Tennis, over the years, has emerged as one of the most popular sports in the world.
The wave has reached Indian shores too, with stars like Olympic medallist Leander Paes and women’s Grand Slam champion Sania Mirza taking tennis’ popularity to new heights in the sub-continent.
Like many other sporting disciplines, the surface of play - the tennis court – plays a crucial role in enforcing the rules of the game.
Proper knowledge of the tennis court, hence, is essential, not only for playing tennis but also to understand and enjoy the game.
Tennis court dimensions and markings
According to the International Tennis Federation (ITF) – tennis’ global governing body – regulations, a competitive tennis court must be rectangular in shape, measuring 23.77 metres long. The width, however, differs for doubles (10.97 metres) and singles (8.23 metres).
While viewing a tennis court from the top, the two parallel lines drawn horizontally along the width of the tennis court are called the baselines while the lines running vertically along the length of the tennis court are called sidelines.
Since almost all tennis courts around the world are marked for both singles and doubles matches, separate sidelines for singles matches are drawn inside the doubles sideline markings.
This forms two lanes, each 1.37 metres wide and 23.77 metres long, on either side of the tennis court. The lanes are outside the playing zone in singles matches but inside the playing area for doubles matches.
There’s a net, 1.07 metres high, suspended parallelly to the baselines, which divide the court into two halves. Each team/ player defends one half during a match.
In each half, there’s a service line drawn 6.40 metres away from the net. The service line, however, extends only till the singles sideline marking.
The mid-points of the two service lines, then, are joined by a vertical centre service line, which forms two rectangular boxes, called service areas, adjoining the net in each half of the tennis court. This area is crucial during serving.
In a tennis match, a player has to stand and serve from beyond the baseline. They can serve from either left or right of the centre mark (a small mark plotting the centre-point of the baselines).
The player’s serve must clear the net and bounce inside the diagonally opposite service area in the opposition’s half to be deemed as a legal serve. Failure to do so is counted as a fault. Two faults in a row constitute a double fault and the opponent getting a point.
It’s to be noted, though, that the service areas are the same for both singles and doubles matches and don't extend into the side lanes.
Additionally, the service areas are only in play during the serve. All subsequent shots, including the service return, is legal if the ball crosses the net and bounces for the first time inside the playing area.
If the ball crosses the net but bounces outside the service area without touching the opponent’s racket or body, it’s called an out and results in a point being awarded to the opponent.
Types of tennis courts – grass, clay and hard
Though the measurements of all tennis courts are the same, the variety of surfaces on which matches are played can be segregated into three primary types – grass courts, hard courts and clay courts.
Grass courts are the most traditional tennis courts. Tennis gained its popularity while being played on gardens and grass lawns of the old British aristocracy, and hence is often called lawn tennis.
Many current-day tennis tournaments, including Wimbledon – the oldest and most prestigious of the Grand Slams – are still played on grass tennis courts.
On grass surfaces, the ball skids and can see unpredictable bounce, while maintaining its speed. Matches on grass courts, hence, are fast and favours players with immaculate technique, concentration, and speed.
These are the fastest type of court and favours the serve and volley style of play.
Players like Roger Federer, Pete Sampras, Serena Williams, Margaret Court and Billy Jean King have excelled on grass courts.
A clay court is generally made of crushed shale stone or brick and other unbound mineral aggregate. There are two types of clay courts commonly found.
The more common red clay courts are popular in Europe and Latin America. The French Open Grand Slam, for example, is played on red clay courts. They are mostly made of packed crushed brick with a top layer of loose materials, which give it a reddish colour.
Balls generally tend to hold up on these surfaces and bounce high, making hitting quick winners difficult. They are much slower than grass courts and lead to longer rallies.
Hence, matches on clay court can push a human body to its limit and are often determined by a player’s endurance and ability to deceive their opponent with craft.
With the high bounce, a good top spin can be a very potent weapon on clay surfaces, where beating opposition tennis players through power and placement alone becomes difficult.
Baseline players (who can defend well from the baseline) like Rafael Nadal, Björn Borg, Chris Evert and Justine Henin have found great success on clay courts. Nadal, with his record-breaking 14 French Open titles, is often called the ‘King of Clay’.
The less common green clay courts are made of crushed metabasalt topped with green clay. These are slightly faster and harder than red clay courts and are found in parts of the USA and Canada.
Hard courts are generally made of synthetic or acrylic layers laid on top of a concrete or asphalt foundation. Resin and rubber are also used in some constructions.
The speed on hard courts may vary according to the amount of sand present in the top layer but are generally faster than clay courts but slower than grass courts. The US Open and Australian Open Grand Slam tournaments are played on acrylic-topped hard courts currently.
Balls tend to bounce high on hard courts. All-round players like Novak Djokovic generally tend to do well on hard courts, given their balanced nature.
Tennis courts at the Olympics
Olympic tennis has been played on all three types of tennis courts – grass, clay and hard – depending on the venue.
Barring London 2012, which was played on grass court, six of the last seven Olympic tennis events have been played on hard courts. The last Olympic clay court tennis event was held at Barcelona 1992.
In addition to the three primary types of tennis court surfaces in use at the Grand Slams, carpet courts were also used in top-level matches at one point of time. These are textile or polymeric material supplied in rolls or sheets which can be laid on any flat concrete or sand surface to make it into a tennis court.
However, the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) – governing body for top-level men’s tennis - stopped usage of such courts after 2009.
The Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) - governing body for top-level women’s tennis – meanwhile, continued hosting events on carpet courts till 2018 but stopped from 2019 onwards. The 2018 Tournoi de Québec in Canada was the last professional event held on a carpet court.
Carpet courts are generally faster than hard courts but slower than grass courts.
Any of these court types can be in an outdoor or indoor venue. Weather conditions play a big part in outdoor court matches while have limited effect in indoor court matches.