Guide to the Rules of Tennis
- Basics of the Game
- The Court
- Further Reading
Tennis, from its earliest days, has fascinated fans. From the royals of yore such as Louis X to great writers of the modern age such as David Foster Wallace, the game, with its unique blend of tactical cunning and extreme athleticism, tends to breed obsessives.
For those of you who have a favorite player or fancy betting on tennis then you should read our guide - How to bet on Tennis.
If you’ve just started taking an interest in the game, this guide will take you through all the basics tenants of the sport, it’s rules and the equipment used.
Basics of the Game
Players stand at either side of the ‘court’ (the name given to the rectangular field of play). This court is divided across its middle by a net. Using special racquets players strike the ball over the net into their opponents half of the court. They in turn will attempt to return it. Points are won when one of the players brings the ‘rally’ (the term for an ongoing exchange of shots) to an end.
This could happen in a number of ways. They might hit the ball into the net, or out of the court in which case the other player gets the points. Alternatively, a player may not be able to get to their opponents shot (it has to be returned before it makes a second bounce. If the ball is allowed to bounce twice, the other player is awarded points.)
Normally, tennis is played one on one, however, in doubles there are two players on each side working together (note that there is still only one ball!)
Each ‘rally’ starts with a serve. This is where the serving player launches the play out of their hand and uses their racquet to play a shot over the net. The players will then try and continue returning the ball to each other until somebody ends the rally. This is known as a ‘point’. Each ‘game’ lasts until a certain number of points has been won. Throughout each game the same player serves for each point but once that game is over the service switches to the other player. By winning a certain number of games a player can win the set. By winning enough sets they take the match. Confused? Don’t worry, all we become clear.
To make things clearer let’s take a more detailed look at how scoring works.
As stated above over the course of a ‘game’ one player will serve all of the points. When talking about the score in a particular game, you always say the name of the player who is serving first. When a player hasn’t yet won any points in a game their score is described as ‘love’ (which is just a fanciful way of saying ‘nil’). When they win a point they move to 15, after two they move to 30 and after three they reach 40. Once a player reaches 40 the will win the game next time they score a point. The exception to this is if the other player is also on 40. This situation is called ‘deuce’.
If the game is at deuce (i.e. tied at 40 all) then the next player to win a point moves to ‘advantage’ (represented by an ‘A’ on a scoreboard). If they also manage to win the next point then they take the game. If not, it returns to deuce. All this really means is that every game has to be won by two clear points. Potentially, any number of points can be played during a game if players fail to capitalise when they have advantage.
This rather confusing scoring method whereby winning one point is referred to as ‘fifteen’ is thought to be derived from the fact that clock faces were once used to keep score, with the hand moving across a quarter of the face with each point. (The third point is 40 instead of 45 to represent the fact that, because you need to win by two clear points, you are more than one move across the clock face from getting all the way around and taking the game.)
Here’s the scoring for a game recapped.
As mentioned earlier, games are played with service switching between the players. The outcome of these games goes towards determining who wins the set. Normally, this will be the first player to win six games, however, just as a game needs to be won by two clear points, a set needs to be won by two games. Therefore, if it the set reaches a score of 6-5 another game needs to be played. Unless the leading players wins then it goes to a tie break.
In a tie break, points are counted simply (if you win a point your score is one, win two and it’s two etc.) and the game goes to the first player to reach seven points. Again, victory needs to be obtained by two clear points so this can go on indefinitely.
In some major tournaments such as Wimbledon, tie breaks aren’t used in the final set. Instead the set keeps going on with games being played until someone games a two game lead. In 2010 a match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut went on for eleven hours with final deciding set taking 138 games to settle.
In men’s matches sets are played to the best of five, and in women’s matches they are played to the best of three.
Tennis is one of those sports where the field of play is standardised. The same dimensions are always used. These are outlined in the diagram below.
You’ll notice that two sets of lines run down the side of the court. In singles play the inner line is the boundary, and any line that lands beyond this is out. In doubles play it’s the outer line.
The four rectangles in the centre are the service boxes (more on which down the article).
Though they are always of the same dimensions, courts can be drawn out on different surfaces. Commonly these are grass (Wimbledon has grass courts) hard courts (which are often indoors) and clay courts (such as those played on at the French open).
- Grass: Grass courts tend be slower, taking pace off the ball as it bounces, however, they also provide a higher bounce, which can make it harder to return serves from tall players who can get their ball to kick up before it reaches their opponent.
- Clay: Clay courts are actually made of crushed bricks, which are compressed into a flat surface. They are slow, and the affects of spin on the ball are more pronounced in the resulting bounce.
- Hard: Hard courts are normally acrylic. They are fast with a true bounce.
Since we have a grasp on the basics of the game and how the scoring system works, let’s take a more detailed look at the rules.
When serving the ball needs to be played from the baseline and has to cross the court diagonally landing in the service box opposite the side of the centre mark that the serve is standing on (if you look at the bird’s eye court diagram above there are four rectangles in the centre. These are the service boxes.)
If the ball lands outside of the service box or goes into the net, then the server gets a second attempt. If they fail again (this is known as a ‘double fault’) their opponent wins the point.
If the ball hits the net cord and drops over into the service box then it is a ‘let’ which means the serve is retaken, regardless of whether it is a first or second serve.
When receiving serve you need to allow the play to bounce before returning it, though in a rally you can ‘volley’ (play a return to a shot that hasn’t bounced.)
In a rally, if the ball hits the cord of the net and drops over then the shot is perfectly legal (unlike a serve, there is no let). However, as players never intend to hit the cord with their shots it is considered good etiquette to acknowledge the luck involved in such shots should they win a player a point.
Though players can run behind the bass line and off the side of the court, they can never come across the net, or pass the line of the net off court during play. Neither is it acceptable to lean across the net and play a shot whilst the ball is still in the opposite half of the court.
In professional play line judges and net judges are allowed to make calls as whether a ball was good or not, though they can be over ruled by the umpire who has the final say. Of course, in casual match ups players need to officiate themselves.
In major professional tournaments, the hawk eye system is used to help make calls. Players are allowed to appeal a decision they believe the umpire has got wrong. If they get three appeals wrong they lose the right to appeal until the next set when they get three more tries. In the event of a tie break players get an extra appeal.
Though players can make noises through physical exertion, it is not permitted to try and put off the opposing player through any form of distraction during a rally.
Long delays between play are not allowed. Serves should be played within twenty seconds of the end of the last point. After odd numbered games players swap ends of the court and, on these occasions, the gap between play can be up to ninety seconds. Between sets there can be a two minute break in play. During these breaks players tend to towel down, catch their breath and take on fluids to stay hydrated.
In formal matches the balls are changed after the first seven games and then every nine games from there on in.
Exceptions can be made if there are injuries or if equipment needs to be changed. If a player persistently takes longer than allowed they may be hot with penalty points, an entire game or in some extreme cases the match could be foremost.
Penalties can be awarded for a variety of other offences, such as touching your opponents ground or interfering with the fixtures of the court. As mentioned before, causing delays can also see punishment doled out. Most commonly penalties are handed out for unsporting behaviour and braches of discipline. Typically, this is manifest as racquet abuse (taking out one’s frustrations out by slamming their racquet into the ground) or as verbal abuse (normally directed at umpires). The latter was a favourite of the great John McEnroe, as you can see in this clip (provided you aren’t adverse to a bit of foul language.)
A few facts to bolster you knowledge base;
- In 1969 Susan Tutt beat Marion Bandy 6-0, 6-0, 6-0 in just twenty minutes. It was possibly the shortest professional game ever played.
- In 1975 Boris Becker won Wimbledon at the age of 17. He was not only the youngest player ever to win but the first unseeded player to take the crown.
- The tennis players Venus and Serena Williams are the only sisters to ever win Olympic gold medals.
- Tennis was originally played without racquets.
- The average tennis match lasts about two hours and twenty minutes. Only about twenty minutes of this consist of rallies.
- Samuel Groth has played the fastest serve ever recorded. It travelled at a punishing 163.7mph.
- You can read the full rule book here.
- Learning the game? Improve your forehand with these tips.
- If you fancy making a bet on the action, check out our sports betting page.