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Can You Put Your Free Hand on the Table?

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Photo of Miao Miao, Australian table tennis player.

You don't have to go quite that far to keep your free hand off the table!

© 2007 Greg Letts, licensed to About.com, Inc.
Question: Can You Put Your Free Hand on the Table?
Hey Greg

I just would like to ask you about the hand on the table. Can the player in any case touch the playing surface? After the shot being hit can he touch the surface? What does the rule say?

Thanks
Robert

Answer: Hi Robert,

Putting the free hand on the table is a situation that causes lots of arguments among table tennis players not familiar with the rules, and even a few among those who are!

The answer in a nutshell is that a player may not put his free hand on the playing surface during a rally, and if he does so he loses the point. He must wait until the point is over before he can put his free hand on the table to steady himself.

Where things get a bit tricky at times is usually in two areas:

Tricky Area 1 - Did the Free Hand Touch the Playing Surface or the Side?

Did the player's free hand touch the actual playing surface (which is the top of the table), or the sides of the table (which are not considered to be part of the playing surface)? This scenario usually occurs when a player brushes the table with his free hand while in the middle of playing a stroke, so there is no question that the point is still active. Also, on occasion a player might put his free hand on the table to steady himself while trying to reach and smash a very short, ball.

In either of these cases, if the player has touched the top of the table with his free hand, the point goes to his opponent, and if he has touched the sides of the table, play should continue.

The relevant ITTF Laws are as follows:
Law 2.1.1 The upper surface of the table, known as the playing surface, shall be rectangular, 2.74m (9 feet) long and 1.525m (5 feet) wide, and shall lie in a horizontal plane 76cm (29.92 inches) above the floor.
Law 2.1.2 The playing surface shall not include the vertical sides of the tabletop.
Law 2.10.1 Unless the rally is a let, a player shall score a point
Law 2.10.1.10 if his opponent's free hand touches the playing surface;

The above situations are fairly uncommon in practice, and it is the next area which causes the bulk of the rules arguments.

Tricky Area 2 - Was the Point Over Before the Player Put His Free Hand on the Playing Surface?

The second situation is where a player puts his free hand on the playing surface to steady himself after he has played his stroke. In this case there is no doubt that the player has put his free hand on the playing surface, but the question is whether the point had finished first.

If the point is not yet over, you cannot put your free hand on the playing surface. The trick is knowing when the point is over!

The point will be over if the rally is called a let, or a player has scored a point, as per the laws of table tennis in sections 2.9 and 2.10 of the ITTF Handbook.

In practice, this usually boils down to two possibilities:

  • Player A hits the ball, and starts to overbalance. Player B swings at the ball and misses, or cannot reach the ball. Player A puts his free hand on the table to steady himself.

    Player A must wait until the point is over before putting his free hand on the table. In this case, this means he must wait until the ball has touched anything other than the net assembly or his opponent's racket after hitting the opponent's court. Once the ball touches anything apart from the net assembly or the opponent's racket (usually the floor or a barrier), the point is over (won by Player A), and he can now put his free hand on the table to steady himself. If the ball does touch the net assembly or his opponent's racket, the point is still live and Player A cannot put his free hand on the playing surface yet.

  • Player A hits the ball, and starts to overbalance. Player B swings at the ball and makes contact, but the ball is not heading towards Player A's court. Player A puts his free hand on the table to steady himself.

    In this case, Player A must wait until the ball passes over his court or beyond his endline (or touches something other than the net assembly), before putting his free hand on the table to steady himself. Once the ball passes over his court or beyond the endline, Player A has won the point, and can now put his free hand on the table. If the ball touches the net assembly, the point is still live, but if it touches anything else (apart from Player A's court, of course), the point is won by Player A, and he can now touch the playing surface with his free hand.

    So if Player B does a big mis-hit and the ball flies off high and to the side of the table, Player A must wait until the ball goes over his court, or beyond his endline, or touches something else apart from his court (or the net), at which time the point is over, and he can now steady himself with his free hand.

The relevant ITTF Laws here are:

Law 2.10 A Point
Law 2.10.1 Unless the rally is a let, a player shall score a point
Law 2.10.1.2 if his opponent fails to make a correct return;
Law 2.10.1.3 if, after he has made a service or a return, the ball touches anything other than the net assembly before being struck by his opponent;
Law 2.10.1.4 if the ball passes over his court or beyond his end line without touching his court, after being struck by his opponent;
Law 2.10.1.10 if his opponent's free hand touches the playing surface;

Conclusion

While the short answer to this question seems deceptively simple, I think we can see why there is the potential for confusion and argument in the specific situations discussed above. I guess we should all be thankful that such occurrences are fairly uncommon!

One final proviso: the above rules only apply to the free hand of the player. It is legal for a player to touch the playing surface with any other part of his body or with his equipment, provided he does not actually move the playing surface. So in theory, during a rally you can quite legally jump on the table, lean on the table using an elbow, or even just allow your body to fall on the table, provided the table does not actually move and you don't touch the playing surface with your free hand. Makes you realize why it's important to apply those wheel brakes!

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