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When I was a kid (born in the mid-70s, in Sweden) and we played (for fun), we required that the serve was diagonal in a table tennis singles game. I've spoken to people all over Europe that applied that same rule, but I've also met people that don't know what I'm talking about, they've never heard of it and they will (correctly) say that it only applies to doubles.

Was there ever a requirement in the official table tennis rules to serve diagonally in singles games, or did we apply this rule erroneously as kids?

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  • Not an answer, but I know many people who believe this rule applies in singles today.
    – Philip Kendall
    Commented Aug 16, 2022 at 14:49

1 Answer 1

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It seems no such rule has officially existed, or at least not for a long time1. Technically speaking, to prove this, you would have to go through every official rule-set, but I figured it should be enough to look at whether the rules were different in the early days.

To that end, I found two useful sources from 1902: Ping-Pong or Table Tennis and How to Play It (Ritchie & Parker, pg 43) and Laws of Ping-Pong, the rule-set sold with the Parker Brothers Ping-Pong set, which I was able to read via a photograph from an eBay listing2 of all places. Interestingly, Ritchie & Parker discuss that enforcing a diagonal serve rule might help reduce the serve advantage while simultaneously noting such a rule not existing in "serious" play (pg. 27-28).

While a diagonal serve was not mandatory, the service was nonetheless quite different from the modern rules. It was required to be underhand, below the waist, and most notably it was not yet a rule that the serve had to first contact the server's side!

The earliest source I can find resembling the modern serve is in the November 1936 issue of Popular Mechanics (Coleman Clark, pg 669), where an example non-diagonal serve and return is shown in a drawing. This author in particular appears to be quite knowledgeable with the technical details, noting that imparting spin on the serve toss was no longer legal under American rules but still was in international play at the time (pg. 148A).

Another notable source is the May 1942 Technical Manual of Sports and Games by the US War Department, which is the earliest source I could find that had distinct service rules for both singles and doubles (pgs 129-131).


  1. I'm speculating slightly, but it would seem natural that the earliest incarnations might have had people mandatorily serving diagonally – after all, table tennis was modelled after tennis, and such is the rule there. While I couldn't find anything too definitive for the diagonal service, the 1902 sources in particular contain instances where table tennis had not yet changed an inherited tennis rule, or discussions on why a particular rule doesn't translate to the table (eg. keeping the tennis scoring system, the serve not striking the server's court first, the ban on volleying shots, whether volley contact outside the table counts as a point against).
  2. Probably 1902. The copyright year is quite hard to make out with the resolution of the photograph, but searching around for "Parker Brothers Ping Pong 1902" does yield other examples of the same item, but none I can find with a clear resolution of the year. There is additionally a 1903 Treasury Department decision (pg. 22-23) noting the "Ping Pong" trademark having been transferred to Parker Brothers in 1902.

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