How to Play Tennis
A beginners guide to the sport
There’s never been a better time to learn how to play tennis.
With more than 87 million players, it’s a sport that’s loved by a passionate community of tennis fans from around the world.
Contrary to its royal beginnings, it’s more accessible and easy to get started than ever – all you need is a racquet and a few balls.
As a parent, you can introduce your kids as soon as they have the coordination to hold a racquet, and they can enjoy it well into their golden years as an adult. It’s truly a lifetime sport.
Of course, it’s never too late to get started. If you’ve always wanted to learn but put it off, don’t let that deter you. Like investing, the best age to start is today.
Together, let’s explore everything you need to know to get started.
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Brief History of Tennis
Tennis can be traced back thousands of years with a variation of the sport played in ancient Greece. Historians have pinpointed that tennis was born from a 12th-century French game called ‘paume,’ or ‘jeu de paume.’
Paume resembled handball, where participants would strike and volley a ball back and forth using their hands. Over the years, players of this game started to wear leather gloves, before the technology to create racquets came about.
The game evolved over the 15th and 16th centuries, primarily played by nobles in France and England, and the first tennis racquet showed up in Italy during the year 1583.
Fast forward to 1870 and the ‘All England Croquet Club,’ in Wimbledon, England was formed, which involved indoor tennis matches played between members of the upper class.
Shortly afterward, in 1873, Major Walter Wingfield invented ‘lawn tennis’ played on an outside court, and accelerated the adoption of tennis as we know it today.
Why Play Tennis
Beyond having a good time out on the court, tennis is excellent for raising your heart rate and is a healthy way to pass the time. It’s common knowledge that regular exercise like playing tennis holds plenty of physical and mental health benefits. Here are just a few reasons why tennis is such a great sport to pick up.
Improve Your Mood
Scientific evidence suggests that exercise from activities such as tennis boosts your mood.
In addition to increasing sensitivity to hormones that reduce feelings of depression, such as norepinephrine, it increases the production of endorphins, which is the hormone for positivity.
Playing tennis can help you keep your weight in check. You’ll burn calories and increase your metabolism, which combined with a healthy diet, can help you lose weight and maintain muscle mass.
Perhaps surprisingly, expending effort into exercise such as playing tennis, can help increase your average energy levels. This benefit is even true for people who suffer from fatigue and other conditions that cause sluggishness.
Studies have shown that 150 minutes or 2.5 hours of moderate exercise per week (that’s only 35 minutes per day) can lead to a 65% increase in sleep quality, which you can easily achieve that by hitting the court.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Tennis has numerous benefits in store for your body and your mind – hit the court to begin reaping the benefits.
Can Anyone Learn?
A common question for beginners is:
“Am I too old to start playing?”
The truth is that you can learn how to play tennis at any age. It’s never too late to get started, and it isn’t too difficult to find opponents of a similar level.
Tennis is an inclusive sport, and you’ll find members of your nearest tennis club will likely include people of all ages and abilities.
Through wheelchair tennis, there is a platform for people with physical disabilities to get involved.
Also, despite its royal background, tennis is not an expensive sport. Of course, if you do have the resources, there are plenty of fancy private clubs and high-end tennis gear, but the majority of beginners can begin to play for less than $100.
In terms of finding a place to play, many local parks often have free public tennis courts that anyone can use!
So, to round out this section, it’s true that anyone can learn play tennis.
Selecting a Racquet
Aside from a court, opponent, a few tennis balls, and some sturdy tennis shoes, all you need to start playing is a racquet.
To get yourself started, you can read our article about the different parts of a tennis racquet – we’ve also included a diagram below for quick reference.
As you begin searching for a new racquet, it’s helpful to know that there are three different types of tennis racquets as it’s one of the easiest ways to narrow down your options:
- Power racquets: lightweight, large heads, easy access to power
- Control racquets: heavier, smaller head size, increased control
- Tweener racquets: mid-range weight, head size, and balanced
Power racquets are often a popular choice with beginners. Their light weight makes them easier to maneuver, and larger head sizes afford players with a higher margin for error when swinging to hit the ball. Last but not least, power comes easily, which is helpful when you’re learning to develop your technique.
Advanced players and professionals, such as Roger Federer, more commonly use control racquets, which aren’t typically great options for beginners. They tend to be heavier and with smaller head sizes lean on the skill of the player to strike the ball with accuracy and execute well-controlled shots.
Tweener racquets, on the other hand, strike a balance between control and power racquets. They are a popular choice among the broadest range of players from beginners to professionals because they provide a balanced set of attributes that serve many styles and levels of play.
Where to Start
If you’ve never stepped foot on the court, then you may want to opt for an inexpensive model to get your feet wet. These are great racquets to get a feel for the game, but most players that are committed to improving will quickly outgrow these racquets.
If you know you’ll be sticking with the game for a while; then we’d recommend you check out our list of the best tennis racquets for beginners. In the article, we dive into more detail on how to select a racquet as a beginner and highlight our top picks.
Many players who are new to the game automatically gravitate toward using the tennis racquet their favorite player uses.
Unfortunately, what works for the pros isn’t always a great fit for a beginner. Plus, you don’t need to overspend on your first racquet, so it pays to review your options. Of course, if you have questions, we’re here to help.
Many tennis racquets for beginners come pre-strung. In that case, you won’t need to buy a separate set of strings or pay someone to string your racquet for you. However, at some point, you’ll want to restring your racquet, or you may be forced to if you break a string, so it’s good to know the basics.
You can read all about the different types of tennis strings, but for this article, here’s a quick overview:
- Natural gut: high quality, yet expensive strings, made from cow gut that provides exceptional tension maintenance, power, comfort, and feel
- Synthetic gut: reasonably priced well-rounded strings
- Polyester: mid-priced strings that are highly durable and enhance topspin, yet tend to lack comfort
- Multifilament: mid-priced strings that seek to mimic the performance of natural gut strings by weaving together thousands of microfibers for power, comfort, and feel
The string you select ultimately depends on a variety of factors but ultimately boils down to preference.
As a beginner, we highly recommend players stick with inexpensive synthetic gut tennis strings until you reach a level that allows you to begin detecting the nuances between the different types of strings.
Keep in mind that tennis strings come in different gauges or thickness; here’s a quick chart for reference.
16 gauge is a great starting point.
Here are a few accessories that you’ll likely hear about once you start playing tennis. While none of them are necessary to hit the court, they’re good to be aware of and keep in mind.
An overgrip is a thin wrap applied to the existing grip of your racquet to extend the life of your grip, absorb sweat, and ensure you have a secure grasp of your handle. Typically, overgrips are used for a short time and frequently replaced by players.
All new racquets come with a thick grip fixed to the racquet handle. Over time, these grips lose their cushion, break down, and need to be replaced – enter replacement grips. These don’t need to be changed frequently, especially if you use overgrips consistently.
If you’re not a huge fan of the ping sound when the ball strikes the strings of your racquet, then you can solve for this with a simple plastic device called a vibration dampener that installs easily within your strings.
Before you head to a park or your local club to play, it’s helpful to have a general sense of the dimensions and layout of a tennis court.
Here’s a diagram for reference as you read more about each part of the court below.
- Length: a tennis court is 78ft in length
- Width: 38 ft for doubles and 27ft for singles
- Net: a net splits the court in half – its height is 3ft 6 inches at the sidelines and 3ft at the center
- Baseline: the boundary that runs parallel to the net and signifies the end of the court on either side
- Center mark: a simple mark at the middle of the baseline to define the center and provide a guide for players when serving
- Doubles sideline: the outermost left and right boundaries of the court when facing the net are the doubles sidelines
- Singles sideline: the inner left and right boundaries of the court when facing the net are the singles sidelines
- Doubles alley: the area between the singles sideline and doubles sideline which is only in play during a doubles match
- Serviceline: the line that runs parallel to baseline and net roughly halfway between the two to create the service boxes
- Center service line: the line runs perpendicular to the service line and net that splits the service boxes into equal halves
- Service box: the two boxes formed by the service line and center service line where a player must serve to begin each point
- Duece court: when facing the net, the right side of the court
- Ad court: when facing the net, the left side of the court
- No mans land: the area between the baseline and the service line is referred to as ‘no mans land’ because it’s a very vulnerable position to stand for too long
Now that you’re familiar with the court let’s jump into discussing the basic rules of tennis.
It’s likely that you have watched at least part of a tennis match, and are vaguely familiar with the aim of the game. However, for this article, we are going to start from scratch.
A tennis court is split down the middle by a net. When playing singles, players occupy opposite sides of the court. For doubles, two players will stand on either side of the court.
To determine who will serve first, players should flip a coin or spin a racquet. The person who wins the toss determines whether they’d like to serve first or receive serve. If the winner chooses to serve first, the receiver gets to choose the side of the court they’d like to return.
Each point, the server stands behind the baseline to the left or right of the service mark and has two chances to hit the ball diagonally into the service box toward the other player. If the player’s first serve does not land in the service box, it’s called a ‘fault.’ If the second serve misses, it’s called a ‘double fault,’ and the server automatically loses the point.
When a serve lands in the service box, the point is live, and the receiver must return the ball inside their opponent’s side of the court. If the receiver doesn’t get their racquet on the ball, it’s called an ace, and the server automatically wins the point.
Once live, you win a point under any of these circumstances:
- The ball bounces in your opponent’s court without being returned
- The ball bounces twice within your opponent’s side of the court
- Your opponent makes an error such as hitting the ball into the net, outside of the court’s boundaries, or double faults
You’ll lose the point if:
- You or anything you’re wearing touches the net or your opponent’s side of the court during the point
- You hit the ball before it has crossed your side of the net
- You don’t touch the ball before it returns to your opponent’s side of the court, such as in the case of high winds or backspin applied to the ball
If either player’s shot hits the top of the net once a point is live, then it’s fair play as long as the ball lands in bounds afterward.
When playing a match, keep the warmup between five and ten minutes. A warmup is not intended to be a practice – it’s simply to get a quick feel for the ball before the match.
A shot that hits any part of the court’s lines is good. Each player calls shots in or out on their side of the court. In professional tennis, umpires and linespeople are responsible for calling the shots in our out to avoid bias.
Playing a Let
When a player is hitting a first or second serve, and the ball hits the top of the net and lands in the correct service box, it’s called a ‘let,’ and the server receives another chance to make their serve.
A let is also called if play is interrupted unintentionally, such as a rouge ball entering your court – players should replay the point.
A foot fault is a penalty assessed to a player when their feet make contact with the baseline, or the imaginary extension of the service mark, during their service motion.
Foot faults are the equivalent to a missed serve – even if the serve lands in the correct service box. A player will lose a point if they foot fault on their second serve.
Changing Ends & Rests
Players should change ends of the court every odd game. After the first game, players should switch ends without rest. However, every odd number of games after, players may break for 90 seconds between games. At the end of a set, players are allowed a 120-second break.
Only 20 seconds is allowed between points to help keep play moving.
There you have it – we’ve covered 95% of the rules that you’ll ever need to worry about in a tennis match. If you’d like to go the extra mile, check out our guide on the rules of tennis, which goes into significantly more depth but will be more than you need to know to get started.
Scoring in tennis is unique. For starters, it doesn’t follow a classic 1, 2, 3 point system. For reference, here are the essential point values and terms used in a standard game:
- 15: one point
- 30: two points
- 40: three points
If you win the following point, the score will be 30-0. Once you have accumulated three points, you’ll have a score of 40. When the score is tied at 15-15 or 30-30, you’ll announce it as 15-all and 30-all.
The server is responsible for calling out the score before each point, and they always state their score first.
Let’s say two players are playing a game, and both have won three points each. The score would be 40-40 – referred to as deuce. At this point, one player must win the game by two points in a row.
Regularly, a player wins the game when they accumulate four points, so long as they hold an advantage of at least two points, as explained above.
For example, if you are winning a game 40-0, 40-15, or 40-30, and you win the following point, the game is yours.
If the score is deuce (again that’s 40-40), and you win the point, then you hold the advantage, and the score is referred to as ‘ad in.’ If your opponent wins the next point, the score returns to deuce. If your opponent wins the point at deuce, they hold the advantage, and therefore the score is verbalized as ‘ad out.’
Play continues until one player holds a two point advantage.
Sometimes to speed up matches, no-ad scoring is played. That is if the score is deuce, the next person to win the point automatically wins the game.
A player wins a ‘set‘ when they have managed to win six games. However, similar to a game, a set must be won by two clear games; otherwise, a tiebreak typically decides the set. We will explain more about how tiebreaks work in the next section of this article.
A tennis match would usually be played as a ‘best of three sets’ or as in men’s Grand Slam tournaments a ‘best of five sets’ competition.
For more information, be sure to check out our in-depth article on the tennis scoring system.
Your First Match
To help paint a clearer picture of how the tennis scoring system works, let’s walk through an example set to help you learn about common scenarios that you’ll come across.
It will be helpful to reference the diagram of the tennis court as you walk through this example, so we’ve included it again below, but here’s a link to jump to The Court section of this article if you’d like to do another review.
Don’t worry about memorizing every last detail. The different names and sections will become second nature in no time at all.
- You are the first to serve. During the game, you must alternate which side of the center mark you serve from, with the first serve of the game hit from the right-hand side of the center mark into the ‘deuce court’ (see diagram). Your first serve hits the net, but for each point, you recall you get two serves, so you serve again, and it lands in the correct service box. Your opponent returns your serve into your side of the court, and you play a great backhand that falls within the singles court and sails past your opponent. The score is now 15-love.
- Your following serve hit into the ‘ad court‘ is so well-placed that it flies past your opponent without being returned – this is known as an ace. The score is now 30-love.
- Your opponent wins three points, and you win one more, making the score of the game 40-40 or deuce. If you recall, one player must gain the lead by two points to win the game when the score is at deuce.
- The first point of deuce goes to you, meaning you hold the ‘advantage.’ You must then serve in the ‘ad court’ to try and win another point and take the game. To signal that the server now holds the advantage, you would say ‘ad in’ when verbalizing the score.
- Unfortunately, you lose the next two points, meaning your opponent now holds the advantage. They now have a ‘break point,’ which means that they are one point away from ‘breaking’ your service game, i.e., winning a game which you are serving. Since the player receiving serve now holds an advantage, the score can be verbalized as ‘ad out.’
- The set continues, with the score becoming tied at 6-all, meaning you have both won six games. In most tennis matches, this is when a tiebreak would commence. The most common tiebreaker is a 7 point tiebreak where each point counts as one point, i.e., 1, 2, 3, etc. vs. 15, 30, 40. Not only must a player reach a score of 7 to win the set, but they also must hold a two-point advantage. You play aggressive and manage to win the tiebreak with a score of 7-3. As a result, you win the set with a final score of 7-5.
You have now encountered many of the match situations which you would need to learn about before playing a serious match.
Of course, if you are unsure about anything we’ve reviewed, be sure to leave a comment at the bottom of the article so we can help out.
Perhaps you and three friends want to play a match – there’s no need to fight over which two of you can play first. Doubles is a fun way for a group of four people to play together.
In doubles tennis, there are two teams of two players. Each team stands on opposite sides of the net, and the general rules and scoring are consistent with singles, but there are some slight differences.
During a doubles match, teammates alternate service games. For example, if player 1 of team A serves the first game, player 1 of team B will serve the next. Followed by player 2 of team A and player 2 of team B. This way, each player will have a service game every four games.
The Size of the Court
The court is larger in doubles tennis. Referring to the court diagram above, the ‘doubles alley’ is an active part of the court during doubles tennis. Shots that land in this area will count. During a singles match, the doubles alley is out of bounds.
For the most part, a doubles tennis match remains the same as singles.
As you begin playing tennis, it’s useful to learn about a few of the most popular grips. By this, we mean how you hold a tennis racquet vs. the material which covers the handle.
The Eastern Grip
The eastern grip is well-suited for beginners because it tends to feel natural to hold. While it can be limiting when it comes to generating maximum topspin, the eastern grip also makes it easy to switch between different types of shots.
We can identify how to hold an eastern grip by labeling each ‘bevel’ of the bottom of the racquet’s handle, as shown below.
As a right-handed player, place the palm-side of your right index finger’s knuckle along the third bevel before wrapping the rest of your hand around the racquet. Left-handed players would use the seventh bevel.
The Western Grip
Preferred by baseline hitters who like to generate plenty of topspin, the western grip is a modern tennis grip.
Usually, it’s tricky for beginners to grasp because, unlike the eastern grip, it doesn’t feel natural to hold at first. Also, since you place the palm side of your index finger’s knuckle on the fifth bevel, it can be challenging to rotate towards a grip suited for slice shots or volleys.
The Semi-Western Grip
As you may have guessed, you’ll place the palm side of your index fingers knuckle on the fourth bevel for a right-hander and sixth if you’re a left-hander to form a semi-western grip.
This grip tends to be one of the most commonly-used grips among beginners, alongside the eastern grip. The racquet’s angle allows for the natural production of topspin.
The Continental Grip
The continental grip was common for a variety of tennis shots during the early days of tennis. It’s still the go-to grip for serves, volleys, and overheads, but no longer in use for groundstrokes due to the lack of topspin generated.
For this grip, the palm side of your right-handed index finger is placed along the second bevel or the eighth bevel if you’re left-handed.
Types of Shots
If you want to be competitive, it is important to understand the different types of shots in tennis.
Here’s a quick overview of the essentials.
A serve starts every point in tennis. On first serves, many players attempt an aggressive shot with plenty of power to gain an advantage over their opponent from the outset of the point.
Second serves tend to be slower and more cautious, as a double fault automatic loss of the point would occur if the second serve is ruled out.
Groundstrokes are the most frequent type of shot hit in tennis. Generally hit from the baseline, players hit forehands by swinging their racquet with dominant hand and palm facing forward. You’ll hit a backhand swinging with your dominant hand or both hands (in the case of a two-handed backhand) and the back of your hand facing forward.
A volley occurs when a player strikes the ball before it bounces when at or approaching the net. By closing the distance to the net and volleying the ball, you can force your opponent into defense or hit a winner. Approaching the net also helps you to create more extreme angles on your shots, which you cannot easily create from the baseline.
A lob is hit over an opponent’s head near their baseline after they have approached the net. While this shot can be difficult to execute (especially against tall players), it can be particularly useful if your opponent has come forward too far.
You’ll typically hit an overhead in response to a lob. If your opponent does a poor job at sending the ball over your head, you’ll have the opportunity to hit an offensive overhead to take control of or win the point.
Similar to the lob, the drop shot takes a high level of skill to execute well. To hit a drop shot, a player applies a delicate slice to the ball, making it clear the net by a small margin and spin backward when it hits the ground. If performed well, this is a challenging shot for the opponent to reach.
Made famous by players like Roger Federer, the tweener is a trick shot which involves hitting the ball between your legs, with your back facing the opponent. Federer’s tweener against Novak Djokovic in the 2009 US Open is worth a watch – he describes it as the “greatest shot” he has hit in his life.
Tennis is a sport in which there are quite a few unspoken rules. Below we cover some key points to be aware of before you hit the court.
Wait to Walk on the Court
Often there is only one gate to get onto multiple courts. If that’s the case and some players are actively participating in a match, wait until the players change ends before entering the court to avoid disrupting them. Also, be sure to shut the gate behind you.
Wear Non-Marking Shoes
It is important to ensure that your tennis shoes have non-marking soles before playing on a hard court. It’s bad form to leave scuff marks all over the court, and even the most inexpensive tennis shoes will offer non-marking soles, so there’s no excuse.
Announce the Score
As the server, announce the score before you begin each point. In professional matches, the umpire declares the score before each point; however, in non-professional matches, the players must keep score. To avoid confusion or disputes, it’s good practice to repeat the score before the start of every point.
Accept Line Calls
Accept your opponent’s calls with good grace. Don’t assume an opponent is cheating because they called your shot out. Part of casual tennis matches is accepting a call of ‘out’ if the opponent is sure the ball was out.
If you’re making the call and you’re unsure of whether your opponent’s ball landed in or out, award the point to your opponent. Be sure to call the ball out quickly and clearly.
Have Good Behavior
Keep swearing and shouting to a minimum. Tennis is a passionate sport, and frustration is common. However, you’re expected to keep your cool out of respect for your opponent and players on nearby courts. Don’t throw or smash your racquet.
Wait Till the Reciever is Ready
Don’t serve the ball until your opponent is ready. Of course, keep in mind that you or your opponent shouldn’t be taking more than 20 seconds in-between points.
Don’t Return Missed Serves
If your opponent misses their serve by a large margin, don’t hit it back at them or use it as an opportunity to practice. If you do, they may have to chase the ball down and remove it from the court and interrupt the flow of their serve. Instead, block the serve off to the side or back of the court.
Clear Stray Balls
Before you begin each point, ensure there are no stray balls on the court or at the net. Leaving balls on the court can be distracting, present a tripping hazard, and on the off-chance, your opponent hits a ball in bounds on your side, they’ll win the point.
If a tennis ball from a nearby court or another object makes it way on your court, call a ‘let’ immediately and replay the point.
Pick Up the Balls
As a courtesy, when you change ends, pick up any balls on the court and bring them to your opponent or keep them for yourself if you serve next.
Give Your Opponent the Balls
If your opponent is serving, check your side of the court and make sure they always have at least two balls. Your opponent shouldn’t have to ask you for them continually.
If a ball ends up on another court, wait until their point finishes before asking them to help retrieve yours.
Pick Up Your Trash
When you leave the court, make sure you bring your trash with you and throw it away. That includes tennis ball cans, drinks, packaging from overgrips, etc. If you don’t, the next players on the court have to do it for you, and it’s poor form.
Silence Your Cell Phone
If you bring your cell phone with you, make sure it’s silenced, so it doesn’t disrupt a point. If you receive a call, don’t pick it up. Wait until the match is over.
Cell phones are not allowed in professional tennis matches.
If you win a hard-fought point, there’s nothing wrong with showing your excitement within reason. For example, don’t shout and scream after every point you win and keep your volume in mind out of respect for your opponent and nearby courts.
If you win a point because your opponent makes an error, don’t celebrate – it’s poor sportsmanship.
After a match, shake hands with your opponent. It’s good sportsmanship, and win or lose shows respect for your opponent.
Time to Hit the Court
Tennis is an awesome sport – it has been played for centuries and draws some of the most passionate sports fans in the world. From the Grand Slam tournaments to your first match at a local park, every tennis match is a blast.
There is a low barrier to entry when it comes to getting started in tennis. As we’ve shown, the equipment can be inexpensive, and public courts are free to use. Age isn’t a barrier either, you can pick up the rules quickly, and as long as your opponent is at a similar level, you’ll have a great time.
If you have questions about anything covered in this article, we’d encourage you to submit a comment below – we’d be more than happy to help out.
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