Your Guide to the Rules of Tennis

Published on 05/17/2023 · 6 min readLooking to get into tennis this summer? You're in the right place! Read on for a comprehensive guide to the rules of tennis from Tennis Expert Nicolas Carrero!
Nicolas Carrero, Tennis Expert
By Tennis Expert Nicolas Carrero

Photo by Moises Alex

Tennis is a simple game made complicated by rules. On the surface level, it looks like a sport that is easy to play. Just hit a ball over the net to your opponent—it seems easy enough! However, the intricacies of tennis are what make tennis one of the most challenging yet fulfilling to play.

The sport has gone through multiple makeovers, from indoor, hands-only in the early 18th century to going outdoors and using wooden racquets in the early 19th century. Wooden racquets have been replaced by mostly graphite racquets, and all tennis equipment has reached its technological apex. In addition, the hitting surface of the tennis court can change depending on location—concrete hard court (U.S. Open and Australian Open), clay (French Open), or grass (Wimbledon).

Now you’re on the court, ready to play, but what are the game's rules?

Rules of Tennis

Photo by Nicolas Carrero

Serving

When playing tennis, there are games and sets to win. To start a match, one of the players has to serve. Some toss a coin to see who will start serving. Serving is about standing at the top of the baseline and trying to hit the ball into the square (service box) on the other side of the court, on the opposite side that you are hitting from.

If you are on the deuce courtside or the right side of the top baseline, you aim to bounce the ball in the square on the opposite left side. If you are on the ad court, you aim for the right service box. You have two chances to make the serve in the box. If you miss the first serve, it’s considered a fault. If you miss the second serve, it's a double fault, and your opponent wins the point automatically.

If you clip the net and the ball lands inside the service box, you get another chance at that serve without penalty. That is called a “let serve.” When that point is over, the server moves to the left side of the top baseline to serve into the box on the opposite side now.

The only catch is that you have to be standing behind the baseline. Your foot cannot cross that line until you hit the ball on your serve. If you cross the line before hitting your serve, it’s known as a “foot fault.” Foot faults are usually only called in the professional ranks, but nobody likes a foot falter, even in the recreational ranks. Once you legally make a serve, the battle is on! Simply put, you and your opponent are trying to make the other unable to reach a ball, miss a ball in the net, or hit a ball outside.

Lines

Why do you lose a point when you hit the ball outside of the lines? When playing singles, the singles sidelines running down the inside of the court are your boundaries. The ball must be kept inside those lines on the sides and the baseline lines on the top. You can hit it anywhere inside those lines to try to win a point.

If a player hits the ball outside of those lines, it’s out, and their opponent wins the point. If a player hits the net and cannot get the ball over, the point goes to the opponent. The rules are the same when playing doubles. The only thing that changes is that there is more court to hit in with doubles.

Doubles

The entire court inside the lines is playable for doubles, whereas the singles court gives you less room to work with. The “doubles alley” is the small strip between the singles and doubles sidelines. When playing doubles, that strip counts as in as well, with only hitting it outside of all the margins being called out. Serving and the scoring is the same, only that the doubles court is wider.

Points

The most satisfying way to win a point is by hitting what is called a “winner.” A winner is when you hit a forehand or backhand either too hard for the player to reach it or so well placed they can’t. Nothing feels quite as good as a well-hit winner! Another way to win or lose a point is if a player double-hits the ball or touches it twice with the racquet before it gets over the net, although that rule has been laxer lately and recreationally is rarely ever called.

Scoring System

Photo by Nicolas Carrero

The simple way of understanding scoring is to win four points to win a tennis game. The complication is that if you and your opponent win three points, you must win by two now.

Here is how scoring works: One point for you means 15-0 or fifteen-love. You are up 1 point to nothing. Let’s say you won the second point, as well. Now the score is 30-0, or thirty-love, and you are up 2 points to none in the game. If your opponent just won its first point of the game, it is now 30-15, with you still in the lead. You win one more point, but your opponent wins two more, tying it up at 40-40 or forty-all. So 15, 30, and 40 are the point totals during a tennis game after 3 points.

Deuce

When you and your opponent are at 3 points each, it is known as “deuce” (or forty-all). Now at deuce, one of you will have to win two straight points to win the game. Let’s say they are serving and win the first point at deuce. Now it would be their advantage or ad in. If the returner wins the first point, it’s advantage out (ad-out), with the returner now one point away from winning the game.

If you have the advantage in a game, but your opponent wins the next point, you go back to deuce and start over again at forty-all. If you or your opponent wins two consecutive points after deuce, the game is won by whoever won the consecutive points! Now you have to do that five more times to win a set.

A set consists of the first player to win six games. The total number of games depends on you! If you each reach five games won in a set, it’s similar to deuce during games, and now you have to win by two. The difference is that the score doesn’t get reset if you both win a game and tie it at six. In that case, it goes to a tiebreaker.

Tiebreaker

A tiebreaker is a mini-game where a server begins serving once, and the players alternate serves every two points. The first player to win seven points in the tiebreak wins the set. Like the game and set rule, if both players reach six, win by two! A tiebreaker can continue for a while if the players keep the score within one. However, once a player wins the tiebreaker by getting to 7 first or winning by two, the set is won! After every odd game and at the end of each set, the players change ends.

In professional tennis or the ITF (International Tennis Federation), men and women have to win two sets or the best of three to win a match, during most tournaments. But men in the bigger grand slam tournaments have to win three sets or the best of five. Recreationally, it can be anything from just one set, or you can do the best of five if you really want a workout!

Conclusion

Photo by Nicolas Carrero

So be ready for a great workout with challenging mental hurdles! If you have any other questions or if you ever need any new tennis gear, get in touch with one of our Tennis Experts here!

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