Come In, Table 9. Your Time Has Expired

Table Tennis Thoughts

After the popularity of the article on the new coaching rule, we've got another thought provoking article by Glenn O'Dea.

Glenn is the editor of the popular Melton (in Victoria, Australia) Table Tennis Newsletter, Across the Net. If you would like to subscribe to the interesting newsletter contact Glenn at

I recently watched a game between 2 stoic defenders, and as I stood there, transfixed by the little white ball moving ever more slowly from side-to-side, my mind started to wander. It wandered far away from the table and out of the hall. Eventually it found its way to the 1936 World Championships in .

In the early 1930’s, it was fashionable to play a very defensive game and simply wait for your opponent to make a mistake. This was causing concern amongst the ruling bodies at the time, as crowds were getting bored watching this type of game and spectator numbers were falling (and those who stayed to watch were falling asleep). This culminated in Prague in 1936 when Alex Ehrlich from Poland came up against Farkas Paneth from Romania.

Paneth was a defensive blocker and chopper who refused to ever play an attacking stroke. Ehrlich was one of the finest attackers of his time who had a particular dislike of the defensive game, and considered that it was ruining the sport. To prove his point, he decided to play Paneth at his own game, declaring the he would let his hand drop off before he played an attacking stroke.

The crowd started off smiling, understanding what Ehrlich was doing, but soon they started to shuffle their feet. The booing and howling soon started as the players tapped the ball over the net “like a pair of arthritic grandmothers” and it finally went quiet when the crowd of more than two thousand was reduced by boredom to a couple of dozen. But the point went on... and on.... and on.

After the point had passed the 30 minute mark, ITTF president, Ivor Montagu who was watching from the front row leaned forward and pleaded with the players to speed up the game. He admitted that Ehrlich had made his point, but the Pole refused to attack. Ehrlich called for his teammates to set up a chess board on a nearby table and started to call out his moves while continuing to return every delivery from Paneth. After 45 minutes the umpire had to be replaced during the point, complaining of a stiff neck. After an hour Ehrlich called for lunch, and ate a cheese baguette while the point went on.

Montagu stood and called for an immediate meeting of ITTF board members to try to resolve the problem. To his horror, when he returned to the arena after the meeting, the same point was still underway.

Eventually, Ehrlich hit a shot which caught the top of the net, pivoted briefly, and dropped onto Paneth’s side. Ehrlich won the first point of the match after 2 hours and 12 minutes. It is estimated that the rally contained approximately 8,000 shots. Ehrlich cruised to victory with the rest of the match completed in less than 10 minutes.

Ivor Montagu, later commented that those who simply pushed and chiselled were “as table tennis players a menace that must be humiliated, despised, sent to Coventry, driven out of public life, if table tennis is to survive”.

This single point and the meeting which took place while it was being played was the catalyst for the first of various rule changes over the next 80 years. Almost immediately, the height of the net was lowered and a time limit of 20 minutes per game, to a maximum time of 1 hour and 45 minutes for a match was introduced.

The first time this rule had an effect on international play was in the very next World Singles Championship between Ruth Aarons of the USA and Gertude Pritzi of Austria when the match was stopped after 1 hour and 45 minutes with both players being disqualified and the Women’s Singles title declared vacant. In 2001, this ruling was overturned and both players were awarded the Gold medal for the match.

The rule has been refined over the years and now (in plain English) is this:

After 10 minutes of play, if at least 18 points have been completed (9-9, 10-8, etc), the game will continue as normal.

After 10 minutes of play, if 18 points have not been completed, the game will be interrupted by the umpire. Play will then re-start with players getting one serve each until the end of game. Each time the receiver plays a shot, the umpire or an assistant will count aloud so that both players can hear. If the receiver can make 13 returns, they win the point.

All subsequent games in the match between those 2 players will be played using the expedite rule from the start.

This rule is designed with one result in mind; to make the server responsible for attacking and trying to win the point. If they simply defend for too long, the receiver will be awarded the point automatically. At club level you will probably never see this happen. Even at the top level it is very rare.


Does it work? Based on the fact that you don’t see too many straight-out defensive players, it seems to work. Is it fair? Well, it’s probably fairer than my idea of smothering them in honey and tying them to a termite mound. But is it as much fun?

Posted 7 years ago

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Dieter Verhofstadt

Dieter Verhofstadt Posted 7 years ago

We have such a player in our club. A few months ago, I saw the time rule being invoked in one of his games. Then a few weeks ago, I was the referee in a match of his against another defender. I took my smartphone chronometer (?) and in the 4th set had to invoke the time rule.

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