April 28, 2014

Tip of the Week

Develop the Fundamentals: Strokes & Footwork.

The Six-Inch Toss Rule

I had a question on the six-inch toss rule, so I decided to submit it to USATT's Stump the Ump, where umpire questions are answered by Paul Kovac, an international umpire and certified referee. (He's also a regular at my club, MDTTC, and referees the MDTTC tournaments.) The question was seemingly simple, but as you'll see, may not be as obvious as you'd think. Here's my question:  

Here’s a question that keeps coming up, and I’d like to see an online answer that we can refer to. When serving, does the ball have to go six inches up from the exact point where it leaves the hand, or does it actually require six inches of clearance between the hand and the ball? I thought I knew the answer to this, but when I asked six umpires/referees for their ruling at the Nationals, three said the first, three said the latter.

Here is the answer Paul gave, which is now published at Stump the Ump.

This should not be a topic for discussion because the rule is very clear about it:

2.6.2 The server shall then project the ball near vertically upwards, without imparting spin, so that it rises at least 16cm (6") after leaving the palm of the free hand and then falls without touching anything before being struck.

The important part is:

"...so that it rises at least 16cm (6") after leaving the palm...."

The first part of the service rule, namely, "2.6.1 Service shall start with the ball resting freely on the open palm of the server's stationary free hand" is also important because if the serve does not start with "ball resting freely on the open palm of the server's stationary free hand", it is virtually impossible to judge the toss.

Rule 2.6.2 means that after the toss, the separation of ball and player's palm must be at least 6" before the palm and ball get any closer. We see sometime that after the 6" toss the player's hand follows the ball and gets closer than 6" from the ball as the ball raises, and sometimes also when the ball falls. But as long as the 6" separation of the palm and the ball was satisfied, and the palm and hand is not between the ball and the net (not hiding the ball from receiver), the serve is legal.


However, I don't think the answer is that clear, as shown by the 3-3 split by umpires/referees when I asked the question at the Nationals. Here's my response to Paul's answer:

Hi Paul,

Thanks for getting back to me. However, I don't think the ruling on this is that clear, based on the actual wording of the rules.

The rules say the ball must rise at least 6". Suppose a player serves so that the ball leaves his hand exactly 40 inches above the ground. If the ball then goes up six inches, it has risen six inches, from 40 inches to 46 inches, and it would seem to have fulfilled requirements of the rule, regardless of what the serving hand does. Nowhere does the rule state that there must be six inches clearance between the hand and the ball - that's a common sense interpretation, but I don't see how one can get that from the wording of the rules.

As noted, many umpires and players read the rule as it is written (and interpret it differently than what you wrote), i.e. the ball must rise six inches, and since it isn't indicated otherwise, they measure it from the point where it leaves the hand. Based on that, a player's serving hand could rise and stay with the ball, and still fulfill the requirements of the rules as they are worded as long as he doesn't use it to hide the ball, and as long as he quickly removes the serving arm and hand from the space between the ball and the net. If there is an interpretation that the ball must rise six inches relative to the hand - which would be difficult to justify, based on the wording of the rule - then that needs to be published somewhere so as to remove the confusion.

I'm CCing Roman and Wendell again as I'd like to see if they concur with your ruling, and why. This came up twice at the Nationals (I didn't make an issue of it), and as noted below, six umpires/referees I asked about it split down the middle on the ruling - so it's obviously not clear to everyone, even officials, and I guarantee most players aren't sure about this. Once the wording of a ruling on this is agreed on, I think this should be published in the Stump the Ump column, or somewhere, so it can be referred to. (Ideally, they'd change the wording of the serving rule to make this clear, but that probably won't happen.)

-Larry Hodges

So what do you think? Is there anything in the actual rules that state that there must be six inches of separation between the hand and the ball when serving? I don't see it. All I see is that the ball must rise six inches, and I don't see how that is affected by the location of the serving hand. I'll go by this interpretation even though I don't really agree with it. I haven't received a response yet from Roman Tinyszin (chair of the USATT Officials and Rules Advisory Committee) or Wendell Dillon (former chair).

Have a rules question? Feel free to ask me. If I can't answer it (impossible!!!), then we can submit it to Stump the Ump.


As I blogged about on Friday, the episode of Veep that would "feature" table tennis was on Sunday night. Alas, while there was some recreational table tennis, all the scenes with the three top players I'd brought in were cut. However, in most of the scenes taking place at the fake Clovis corporation - about half the episode - I'm often standing just behind the camera or off to the side, out of view, watching it as it is filmed. 

ITTF President Adham Sharara to Step Down as ITTF President

Here's the article, where he explains why he wants to deal with the "China" crisis, and will remain involved in the newly created position of ITTF Chairman.

Shonie Aki Scholarship Award

Here's the article and info for this annual $1250 scholarship.

Incredible Rally, Michael Maze vs. Zoran Primorac

Here's the video (52 sec, including slow motion replay). Maze is on far side (lefty). This'll wake you up before you move on!


Here's the home page for the ZEN-NOH 2014 World Team Championships, April 28 - May 5, in Tokyo, where you can find results, articles, photos, and video. It starts today. Since Tokyo is thirteen hours ahead of us, all of the first day action should be complete already. (So 9AM east coast time is 10PM Tokyo time.) Here are more articles involving the Worlds.

USA at the Worlds

  • Men's Video Update #1 (1:37) by Jim Butler (before play began).
  • Women's Video Update #1 (43 sec) by Lily Zhang (before play began).
  • Day One Results (do search for "USA"): USA Men went 2-0, defeating Luxembourg 3-1, and Kazakhstan 3-2. USA Women were apparently in the middle of their first tie, and were listed as 1-1 with Hungary, so by the time you read this that'll probably be done.

Players at Worlds Not Happy With Cameras Next to Net

Here's the article.

Photos from Just Before the Worlds

Here are the photos - click on the photos to see more.  

Table Tennis Billboard at World Championships

Here's the picture.

My Passion for Sports and the State of "Flow"

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Ma Long and Zhang Jike Serve

Here's a video (10:11) where they demonstrate and explain (in Chinese) their serves. Even if you can't understand the Chinese you can watch the serves themselves. About halfway through they start showing other players doing other shots.

New Coaching Articles at Table Tennis Master

The Downside of Being Fan Zhendong

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Basketball Star Goran Dragic Plays Table Tennis

Here's the video (3:27), where he talks about his table tennis and shows him playing.

Unique Ping-Pong Paddle

Now that's a unique paddle! I want one. Especially the swimming pool part. Artwork by Milan Mirkovic. 

Beetle Bailey on Friday

Here's the cartoon! So Beetle has learned to serve with heavy backspin?

Chicken Table Tennis Cartoon

Here's the cartoon! Now I'll never look at our own junior program the same way.

Table Tennis Epic

Here's a hilarious video (1:12), showing Michael Maze and Dimitrij Ovtcharov in an "epic" match . . . sort of.

Send us your own coaching news!

My understanding is that you are supposed to support decisions based on what is written in the rules with a touch of help from the background given by the ITTF Handbook.  The concept of a distance of separation from the hand is not written in either of these. Further, if Kovac's interpretation is correct and "rise" is defined by the initial separation between the ball and the palm - what happens if the hand drops rapidly  in "real" (relative to the ground) terms?  Given this definition, a player could have virtually no toss and could use a rapid hand drop to create the majority of the 6 inches of separtion.  In this way, the player could quickly strike the ball almost with no "real" ball toss at all.  The distance would be largely created with just hand movement.  Paul Kovac's interpretation seems pretty bogus to me - not only in not respecting the letter of the rule, but by allowing "quick" serves that would seem to violate the intent of the rule.

That said, as a practical matter server's would be wise not to follow the ball up with their hand since doing so would probably make it harder for an umpire to clearly see when the ball departs the palm.

In reply to by Jay Turberville

Good point - I hadn't considered the idea of just dropping the hand. That's the old Tim Boggan serve - he was infamous for not tossing the ball up, just dropping his hand down. 

In reply to by Larry Hodges

And it is just this type of zero or near zero toss "quick serve" that the six inch rule was designed to eliminate.  Kovac's interpretation allows it.  That should suffice to discredit that interpretation.  But the real problem is that the rule simply does not mention hand separation. 

In reply to by Larry Hodges

And it is just this type of zero or near zero toss "quick serve" that the six inch rule was designed to eliminate.  Kovac's interpretation allows it.  That should suffice to discredit that interpretation.  But the real problem is that the rule simply does not mention hand separation. 

As a matter of fact I wrote about this to Paul Kovac a couple of years ago and he actually agreed with me back  then that the rule doesn't mean 6 inches between ball and palm. He must have forgotten about that!

It never ceases to amaze me how often even educated reasonable people forget to exercise common sense. If the rule says "so that it rises at least 16cm (6") after leaving the palm of the free hand" then that is exactly what the rule says.

My guess is that almost always the palm of the serving hand follows the ball during the toss - that makes it harder for the ump to understand whether ball was tossed 6 inches or not... but it is so much easier to watch the gap between the palm and the ball. That's where the confusion comes from, I think. They are mistaking their common umpiring practice for the actual rule.

In reply to by JimT

I'm not going to make an issue of it, but I plan to bring it up with some of the referees/umpires at the Open. The problem is that many of them pretty much go by convention rather than by what the rules say. For example, as I've blogged many times, few pay attention to the rule that says it is the responsiblity of the player to serve so the umpire is satisified they are serving legal - and so when the umpire isn't sure if the serve is hidden (i.e. he's not satisifed it is not hidden), they allow the serve when the rules clearly say this should be a warning or a fault. And so many players are allowed to cheat and win. I've brought this up many times to no avail. 

In reply to by Larry Hodges

While I do agree with you, Larry, on the toss issue, I am not sure I am 100% with you on the "umpire satisfaction" issue. Here is why: the rule itself is ridiculous because it has hardwired subjectivity in it. It says that the player HAS TO satisfy the umpire, which is ridiculous on the face of it, because always the proper way was that the player has to comply with some objective rule not with demands of an umpire. But let's forget about that for a second and I will try to give you an example showing why this rule inevtiably leads to confusion and to exactly the situation that you described (and which you don't like - when ump is not sure and lets it go).

Here is what happens everywhere - in every sport (but for diversity sake I will use soccer as a game in this instance; and let's say there is no video recording) - player(s) do something which could be illegal and ref/ump has to make a decision. Let's say soccer ref thinks that player A pushed another team's soccer player B. If he saw it with his own eyes, he punishes A with yellow card. Imagine now - happens a lot - that ref was looking somewhere else at the moment and only caught the aftermath (player B stumbling away from A). What happens then? does he yellow-card player A because he failed to fully satisfy ref's confidence that nothing bad happened, because there is a definite possibility that foul has happened? of course not. He did NOT see it, or he saw something but he cannot be sure what really happened - maybe B is faking, maybe B initiated a tussle and A just bumped into him, who knows? ref does NOT know, that's the important thing here. How can he punish A for that? I am sure you agree with me that would be ridiculous and would ruin the entire game.

Reason - because the rules in soccer do NOT say: umpire will issue a yellow or red card if he suspects a foul; or if the alleged offender cannot fully satisfy the ref that his behavior was legal. The rules say something like - it is prohibited to push the player not in possession of the ball etc. So the rules state some objective fact, and then the ref will use his (admittedly, somewhat subjective) powers of observation to decide whether that fact happened or not. So it is ALWAYS an issue of fact. Did event X happen or not? this is the only thing  that should determine the outcome.

Unfortunately this stupid rule (and I will repeat it without blinking - very very stupid rule; or at least the relevant part of it) does NOT deal with an actual event. It deals with imagination and satisfaction of an umpire, which officially incorporates subjectivity into the text of the rule and allows for both abuse by umpires and for overall confusion. Since reasonable umpires feel that there is a huge opportunity to abuse or to misinterpret such a rule they decided (most of them, that is) to treat this rule in favor of presumption of innocence, which in my opinion is much preferable to the other way... which unfortunately, it seems, is the one you are suggesting.

Sorry for rambling, it's just I hope you will see this for what I think it is, a rather important issue which is not even about table tennis as a game but more about logic in rules and making proper decisions based on deeper analysis... which alas is not something that ITTF lately is famous for, I am sorry to say.

In reply to by JimT

One more quick point. Compare 6-in toss part and the umpire satisfaction part. The first one is about an objective fact (and that is why it is a good formal rule and that is why you and I can make valid logical inferences about the whole original issue of your post) - of course, the decision of an umpire about height of the toss is still subjective because all of our human decisions always are; but at least he starts off the formal definition and non-subjective rule.

In the umpire satisfaction part of the rule the umpire is allowed to "feel" that he was not "satisfied" - by the way, what does it even mean, satisfy? to what degree? there is no fact that he is forced to base his decision on. And that is really really bad.

Dixi  smiley

In reply to by JimT

The pertinent definition for "satisfied" from Merriam-Webster is "to believe something is true." So if the umpire believes the serve is legal, then all is well. If he doesn't believe it to be legal (which includes if he isn't sure), then it's a warning or a fault. 

In reply to by JimT

I think this is where I might disagree. You wrote, "It says that the player HAS TO satisfy the umpire, which is ridiculous on the face of it, because always the proper way was that the player has to comply with some objective rule not with demands of an umpire." Actually, since the rest of the serving rules are (hopefully) objective, the rule about satisifying the umpire isn't subjective; it simply means the player needs to serve so the umpire is satisified that he is serving legally. Otherwise a server could serve in a way that may or may not be legal, but hide it from the umpire, and the umpire has no way of knowing if the serve is legal.

This is what happens all the time with the hidden serve rule, which to me is the most poorly written rule. The rule there should be that the ball must be visible throughout the serve to the umpire or where the umpire would be if there were an umpire. (The exact location of the umpire isn't important since if the ball is visible to any place near where the umpire would be, it's obviously visible to the opponent.) 

As the rules are written, if the umpire isn't satisified if a serve is legal (i.e. whether it was hidden or not), then the rules are very objectively clear: it's a warning or a fault. As to the word "satisfied," that is also clearly defined. The pertinent definition from Merriam-Webster is "to believe something is true."If you aren't sure if the serve is hidden or not, you cannot believe it to be legal, i.e. be satisified it is legal, and so it should be a warning or fault. 

In reply to by Larry Hodges

Then they should not have formulated the rule in such a genuinely stupid way. If they wanted to prevent players hiding serves from umpires then that is what they had to do. However you spin it, the rule is about players making sure that umpire thinks that the serve is legal. That is just wrong - the player must comply with a formal and easily verifiable rule that says "serve is legal if..." without mentioning any subjective factors such as umpire's thinking.

The fact that ITTF could not come up with a better way of formulating that rule - and I agree this is not easy - doesn't excuse them for making a bad rule instead.

I think you are a looking at it more from the point of view of an ump - this rule certainly makes life easier for an umpire because it makes it impossible for umpire to misinterpret or make mistakes in applying the rule. For a player, however, this rule could conceivably be a nightmare - just look at what happened with Ding Ning at London Olympics. And that was easily THE MOST important match of her career!!