How Does Tennis Scoring Work?Published on 06/10/2023 · 6 min readEver wondered how tennis scoring works? You're in luck! Tennis Expert Nicolas Carrero is here to explain the ins and outs of how points work in tennis!
Photo by Lou Lou Photos
tl;dr You’ve shown up to the court, your opponent is here and you’ve finished warming up; now it’s time to play a match—the best part of tennis. Playing matches is a fun workout that can be performed well into older age. It’s similar to golf, just with a bit more sweating. But in order to play a match, you’ll need to know how to keep score. In this article, we’ll provide everything you need to know to hit the court running.
Step One: Starting the Game
To begin a match, one of the players has to serve. Whether it's singles or doubles, this is how every point will get started. To do this, you usually flip a coin to decide who will serve and on which side of the court each player is situated.
One player has to serve from one side of the baseline at the top of the court, trying to hit the ball into the opposite service box—or the two squares you see surrounding the net. Once the server hits that box on the opposite side of where they are standing on the baseline, the point is on!
Returning the Serve
At this point, either the player on the opposite side returns the ball to start a rally, or the server hits an unreturnable serve—called an ace. However, if the server fails to hit the service box completely in two attempts, that is called a double fault. A double fault results in the server losing that point.
In any case, the first point will cause the score to change to 15–0 or 0–15, depending on who won the point. If the server won the point, it's 15–0. If the returner won the point, it’s 0–15. The server will always be the first score listed.
Step Two: Match Rallies and Games
After the serve comes the rallying, when the two players hit the ball back and forth during a point. There are two ways a player wins a point in this scenario.
The first is hitting a winner. This is when you hit a shot that lands inside the court and is unreturnable for your opponent (it bounces twice or past your opponent). The second way is when your opponent misses a shot either outside of the court lines or at the net and can’t get it over to your side of the court. With either one of these outcomes, you earn a point.
Scoring a Game
The point of each game in tennis is to win four points (15, 30, 45, game-point) before your opponent. Let’s say after losing the first point as the server, you win the second point of the game. Now the game is at 15 all, or one point each.
Instead, now let’s say you’re the server, and you win the next two points in that same game we were talking about. The first point got you to 30–15, or two points won compared to one for your opponent. The second point gets you a 40–15 lead, or three points compared to just one for your opponent. If you win the next point, you win that game!
Now, it gets a bit complicated if your opponent matches you and wins three points as well—making it 40 all, or “deuce”. When you and your opponent reach deuce, one of you now needs to win by two points. So the server keeps serving normally, but either player must win two consecutive points to win the game.
The way this is called out by the players is: deuce when tied at 40 all; advantage in (or ad-in)_ when the server wins first point; and advantage out (or _ad-out)** **when the returner wins the first point. If either player wins the first point after deuce but loses the second, the score resets back to deuce, and you keep playing until one of you wins two straight points. If after having advantage, you win the following point—you win the game!
Step Three: Completing Sets
If you won the game, does that mean you won the match? Hardly! You’ve won a small battle in a longer war. After winning a game, scoring rules indicate you now need to win five more to win the set. This means the first player to win six games usually wins. I say usually because, like the deuce rule during games, if both players win five games, one must then win by two games. A possible outcome when tied at five games each is you or your opponent winning 7–5.
If you both win six games each, you play a decisive set tiebreaker. This is a way to decide a set that has gone the full 12 games and has no clear winner yet. It is a quick mini game in which the first player to win seven points wins the set.
After the initial player serves to begin the tiebreak, serving is alternated every two points. As with game and set rules, if you find yourselves tied at six in the tiebreak, you must win by two points to win the tiebreak. Whoever wins that tiebreak, or gets to six games first, wins the set.
Step Four: Completing Full Matches
How much of a full match is played depends on which skill level you hold. For casual, recreational players, one set can be enough of a great workout to call it a day. For others, they’d rather play two or three.
Best of three is the format professionals play in most tournaments. The first player to win two sets wins the match. Now that we’ve gone over how to win a set, just picture having to do that twice. And that is only if you win two sets in a row, or in straight sets. If you are in a battle, you may have to go the full three sets!
Further, the men on the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) Tour sometimes must play best of five, especially during the biggest tournaments, called the Grand Slams. That means that a player must win three out of the possible five sets to be declared the winner.
Sometimes, be it in professional or recreational matches, the match goes to a super tiebreak. This happens either at the end of the third set or at the end of the fifth set, when it is still tied. Instead of the usual seven-point tiebreaker, this super tiebreak to determine a match is the first to win 10 points. Serving keeps alternating just like a usual tiebreak, and if both players are tied at nine all, the tiebreak must go on until somebody wins by two.
At the end of a match, the score will typically look something like 6–4, 6–3. In this example, one of the players won the match in straight sets. If the match score looks like 6–2, 5–7, 7–6, then it was a battle that went all the way to a final-set super tiebreak.
Afterwards, the player telling the score will always mention his score first. So if you lost a set or match, you’d say “I lost 2–6, 7–5, 6–7”—always including your opponent's number second.
Chat With a Real Expert
Whether you are a casual player just looking for a good workout and some competition, or are a professional player going after money and trophies, the rules of the game won’t change. And neither will the fact that Curated Tennis Experts are here to help you get the most out of your swing. Our knowledge team offers free, customized advice, insights, and gear recommendations to help get you on the court sooner.