The Game of Tennis

The Coin Toss

Before the match begins, a coin toss or racket spin takes place to determine which player will receive the initial advantage. The winning player has a number of options. Firstly, he/she can opt to take the first serve, in which case his/her opponent will be designated as the receiver and will be able to choose which end of the court to occupy for the first game. Alternatively, the winner of the toss can opt to choose the end of the court he/she will begin the match at, and his/her opponent will be the first server. The winner also has the option of leaving the decision to his/her opponent, although (unsurprisingly!) this option is taken very rarely in serious competitions.

The Match

A match is made up of between one and five sets. In tournaments, women play to the best of three sets. Men frequently play to the best of three sets also, although they will play to the best of five in all Grand Slam competitions and a few other tournaments.

A set is comprised of games. A player usually claims the set when he/she has won at least six games, and at least two more than his/her opponent. If each player has won an equal number of games, at least six each, the set may be decided by a tie-break. The tie-break is usually scored using ordinary numbers and will be represented on the score board in brackets. The winning player must win at least 7 points, and at least 2 more than his/her opponents. Once completed, the winning scoreline will officially be 7-6 in games, the 7 being the player who won the tie-break.

The purpose of the tie-break is to prevent matches from lasting an unreasonable amount of time. Prior to the introduction of the tie-break rule, sets could often drag on for hours. One of the most exciting tie-breaks ever was played to decide the fourth set in the 1980 Wimbledon Men’s Singles Final between Björn Borg and John McEnroe. Despite the fact that McEnroe went on to lose the match, he managed to win the disputed tiebreak 18-16.

A match ends once one of the players has managed to win more than half of the sets which comprise the match.

Singles Matches: The Serve – Faults and lets

At the beginning of the match, one player is designated as the server and his/her opponent is designated as the receiver. This is decided by the coin toss or a racket spin. The serve alternates at the end of each subsequent game, regardless of which player won the previous game.

The server stands on the centre mark on his own baseline. He/she must stand on the correct side of the line and is not permitted to tread inside the baseline until the ball has been served. If the server fails to comply with these rules, a "foot fault" is called by the umpire or one of the linesmen. The receiver can stand anywhere on his/her side of the net, but most choose to stand along the baseline.

The server must serve the ball over the net into the service box diagonally opposite the server. If it lands elsewhere or if a foot fault is called, the player will, in the first instance, be offered a second serve. If the server fails again to make a legal serve, a double fault will usually be declared by the umpire and the server will lose a point.

In some circumstances, the umpire may direct that a ‘let’ should be played. A let is an opportunity for a stroke to be repeated and does not constitute a penalty. A let is usually declared when play is interrupted by something unforeseen, or when the ball skims the net during a serve.

Singles Matches: The Point

Once the ball has been legally served and has bounced once in the service box, the receiver must return the ball over the net, within the perimeter of the court, before the ball bounces again. If the receiver is successful, the server must, in turn, propel the ball over the net again within one bounce. The players continue to rally, each attempting to hit the ball in such a way that his/her opponent will be unable to return the ball. The first player to fail to return the ball concedes a point.

Play usually ends when a player either hits the ball into the net, does not manage to return the ball before the second bounce, or when one of the players hits the ball out of court. A ball is only declared to be ‘out’ once it has completely crossed a line. A ball which is partially touching a line is still considered to be ‘in’.

There has been much debate amongst players and game officials about human error in making decisions about whether balls are inside or outside the confines of the court. In recent years, electronic equipment such as the ‘Hawk-eye’ used at the U.S. Open or the ‘Cyclops’ used at Wimbledon have been developed to detect whether or not a ball completely crossed a line.

Today, rallies are generally considerably shorter than they once were. This is largely due to the incredible speed at which the ball often travels. Most professional Tennis players serve at over 120 miles per hour, and the serve of the American player Andy Roddick has sometimes exceeded an amazing 150 miles per hour. When modern tennis rackets and balls are combined with the remarkable skills of some players and a fast surface such as grass, it is perhaps unsurprising that it has become difficult to sustain a long rally.

Players swap ends at the end of every other game to ensure that any advantages or disadvantages associated with a particular end are equalised.

Doubles Matches

The rules for Doubles matches are essentially the same as the rules for Singles matches. A larger court is used in order to accommodate two extra players. For this reason, the perimeter of the court extends to the alleys which are considered out of court during a Singles game; a ball which lands in an alley will be ‘in’ for the purposes of a Doubles match.

Similarly to a Singles match, the serve alternates between each pair at the end of each game, regardless of which pair won. The serve also oscillates between partners so that all four players have an opportunity to serve, and two players from the same pair do not serve consecutively.

Either player is permitted to return the ball. Pairs are not expected to take turns returning shots. The player who is best placed to return the ball usually takes the shot.

Doubles matches can either be between teams of two men, teams of two women or two teams composed of one man and one woman. The latter format is known as the ‘Mixed Doubles’ and matches are held as a best of three sets (the same as Womens Doubles but two less than Mens Doubles).


The system of scoring used in Tennis can seem rather bizarre to newcomers to the sport, but it is relatively easy to grasp. Rather than giving the number of points which have been won by each player in the way used by most sports, for example 3-4, or 2-1, the number of points secured by each player is translated as follows:

  • 0 points = Love/0
  • 1 point = 15
  • 2 points = 30
  • 3 points = 40

The score of the server is always declared first. For example, if the server has won no points and the receiver has won two points, the umpire will declare the score to be "Love-30".

When both players have 3 points each (40-40), the umpire will declare the score to be "deuce". In most matches, when the score is "deuce", one player must win two consecutive points in order to claim the game. When they have acquired one of these necessary points, they are declared to have an "advantage" and will be at "Game Point" (or "Break Point" if the player in question is the receiver). If the leading player subsequently loses the next point, the score will return to deuce. This continues until one of the players has scored two consecutive points. Many amateur players agree to play a match with "no advantage" in order to reduce the length of the match.

The individual scores for each of the games are not usually included in the final score, which usually includes only the results of each set. For example, a commentator may refer to a player beating his/her opponent 6-2, 3-6, 6-4 without any details.


Points are conceded during a match for a variety of reasons. Some of these reasons are obvious. For example, a player will concede a point if he/she hits the ball into the net or out of bounds, or fails to return the ball before it bounces for a second time. Points can also be conceded for other reasons, including:

  • Hitting the ball before it has crossed over the net
  • Aggressive or inappropriate behaviour
  • Causing the ball to strike another player or match officials
  • Returning a serve before it has had an opportunity to bounce once in the service box.