Let in Tennis
Definition, history, and FAQs
In tennis, there are a variety of nuanced rules that may not be overly apparent when you’re first learning how to play.
One such rule is the ‘let,’ which you may have heard an umpire call after a player serves the ball when watching a professional tennis match.
Today, we’re going to take an in-depth look at this unique tennis rule, so whether you’re new to the sport or looking to brush up on your knowledge, you can come away with a complete understanding.
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What is a Let in Tennis?
Why is it Called a Let?
How Many Lets Are Allowed?
Let Call Accuracy
The ‘No Let’ Rule
FAQs & Recap
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What is a Let in Tennis?
In tennis, a let is any instance where players replay an entire point except when it’s called on a second serve.
There are a few different instances when a player or umpire may call a let. To start, we’ll cover the service let, which is the most common.
A service let occurs under three different circumstances:
- The ball hits the net (usually the net chord at the top) and subsequently lands in the correct service box
- The ball hits the net and makes contact with the receiver(s) or anything they’re wearing before hitting the ground
- The server hits the ball before their opponent is ready
The first instance is the most common, and it’s usually easy to spot because the trajectory of the ball changes after hitting the net chord. Other times, there may be an audible noise when the ball clips the net.
At the recreational level, any player can call a service let, but the call should be prompt to help avoid disagreements or arguments.
For example, imagine you return the ball for a winner, and your opponent calls the let as the ball sails past them. Similarly, consider a situation where your opponent aces you, but you call it after where the ball was clearly out of your reach and has past you.
Both situations can lead to tense moments, so players should immediately call a service let after they spot or hear it. When in doubt, you should play the point without calling a let.
In professional tennis, the service let is monitored by an umpire with the help of electronic sensors placed on the net.
If the service let occurs on the first serve, players should replay the entire point. However, if it happens on the second serve, the server only receives one additional serve. There is no limit to the number of serve let calls during any given point.
Keep in mind that if the ball hits the net and doesn’t land in the correct service box, it’s not a let. Instead, it would count as a fault. In another less common scenario, if while playing singles a serve hits the singles stick or the net post in doubles and the ball lands in the correct service box, it’s also a fault.
Here is the definition provided by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) as it relates to a fault:
The service is a let if:
a. The ball served touches the net, strap or band, and is otherwise good; or, after touching the net, strap or band, touches the receiver or the receiver’s partner or anything they wear or carry before hitting the ground; or
b. The ball is served when the receiver is not ready.
In the case of a service let, that particular service shall not count, and the server shall serve again, but a service let does not cancel a previous fault.
Other Let Calls
As we’ve discussed, a let represents any instance where players replay a point, and although a service let is most common, there are other instances where you may come across its use.
Most prominently, a let call is appropriate when there’s an obvious distraction that interferes with play.
In recreational tennis, it’s common for play to be interrupted when a ball from a nearby court enters your court midpoint. When this or any similar situation arises, you should call a let promptly.
If the let call happens between the servers first or second serve, it’s up to the receiver to determine whether or not the duration of time that passed while clearing the ball or dealing with the disturbance warrants the server starting the point over with a first serve.
In professional tennis, another example of when the umpire might call a let is when someone in the crowd, particularly someone within a player’s line of sight, is moving during a point. As a spectator, it’s basic tennis etiquette to only get up from your seat during a changeover.
If the server tosses the ball, it’s legal for them to catch it or allow the ball to bounce without penalty. However, despite the opportunity to repeat the first or second serve, it’s not technically considered a let.
Why is it Called a Let?
Although there is no exclusively agreed-upon answer, one common and widely accepted explanation is that the word ‘let’ originates from the Old Saxon word ‘lettian,’ which means ‘to hinder.’
Alternatively, the term could come from the French word ‘filet’ which translates to ‘net.’ When tennis was first played in England, it is possible that they borrowed this French term and shortened it to ‘let.’
One more possibility is that the origin of the word is as simple as allowing the player to repeat the point, or ‘letting’ them replay the point.
How Many Lets Are Allowed in Tennis?
There is no limit to the number of consecutive lets that a player can hit. The server continues to repeat their serve until they either make their serve or hits a fault.
Record for Most Consecutive Lets
During Serena Williams’ victory over Ayumi Morita in 2013, she served a record four service lets in a row. It’s a pretty comical example of how there is no limit to the number of consecutive lets that can occur.
In 2017, Chinese player Di Wu would achieve the same feat recorded on camera at a Challenger tournament in Anning, China.
Of course, there are instances and stories of players in recreational or amateur matches having more, but suffice to say, four is the official record in professional tennis.
Let Call Accuracy
In the high stakes world of professional tennis, there are measures in place to ensure that a let is always recognized, even if the ball’s contact with the net is minimal.
As referred to earlier, there are electronic sensors placed on either side of the net, which pick up even the most subtle vibrations. The official device is called Trinity, which German engineer Dietmar Brauer developed to reduce human error and improve call accuracy.
Of course, as with most technology, it’s not without its faults. At the US Open in 2016, a let was called incorrectly on a serve by Jerzy Janowicz against Novak Djokovic. Video replays showed the ball passed several inches over the net cord, but the Trinity sensors still alerted the umpire.
The device is still prominent, despite criticism the sensors have received over the years, which is likely due to the low occurrence inaccuracy.
The ‘No Let’ Rule
The ‘Not Let’ rule is sometimes put in place to help speed up play. Under the no let rule, a service let is counted as fair play, which means players must treat a let as in bounds and play the point.
During the 2018 Next-Gen ATP Finals, which is well-known for its innovation and rule experimentation, the no let rule was implemented as a trial. However, while the experiment added unpredictability to serves, it didn’t stick, and the ATP scrapped the rule in 2019.
Although rarely used in professional tennis, you’ll find this rule referenced in appendix five of the ITFs official rules of tennis.
FAQs & Recap
If you’re new to tennis, it can take some time to fully grasp how lets work and the rules associated with them.
To help, we’ve pulled together some of the most important points and common questions as a quick recap.
Who can call a let?
In singles and doubles, any active player on the court can call a let.
What happens if a let is called?
If you serve a let, you should repeat your serve. If it happens on your first serve, you’ll have two opportunities to serve for the point. On your second serve, you’ll only have one additional serve.
If there is a disturbance that causes a let to be called, such as a rogue ball bouncing through your court, you should replay the point.
When should a let be called?
A let should be called as quickly as possible after it occurs by verbally announcing the word ‘let’ loud enough, so the opposing players hear it.
How many lets can I serve in a row?
There is no limit to the number of consecutive lets you can serve.
Why is it called a let in tennis?
The word ‘let’ originates from the word ‘lettian,’ which means ‘to hinder.’
Can you challenge a let?
In professional tennis, players are not allowed to challenge a let call.
Is it ‘let’ or ‘net?’
Some players mistakenly refer to a ‘let’ as ‘net.’ If you hear a player call out a ‘net,’ it’s safe to assume they mean ‘let.’
Does a let count as a fault?
No. A service let suggests the ball hit the net and successfully landed in the correct service box. The server should repeat their serve.
However, if the ball hits the net and lands outside of the correct service box, it is considered a fault.
Familiarizing yourself with the rule can help prevent confusion and ensure a clean and enjoyable match with your opponent.
Hopefully, this resource has provided you with a better understanding of how lets work or, at the very least, added some clarity. Of course, if you have any outstanding questions, we’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
What’re the most consecutive lets you’ve ever hit in a match?
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If an opposing doubles team leaves a ball on the court starting at the beginning of the point, can a let be called by the opposite team?
Thanks for the question. In the scenario you described, the opposing team could not call a let because the ball was on the court before the point started. However, as the opposing team, you should feel comfortable asking your opponents to pick up the ball before the start of the point.
Although a let couldn’t be called, if your shot hits the ball that was lying on the court and your opponent can’t get to it, you win the point. Essentially, the ball becomes fair play. However, if your shot hits the ball and your opponent makes a fair return of that ball, but you or your opponent isn’t sure the actual ball in play has been returned, then you or your opponent may call a let at that point.
As a side note, if the ball that wasn’t cleared before the start of the point was out of bounds and your ball hits it, then you’d lose the point. The above only applies to balls left in bounds before the point begins.
I hope that helps!
All the best,