Tennis is one of the most popular sports in the UK, and it’s now played by both professional and recreational players all around the world. This sport originated in England in around the 19th century, and was known at the time as ‘Lawn Tennis’. Today, there are four major tournaments known as ‘Grand Slams’, considered to be the most prestigious tennis events in the world.
If you’re new to tennis, the rules can seem a little mind boggling. So we’re here to help! Whether you just want to understand what’s going on or perhaps you’ve been inspired to have a go at playing yourself, check out our guide to the rules of tennis, including all the need-to-know jargon.
Object of the Game
Tennis is played on a rectangular court with a net running across the centre. The aim of the game is simple - to hit the ball over the net and to score more points than your opponent! Though in reality, there is a little more to it than that.
When hitting the tennis ball over the net, the ball must land within the margins of the court and in a way in which your opponent is unable to hit the ball back. You win a point every time your opponent is unable to return the ball within the court.
Players & Equipment
A game of tennis can be played either by one player on each side (singles), or two players on each side (doubles). The court has a baseline at the back, two service areas (closest to the net in which a serve must land in), and two tram lines down either side. A singles match will use the inner side tram line, and a doubles match will use the outer tram line.
There are four main types of surface for tennis courts: Grass, clay, hard, and artificial grass. And equipment is simple, each player just needs a stringed tennis racket and a tennis ball.
It’s important to warm-up before you play tennis to avoid injury. Check out some of the ways you and your family can practice tennis warm-up activities together at home without any tennis equipment: 5 Tennis Warm-Up Practices You Can Do at Home.
To win a game of tennis, you need to score points, as follows:
- No points are scored = Love
- 1 point scored = 15
- 2 points scored = 30
- 3 points scored = 40
- 4 points scored = set point (set over)
If the scores went to 40-40, this would be known as “Deuce”. If a game reaches this point, a player must then win by two clear points.
A set is a collection of games, played until a player wins six games (or more). A match is usually played to a best-of-three (for women’s matches) or five sets (men’s matches).
To win the game, you must win more sets than your opponent. Winning a set is simply the first player to reach six games (but you have to be clear by at least two games). For example, if your opponent wins five games, you must win the set 7-5. If the set goes to 6-6 then a tie break is played - the first player to seven points.
Serving Rules of Tennis
The game starts with a coin toss to determine which player must serve first and which side they want to serve from. The server will continue serving the ball (from alternative sides on the baseline) to the receiver until the set has ended. The server’s feet must remain behind the baseline until they have served the ball. If the server fails to hit their first serve in, they can serve again. If they fail to hit their second serve in, then a “Double Fault” will be called and the point lost. If the server clips the net but the ball still goes in the service area then “Let” is called and they get to take that serve again without penalty. If the ball hits the net and fails to go in the service area then “Out” is called and they lose that serve. The receiver can stand where they wish to receive the serve. If the ball is struck without the serve bouncing then the server will receive the point.
After the set has ended, the receiver will become the server and serve the ball until the next set has ended. This process is repeated throughout the match.
Rules for Playing Tennis
Once a successful serve has been made, the number of shots between the players can be unlimited. A point is won by hitting the ball so the opponent fails to return it in the scoring areas. The ball can hit any part of the line for the point to be called in - outside the line and the ball is out.
To win the set, a player must win six games (by two or more). The opening sets will go to a tie break if it ends up being 6-6, where players play first to seven points. The final set will not have a tie break, instead, a player needs to win by two games (with no limits on the number played).
A player loses a point if they fail to return the ball in either the correct areas on the court, hits the net and doesn’t go into the opponent's area, or fails to return the ball before it bounces twice in their half. If a player touches the net, distracts their opponent or impedes in any way, then they also lose the point.
The balls in a tennis match are changed every seven games to make sure they aren’t worn down. If they lose pressure, they’re not as bouncy. This usually starts to happen after around three hours of play and can affect a player's control and accuracy. Because of this, the balls are changed after the first seven games, then the next nine, the next seven, and so on throughout the match.
Spare balls are stored in a refrigerated container at the side of the court, and they’re kept at 68° F to keep them in perfect condition.
In and Out
Whether a shot is “In” or “Out” has caused much controversy over the years, with players and on-court officials often not seeing eye-to-eye. In professional tennis you will usually see a line judge. In recreational tennis you and your opponent are the line judges. Make sure you call the ball as you see it, and fairly.
In a game of singles, the ball must be hit within the “Service Courts”, the “Back Court” and the “Alley Line” (see diagram above) for a point to be scored. Balls hit in between the “Sideline” and “Alley Line” are considered OUT, and your opponent will earn a point.
In a doubles game, the ball must be hit within the “Service Courts”, the “Back Court” and the area between the “Alley Line” and the “Sideline” for a point to be scored.
The server is given two opportunities to serve the ball within the service court. If the server fails to get their first serve into the diagonally opposite service court, it’s called a “Fault Serve”. And if the server fails for a second time, a double fault is committed and the receiver will earn a point.
If the ball hits the net and falls within the service court, this is called a “Net Serve”. The server can then re-serve the ball into the service court. There are no limits to the number of “Net Serves” a player can commit.
Rules for Tennis Doubles
The rules for singles and doubles matches are a little different, although mainly regarding court size and serving order. Mostly, doubles tennis rules are very much the same as singles matches. Doubles tennis rules are just slightly adapted to make space for an extra player on either side of the court. Let’s take a look at some of the key differences between the rules for both singles and doubles matches.
A singles court uses the innermost sideline and measures 27 ft. x 78 ft
A doubles court uses the outermost sideline and measures 36 ft. x 78 ft.
Played to the best of 3 sets (although some men's singles tournaments play to the best of 5).
A doubles match is usually played to the best of 5 sets.
The player who wins the toss chooses who serves first. Whoever is serving first serves for the entire duration of the first game. Then the other player will serve for the next game. Players switch sides of the court for every odd-numbered game.
The team who wins the toss chooses which team serves first, and that team will choose which player will serve first. Whoever is serving first serves for the entire duration of the first game. Then the opposite team will serve for the next game. For every odd-numbered game, teams switch sides of the court, and the player who hasn’t served yet from the first game must now serve. Then the player who hasn’t served from the second team serves, and so on.
Tie-Break Serving Order
If a score of 6-6 is reached and tie-break rules are used, a tie-break game is played in order to determine which player wins the set. For a tie-break game, the goal is to reach 7 points first with a lead of at least 2, and doing so results in the win of the set. The player who serves first is the player who would normally serve after 6-6, or 12 games.
The serving order for a tie-break is as follows:
Point 1: Player A
Point 2: Player B
Point 3: Player B
Point 4: Player A
Point 5: Player A
Point 6: Player B
Point 7: Player B
Point 8: Player A
Point 9: Player A
The serving order for a doubles tie-break is as follows:
Point 1: Player A
Point 2: Player X
Point 3: Player X
Point 4: Player B
Point 5: Player B
Point 6: Player Y
Point 7: Player Y
Point 8: Player A
Point 9: Player A
List of Basic Tennis Terms
Whether you’re watching tennis on TV, or want to start playing yourself, here’s a round-up of all the basic tennis terms and jargon every beginner should know:
- Ace: A point won by the server when the receiver doesn’t touch the ball.
- Advantage: The point played after deuce. If the player with the advantage wins the point, the game is over.
- Backhand: The shot played when the back of the dominant hand is facing forwards. For example, if you’re right handed, a backhand is a shot you play on the left side of the body.
- Baseline: The line at the back of the court that runs parallel to the net.
- Deuce: When the score is tied at 40-40. A player must win two consecutive points from deuce to win a game.
- Fault: When the ball does not land in the opponent's court. A fault can be called if a serve, forehand, backhand, or volley lands outside the playing area.
- Forehand: The shot played when the palm of the dominant hand is facing forwards. For example, if you’re right handed, the forehand will be played on the right hand side of the body.
- Game: The building blocks of a set. Each set comprises of at least six games.
- In: A call made when a ball falls within the playing area.
- Let: Most commonly called when a player’s serve hits the net but lands in the correct service box. A let can also be called if a point is interrupted by an outside interference. In the event of a let, a point is replayed.
- Love: Zero points.
- Match: In professional tennis a match is determined by the best of three or five sets.
- Out: A call made when a ball lands outside the playing area.
- Serve: The serve (or service) starts the point. Players will usually hit an over-arm stroke from behind the baseline into the service box diagonally opposite them. A player has two opportunities to serve per point.
- Service Box: The two boxes on either side of the net. A server must serve from one side of the court into the service box diagonally opposite them.
- Set: A set usually consists of six games. However, if the players are tied at five games, the set becomes the first to seven games.
- Tram Lines: The external court lines that run parallel to the singles lines. These lines are considered ‘out’ in singles, but ‘in’ when playing doubles.
- Volley: A stroke where a player hits the ball back over the net (using a forehand or backhand) before the ball bounces on their side of the court.
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If you already play tennis and are looking to improve your skills, improving your tennis volley technique is essential to making your gameplay more exciting and dynamic. Take a look at our article to Become a Master of the Tennis Volley.