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Last Updated: Saturday, 24 April 2004, 12:58 GMT 13:58 UK
Beginner's guide to table tennis
Table tennis
The rules have changed in recent years to limit defensive play
Table tennis is one of the quickest and most skilful sports in the Olympics, with the leading players needing explosive power combined with a delicate touch.

Bats are made of wood covered by a piece of rubber, either pimpled or sandwich depending on the player's specific style and array of shots.

A new piece of rubber is used in every match, giving players different controls of speed and spin.

Indeed, some glues used on paddles, as they are commonly known, are banned in international competition because they can make the ball travel up to 30mph faster than usual.

The table is 274 centimetres long, 152cm wide and 76cm tall, while the net has a height of 15.25cm and the hollow celluloid ball has a diameter of 40mm and weighs 2.7 grams.

To prevent matches turning into defensive wars of attrition a unique 'expedite system' is used.

After 10 minutes of play the umpire will stop a rally in mid-shot and give the word, meaning that the serving player must win a point by the 13th shot of the rally or forfeit the serve to his opponent.

The scoring system has also changed in recent years to speed up the game and increase the number of exciting passages of play.

Matches are the best of five sets, with the first player to 11 points taking the set. If the score reaches 10-10, a lead of two clear points is required.

There will be four table tennis events in Athens, men's and women's singles and doubles.

In the singles, the top 16 go through while 48 others contest a qualification round, of which 16 advance. The last 32 then play an elimination tournament. The same format is used for the doubles, but with 32 teams involved.

Each rally begins with a serve, which must be hit from behind the end line and from above the table.

The ball must be tossed up in the air using the non-paddle hand and must travel at least 16cm and be hit on its descent.

The ball must bounce on the server's side of the net before crossing the net.

In singles, the serve can be directed anywhere on the table, though in doubles it must always go from right-hand corner to right-hand corner.

The receiver returns it, then the servers' partner must strike it next followed by the receiver's partner and so on.

Play must continue in this sequence throughout the rally and those who hit out of turn lose the point. After every two points, service is changed.

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