Tennis rules, scoring system and all you need to know about the racket sport

Tennis is one of the most popular and engaging sports in the world with four Grand Slams each year. Here are the official rules of tennis.

By Rahul Venkat
Picture by 2022 Getty Images

Tennis or lawn tennis is often regarded as one of the most physically demanding sports around.

Tennis has thrown up various global stars in different eras - from Rod Laver and Martina Navratilova to Pete Sampras, Steffi Graf, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams.

The four marquee tennis tournaments every year, the Grand Slams - Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon and the US Open - provide high-quality action throughout the year in addition to various lower-level tournaments to keep fans engaged.

Here is a brief outlook at tennis rules, how it is played and the scoring systems involved in the racket sport.

Tennis equipment

Tennis ball: According to the International Tennis Federation (ITF), a typical tennis ball should weigh between 56-59.4 grams with a diameter of 6.54-6.86 centimeters. They should be yellow or white in colour, though most balls are yellow.

Tennis racket: A tennis racket cannot exceed 73.7 cm in length and 31.7 cm in width. The racket shall have a frame enclosing sturdy strings, usually made of nylon, interwoven in crossed and bonded pattern, and a handle.

The player is required to hit the ball with the middle of the racket - the part with strings which is also known as hitting surface.

How to play tennis

Tennis serve and rules

A tennis match begins with the umpire doing a coin toss. The player who wins the toss can choose to serve, receive or pick the side from which they want to start the match.

The serving player has to stand behind the baseline of his side of the tennis court and within the bounds of the centre mark and the sideline.

For a successful serve, the server has to toss the ball up with his non-playing hand and hit it with the racket before it bounces. The ball needs to cross the net and land within the serving area which is marked on the diagonally opposite side of the court for it to be deemed a legal serve.

Each player is allowed two serves per point. If a player hits the net, or the ball’s first bounce occurs outside the serving area, it's called a service fault and the server has a second serve to initiate the point.

If the server’s foot touches the baseline or goes out of bounds of the sideline, it is known as a foot fault and the server will have a second serve.

If a player commits a fault on his second serve also, it is called a double fault and the receiving player gets that point.

However, if a player’s serve hits the net and lands within the serving area, then the server will still have two serves to initiate the point. This situation is known as let.

The server has to alternate between the vertical halves of the tennis court for each point.

If the server manages to land a legal serve and the receiver is unable to return the ball, it is known as an ace and the server gets the point.

How points are scored in tennis

Any point is initiated by the server and it is the job of the receiver to return it successfully.

Once the serve is returned, the two players engage in a rally, i.e trading shots back-and-forth over the net and within the sidelines and baseline.

To win a point, a player must hit a shot either before the ball has bounced or after the first bounce. If the ball bounces twice, then the player with the last shot wins the point.

A player must also wait for the ball to pass the net and come over to his side of the court and cannot step over the net to hit the ball.

The server becomes the receiver and the receiver becomes the server once a game is completed.

In a doubles match, the receiving team gets to choose the first receiver and then the two players in the team alternate to receive every subsequent point.

Tennis shots

Tennis players use a variety of angles, speed and technique to hit the ball in a certain direction or to deceive their opponents to win a point. Some common tennis strokes are as follows:

Forehand and backhand

The two most common shots in tennis are the forehand and backhand. If a right-handed player extends his right hand to hit the ball from the right side of his body, it is called a forehand.

If the right-handed player brings his right hand across his body to hit a shot from the left side of his body, it is called a backhand.

The inverse applies for left-handed players.

Drop shot

When a player reduces the speed of his shot to land the ball just above the net and onto the opposite side, it is called a drop shot.

A drop shot is generally used when the opposing player is standing at the baseline and it becomes difficult for them to recover a drop shot as they have to cover quite a distance.

Smash

When a player hits a shot with all their power, generally from over their heads, such that the opposing player is unable to reach the ball, it is known as a smash.

Slice

A player hits a slice when they cut the ball with the racket facing the court at a cross angle. The slice is generally used to slow down the pace of a rally.

Tennis scoring system

A player or team has to win four points to win a game. Any game starts at 0-0 and the zero point in tennis is called love. The progression of points occurs as follows:

First point - 15

Second point - 30

Third point - 40

Fourth point - Game

However, if both players win three points each in a game (i.e score is 40-40), then it's called a deuce.

After deuce, the player who wins the next point has advantage. If the player/team who has advantage wins the next point, then they win the game.

However, if the opposing player wins the next point after advantage, then the score moves back to deuce. A player/team needs to win two consecutive points after deuce to win a game.

How to win a tennis match

A player has to typically win four points to win a game and a minimum of six games, with a two-game difference, to claim a set. A player/team has to win three sets (in a best-of-five sets match) or two sets (in a best-of-three sets) to win the match.

Players are required to change ends after the end of the first, third and every subsequent odd game in a set. The players also exchange ends after a set is completed.

If both players win six games each in a set (6-6), then the set moves to a tiebreaker.

The progression of points in a tiebreaker is 1, 2, 3 and so on. To win a tiebreaker (and consequently, the set), a player/team must win a minimum of seven points, with a two-point difference.

If the score in a tiebreaker is 6-6, a player/team has to win two consecutive points to win the tiebreaker and the set.

In a tiebreaker, the serve changes hands after the first point is played. Thereafter, the serve changes after every two points played. The players change ends in a tiebreaker after playing the first six points.

In a Grand Slam match, a tiebreaker can only be played in the first, second, third and fourth sets (in a men’s singles match) and in the first and second sets (in a women’s singles or doubles match).

If each player has won six games each in the last set of a Grand Slam match, the match shall continue to be played without a tiebreaker until any one player has a two-game lead.

Only in the US Open, a tiebreaker is permitted in the last set. In the Wimbledon, the match moves to a tiebreaker if each player has won 12 games in the last set (12-12).

In the last set of a doubles match, the match moves to a super tiebreaker. In a super tiebreaker, the rules are similar to a tiebreaker with the only difference being that the first team to win 10 points, with a two-point difference, is deemed the winner.

How many sets in tennis

In men’s singles events at Grand Slams, the matches are a best-of-five sets but in all other ATP Tour events, a men’s singles match is a best-of-three sets affair.

Men’s doubles matches, in the ATP Tour and Grand Slams, are best-of-three sets except the Wimbledon, where they are best-of-five set matches.

All women’s singles and doubles events - in Grand Slams and on the WTA Tour - are best-of-three sets matches.

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