the bat. An example of this will be when your opponent plays a short ball and you need to reach forward to get your bat under the ball before it bounces twice on your side of the net. Your bat and your playing hand will likely scrape the surface of the table as you get your bat under the low ball.
Similarly, you are permitted to touch the table with any other part of your body when reaching forward to play a shot, as long as you do not move the table or touch it with your free hand. That is why you will see professional players have their free hand out behind them when they reach forward over the table to play a shot to make it clear to the umpire that their free hand is not touching the table at any time.
This is a commonly misunderstood rule of table tennis. Many people believe that you cannot touch the table at all during a rally but this is not entirely accurate. The only part of your body that is not allowed to touch the table during a rally is your free hand (the hand not holding the bat). Any other part of your body can touch the table as long as you don’t move the table.
If you move the table or touch the table with your free hand it will immediately result in the loss of the point.
When the ball is not in play, ie between points, there is no penalty for touching the table with your free hand. This is why many top players will briefly touch the table with their free hand prior to receiving a service in order to ensure that they are standing at the optimum distance from the table.
Aside from briefly touching the table with the free hand briefly before starting a point, there is another hand gesture that players sometimes use at the end of a point. What I am referring to here is players raising a hand by way of an apology for winning a point by way of luck.
This is part of table tennis etiquette and will happen when a player wins a point with some good luck on a net or edge ball.
In this instance, a net will be when the ball clips the net during a rally creating the “lucky bounce” that wins the point. If the ball clipped the net when playing the service and landed in, it would be a “let” and the service would be repeated.
An edge ball is, as the name suggests, clips the edge of the table winning the point by luck.
The main reason that professional table tennis players touch the table so often between points is as a way to insure they are the correct distance from the table at the start of each point. The likely origin is that this is something that they started doing earlier in their careers and later became a habit that helped them focus on the upcoming point.
This is especially true for players who use off+ (fast wood) bats. These bats are designed for playing fast shots from a distance away from the table. It is common to see players using off+ bats to move progressively further from the table during a rally. Therefore, between points, those players move back closer to the table to start the next point and you will see them briefly touch the table with their free hand to check their distance from the table.
At other times you will see players touch the table with the palm of their playing hand (the hand that holds the bat), and almost always near the net. They do this to wipe the sweat from their palm so as to have a better grip on the bat. The reason for wiping their hands on the table rather than grabbing a towel from their bag is because it is quicker to do and they don’t want to get a time violation warning.
According to the ITTF table tennis rules, a player will forfeit the point if that player causes the table surface to move at all. There are two ways that a player can cause the table surface to move.
The first of these is when a player needs to reach/lunge forward to play a short return or reach around a table to return a wide shot. In both of these cases, a player’s hip or leg can bump the table while reaching to play the shot and cause the table surface to move.
The second instance is when a player is defending deep, in other words far from the table, and the opponent drops a shorter ball. In this case, the player needs to run forward to reach the ball and can’t stop before bumping into the table after playing their shot.
It must be noted that not all table tennis tables are equal. For instance, tournament tables are very sturdy. They have thick table tops and substantial undercarriages that can weigh several hundred pounds. These tables won’t budge if they are lightly bumped.
On the flip side, inexpensive recreational tables are flimsy and the table tops wobble with only a slight touch. At our local youth center, there is one such inexpensive table that is on wheels. Because the floor is slightly uneven the table can roll a couple of feet from a light bump.
I’ve also played on the public tables erected in parks in both Barcelona and Granada in Spain. These tables are solid concrete, cemented into the paving of the park, and won’t move unless bumped by a car.
Players are permitted to play all their table tennis shots double-handed with the exception of the service. The reason why the service must be played by holding the bat in one hand is that according to the rules of table tennis the ball must be held in the free hand prior to playing the service and starting the rally.
Where this features into the rules regarding touching the table is that a player holding their bat in both hands will have no free hand. Therefore, touching the table with either hand is permitted as long as the player is holding the bat with both hands. If, during a point, either hand releases the bat for any reason that hand will become the free hand for the purposes of the rules regarding touching the table.
Players are permitted to switch hands at any time during a rally. The most well-known player at the top tournament level who regularly switches hands is the Dutch player, Timo Boll. Timo is a left-handed player, but when the ball is too far to his right to play a strong backhand, he will switch the bat to his right hand to play a powerful forehand before switching the bat back to his preferred left hand.
Often this hand switch from Timo Boll will throw an opponent off their rhythm forcing an error to win the point.
One thing to note if you do intend to switch hands during a rally is that when the bat switches from one hand to the other, the defined free hand switches at the same time, so be careful of touching the table with your new free hand after switching hands.
Players are permitted to use two bats when playing table tennis. The one exception is when playing the service as you need to be able to hold the ball with your free hand before playing a service.
However, it isn’t recommended to use two bats when playing a serious tournament game. Some players do use two bats as a training exercise when practicing. By practicing with two bats you can work your way up to being able to switch hands between shots as Timo Boll does to great effect during top-level play.
Table tennis players blow on their fingers between points for the same reason as they rub the palms of their hands on the table near the net. It is done in an attempt to dry the sweat on their hands so that they can improve their grip on the bat.
Playing top-level table tennis makes you sweat a lot, including your hands and fingers. Besides the matter of losing grip on the bat, you will see players try and dry off their free hand before playing a service so that they don’t get any sweat onto the ball. A wet table tennis ball flies through the air and bounces unpredictably making it difficult for both players to play at their best.