February 8, 2018

Illegal Hidden Serves: Letter to the ITTF

Two years ago I had an email with a pair of ITTF officials over fixing the problem with hidden serves. Both said they were working on it, but nothing so far as happened. So yesterday I sent them the following email. If nothing happens, I may once again go to the USATT Board on this. Previously I went to the Board and asked them vote to ask our Umpires and Referees Committee (then the Officials Committee) to enforce the serving rules as they are written, but it lost 6-1-1 as they didn't want to handicap USA players, since to compete internationally they'd both need their own illegal hidden serves and be able to return them. This time I'd simply ask the Board to send a note to the ITTF, imploring them to take action on this issue. My email below could be the draft of such a note.


I presume nothing has happened regarding fixing the problem of hidden serves? Coaches still have to go through that uncomfortable routine with their top juniors and parents where we explain that if they want to compete on an equal basis, they'll have to cheat as the top players do by illegally hiding their serves. Nearly every top player obviously hides their serves, and umpires, who cannot really tell if the serves are visible are not, simply do not follow the rules that specify that if they aren't sure whether the serve is legal, they must warn and then fault the player.

2.6.6 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. 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.

I made my own proposal, the Net Visibility Rule (basically, the ball must be "visible" to the entire net), and others have suggested the ball must be visible to both umpires throughout the serve, or where the umpire would sit. Or the ITTF could simply takes charge, and set a date where all referees and umpires shall enforce the rules as they are written, with notice to the players, and perhaps (for a six month grace period) allow two service warnings per match. Or we could change the rules to make them easier to enforce, and coordinate this with a decree by ITTF for worldwide enforcement – and then follow through on it.

Note that I'm speaking here for myself, but I do plan on bringing this up at a USATT Board Meeting, where we perhaps send a note to ITTF imploring them to take action. I would like USATT to enforce the rule here, but the objection is that if we don't allow our players to cheat like the top players do, we'll be at a disadvantage, both by not using these illegal serves and because our players won't be used to facing them.

We're the only Olympic sport that openly allows cheating in our sport; isn't it time we fix this? Or do we want to wait until there are headline articles in the New York Times and other major newspapers around the world about rampant cheating in an Olympic Sport and at the Olympics itself?

And yes, hiding the serve is cheating, by definition, though an argument can be made that if the opponent does it first, then responding with your own illegal serves isn't cheating. But it all starts with either enforcing the actual rules (my preference), changing the rules to make them easier to enforce, or both. 

-Larry Hodges
Member, USATT Hall of Fame
Member, USATT Board of Directors
Chair, USATT Coaching Committee
USATT Certified National Coach
ITTF Certified Level 2 Coach
USATT Certified Umpire
Full-time Coach at Maryland Table Tennis Center

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