An essential guide for playing tennis
If you’re interested in learning how to play tennis, it’s essential to become familiar with the basic rules that shape the sport.
Understanding the rules helps ensure fair and correct play, which, when shared among players, also helps make tennis more enjoyable.
In competitive tennis, knowing the rules can help you settle disagreements and deal with unethical players who attempt to cheat or take advantage of you, so the more thorough your understanding, the better.
By the end of this guide, you’ll be well-equipped to play or attend your first tennis match, but we’d also encourage you to check out our resource on tennis etiquette – the unspoken rules of tennis.
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Although few players will find themselves in jeopardy of breaking any rules related to tennis equipment, it’s good to have the baseline knowledge to avoid any penalties.
For the most part, racquet manufacturers adhere to the acceptable standards for a tennis racquet, so if you’re buying from a reputable brand, you shouldn’t have any issues.
With that said, here are the requirements for a tennis racquet:
- The core parts of a tennis racquet are the combination of the frame and strings. The frame consists of a handle, throat, and head. The handle is held by a player, while the head is where the strings are attached.
- The strings or hitting surface must be flat with a uniform pattern of crossed strings, which feature an overlapping design that alternates between the main and crosses to produce uniform playing characteristics on both sides.
- A racquet’s length should not exceed 29 inches (73.7 cm) or 12.5 inches (31.7 cm) in width. Similarly, the hitting surface should not exceed 15.5 inches (39.4 cm) in overall length and 11.5 inches (29.2 cm) in width.
As far as weight goes, there aren’t any limitations you need to worry about, but weight and balance do play an integral role in a racquet’s overall performance.
To the surprise of many, there are quite a few nuanced characteristics when it comes to tennis balls. Below, you’ll find the basics:
- A ball must have a uniform outer fabric surface with stitchless seams, and the color of the ball must be white or yellow.
- There are four types of tennis balls: type 1 (fast), type 2 (medium), type 3 (slow), and high altitude, all of which must conform to strict standards for weight, size, rebound, deformation, and color.
The three main types of tennis balls are ideal for use at courts that exhibit different playing characteristics due to their surface.
Type 1 tennis balls work well on the fastest courts like grass, type 2 is often in use on hard courts, and type 3 is ideal for slow courts like clay.
High altitude tennis balls feature a lower internal pressure, which helps normalize their performance at altitudes above 4,000 feet (1,219 meters).
Although shoes aren’t officially part of the rules when it comes to tennis, you need to show up to a tennis court with non-marking soles, mainly if you’re playing on hard courts, which are most prevalent.
As you’d expect, non-marking soles can rub against the hard surface of a court without leaving unsightly black marks. You’ll find many public courts have signs that state this, and virtually all tennis clubs have strict policies that don’t allow players to use the courts without them.
Beyond featuring non-marking soles, the best tennis shoes offer proper support for the types of moments that are common when playing tennis.
If you’re playing tennis, the court needs to adhere to strict dimensions, which along with the layout and naming conventions of the different parts, are helpful to understand.
Dimensions & Layout
Here’s a quick overview of key dimensions, including net height:
|Length||78 feet (23.77 meters)|
|Singles Width||27 feet (8.23 meters)|
|Doubles Width||36 feet (10.97 meters)|
|Net at the Sides||3.5 feet (1.07 meters)|
|Net at the Middle||3 feet (.914 meters)|
Here are some of the primary naming conventions in use for courts:
- Net: divides the court in half
- Net posts: holds up the net on either side of the court
- Baseline: lines at the end of the court
- Center mark: a small line at the center of the baseline
- Singles sideline: inner lines at the sides of the court
- Doubles sideline: outer lines at the sides of the court
- Doubles alley: area between the singles and doubles sidelines
- Service line: lines running parallel to the net between the singles sidelines
- Center service line: lines running perpendicular to the net and service line to divide that area into equal parts
- Service court or boxes: the two equal areas created by the service line
During a singles match, the doubles alleys are not considered fair play. Instead, the singles sidelines serve as the boundary at the sides.
Check out our guide on the dimensions and layout of a tennis court for a more in-depth review.
The three primary types of court surfaces in use for tennis are:
There are wide variations in each of these court surfaces, which is part of what makes playing tennis in different locations and tournaments unique.
Hard courts are by far the most prevalent throughout the world.
Singles and Doubles
You can play tennis as singles or doubles.
In singles, two players compete against each other, while doubles consist of teams with two players to a team. Mixed doubles is a variation of where men and women partner up and compete together.
For the most part, the rules of tennis for singles and doubles are very similar. However, there are some important nuances. Most notably, the size of the court, which we covered earlier, and the order of serving, which we’ll touch on in an upcoming section.
Starting a Match
For a match to begin, opponents must decide which player or team will serve first. To make this decision, you can flip a coin and let the opposing team choose heads or tails.
Alternatively, and more common in recreational tennis, one player will spin their racquet while the opposing team chooses up or down. Up or down refers to the direction the logo will face once the racquet hits the ground. You may also hear references to ‘M’ or ‘W’ if a player is spinning a Wilson racquet, which features a ‘W’ emblem on the butt cap.
The player or team who wins the toss gets to decide whether or not they want to serve or receive first, and the receiving team gets to decide which side of the court they’d like to start playing on. The winner of the toss may also defer to their opponent to make a choice.
Once a match begins, play is said to be continuous until the conclusion of the match. In other words, except for a few small breaks, players should continue to compete until one player wins.
Here are a few important durations to be aware of during a tennis match, each of which is the maximum that players shouldn’t exceed:
- Warmup: 5 minutes
- Between points: 25 seconds
- Changing ends of the court: 90 seconds (except for after the first game of each set and during a tiebreak)
- At the end of each set: 120 seconds
In a professional tennis match, these times are strict and kept by the umpire. However, in recreational tennis, you can be as flexible with these rules as you’d like.
The scoring system in tennis has three primary units of measurement to keep track of progress throughout a match. These include:
Typically, a tennis match is a best of three sets competition, where the first player to win two sets wins the match. At the Grand Slam tournaments in men’s singles, players play the best of five sets.
A player wins a set when they reach a total of six games, but they must win by two games. If players reach a tie at six games, a tiebreak is played to help speed up the conclusion of the set (more on this to follow).
Each game consists of the following point values:
- 0 = Love
- 1 = 15
- 2 = 30
- 3 = 40
A player wins the game once they reach four points, but they must win by two. The score is deuce if a game reaches a tie at three points.
Players announce a tie score at 15 or 30 as 15-all or 30-all.
Once players reach a score of deuce, advantage scoring replaces the point values. Therefore, if the server wins the point at deuce, then the score is ‘advantage in’ or ‘ad in’ for short.
Conversely, if the receiver wins the point at deuce, then the score is ‘advantage out’ or ‘ad out’ for short. When the receiver holds the advantage, it’s also referred to as a ‘break point‘ because it’s an opportunity to ‘break’ their opponent’s serve.
If either player can’t convert the advantage, then the score returns to deuce until one player wins two consecutive points, which concludes the game.
Winning and Losing Points
There are a variety of potential scenarios that can result in a player winning or losing a given point, but we’ll cover the most common.
A player loses the point if they:
- Serve two consecutive faults, i.e., miss two serves in a row
- Return a serve before it bounces
- Returns the ball after more than one bounce
- Hits the ball outside the boundaries of their opponent’s court
- Hits the ball in the net
- Hits the ball before it passes over the net
- Touch the ball with anything they’re wearing other than the racquet or anything they’re wearing touches the net or opponent’s court
- Deliberately carry or catch the ball on their racquet or touch the ball with their racquet more than once
- Hit a permanent fixture, e.g., the roof if playing indoors or the fence outdoors, before the ball lands in bounds
Furthermore, the following unique scenarios constitute a fair return.
- If the ball touches any part of the net and subsequently makes it over the net and in bounds. However, keep in mind that when playing singles, the net and posts outside of the singles sidelines do not count. Therefore, if the ball hits either, they’d lose the point even if the ball subsequently lands inbounds.
- If a ball bounces in your court but spins or is blown back over the net to your opponent’s side, then you are allowed to reach over the net to hit the ball. However, you or anything you wear must not hit the net.
- If the ball passes around the net posts below the height of the net, but lands in bounds.
If a player’s racquet crosses the net after the ball has already landed inbounds on their opponent’s side.
- If a player hits a stray ball lying inbounds on their opponent’s side of the court.
Luckily, except for the first bullet above, these don’t tend to happen frequently, but it’s still beneficial to know how to handle them.
Permanent fixtures are parts of the court and surrounding experience that, if hit before the ball lands inbounds is not considered a good return. As mentioned earlier, the roof, if playing indoors or the fences outdoors, are relevant examples of permanent fixtures. However, other examples might include the umpire and their chair, ball persons at rest, crowd, benches, scorecards, etc.
Calling the Lines
In most cases, an umpire will not present to officiate a tennis match. In these circumstances, players are responsible for calling balls in our out on their side of the court. A ball is in if it touches any part of the line.
In circumstances where you’re not 100% sure of the correct call, you should always give your opponent the benefit of the doubt.
When calling a ball out, you should do so promptly and loud enough so that your opponent can hear the call.
If you’re not in a position to call the ball on your side of the court, you can enlist the support of your opponent to help make the call. Likewise, if your opponent calls a ball in that was out, you should let them know.
In doubles, either player on a team may call balls in our out. However, the player looking down a line will be typically more accurate than their partner, who’s looking across a line.
Challenges in Professional Tennis
In professional tennis, players are allowed to challenge up to three line calls per set at any point. However, a player must call a challenge on a point-ending shot or when the player promptly stops playing the point.
If a player challenges the line call correctly, then they win the point, and the challenge does not count toward their remaining challenges. An incorrect challenge deducts from any remaining.
During a tiebreak, players receive one additional challenge in addition to any not used during the set.
Currently, challenges are only allowed for line calls. That is, service lets and similar challenge-worthy scenarios are not allowed.
If a set reaches a tie score at 6-all, then a tiebreak decides the final set.
A tiebreak is a longer game where the first player to reach a score of seven points by a margin of two, wins the set.
During a tiebreak, players use standard point values of 0, 1, 2, 3, etc. instead of the quirky point values covered earlier. However, you’ll still communicate a tie score at any point in the tiebreak with the term ‘all,’ i.e., you’d call a score of 4-4 as 4-all.
Final Set Variations
When it comes to the final set of a match, there are two variations that you’ll find used.
- Advantage set: The first player to reach six games by a margin of two, wins the final set and the match. If players reach a tie at six-all, then play continues until either player wins two games in a row.
- Tie-break set: The first player to reach six games by a margin of two, wins the final set and the match. If players reach a tie at six-all, then a tiebreak is played to determine the winner.
Final sets often confuse spectators because each of the four Grand Slams features a slightly different variation on the final set. Here’s a quick overview of how each major handles the last set:
- Australian Open: A first to 10 tiebreak, at 6-6
- French Open: An advantage set, no tiebreaker
- Wimbledon: A first to 7 tiebreak, at 12-12
- US Open: A first to 7 tiebreak, at 6-6
The tiebreak set is the most common form of the final set in tennis.
The player who elected to serve when flipping a coin or spinning a racquet to start a tennis match serves first.
Where to Stand
The server begins a game by serving from behind the baseline on the right side of the tennis court. You’ll also hear the right side of the court referred to as the ‘deuce court,’ while the left side is the ‘ad court.’
As you may recall, the center mark splits the baseline in half, so the server must stand to the right side of that mark behind the baseline.
In singles, the server can stand anywhere from the center mark to the singles sideline and in doubles as far out as the doubles sideline.
After the first point, the server moves to the left of the court (ad side) to serve and subsequently rotates back and forth each point until the game concludes.
Where to Hit the Ball
The server tosses the ball with their non-dominant hand and hits it over the net into the diagonally opposite service box.
The server can hit the ball overhead or underarm; both are legal.
How Many Serves to Hit
Each point, the server receives two attempts, which are more commonly referred to as a player’s first serve and second serve.
If the server hits the net or their serve lands outside of the service box, then it’s considered a fault. Similarly, if any part of the server’s foot touches the baseline during their service motion, then they receive a foot fault, which is the equivalent to a missed serve.
If a player faults twice in a row, it’s called a double fault, and the player automatically loses the point.
If the server hits the top of the net, often referred to as the net chord, and the ball subsequently lands in the correct service box, then it’s called a let, and the server receives another attempt at their serve.
On a player’s first serve, they receive two extra serves, whereas, on a player’s second serve, they receive only one. There is no limit to the number of consecutive lets that can occur.
Alternating Servers & Switching Sides
In singles, one player serves a game, and then the other player serves rotating back and forth.
Players switch sides of the court every odd game so that each player experiences competing from both sides of the court, which may or may not present certain obstacles, i.e., serving into the sun.
The same is true for doubles. However, each player serves every four games as the serve rotates back and forth between opponents and teammates. Here’s a quick breakdown of how serving alternates between players in doubles.
- Team A Player 1
- Team B Player 1
- Team A Player 2
- Team B Player 2
Players rotate sides of the court every odd game as they would in singles.
A Note on Receiving
If you’re not serving during a game, you or your team are receiving.
As the receiver, you can stand anywhere on your side of the court to field the ball; you just need to let it cross the net and bounce in the service box before returning.
In doubles, players pick a side of the court to receive from, i.e., one player takes the deuce side (right side), and the other takes the ad side (left side). Once teammates choose a side to receive, they must stay on that side of the court for the duration of a set. At the start of a new set, players are allowed to switch sides of the court for returns.
In the previous section, we discussed service lets in which the server receives an additional attempt at their first or second serve if the ball hits the net, and the ball subsequently lands in the correct service box.
However, in some additional scenarios, a let may be called by either player to communicate an unexpected or unintentional distraction, which requires players to replay the point.
The most common situation in recreational and amateur tennis where players call a let is when a ball from another court rolls or bounces through theirs, which causes a distraction for both players.
Similar to line calls, players should call a let immediately and audibly so that their opponent can hear it.
If either player calls a let, the entire point is replayed, so the server receives a first and second serve.
When it comes to hindrance or distractions, there are two forms to be aware of:
- Intentional: When a player is deliberate in their attempt to distract their opponent, it is said to be intentional.
- Unintentional: When a player accidentally distracts their opponent, it is said to be unintentional.
During either scenario, the competitor on the receiving end may call a hindrance, but the call must be timely in that it’s called before they hit the ball to their opponent and audible.
If the hindrance was intentional, i.e., your opponent shouted as you were hitting the ball, then you can claim the point as a hindrance. The same would be true of unnecessary or deliberate movements such as a player waving their arms before their opponent hits.
If the hindrance was unintentional, i.e., your opponent was stung by a bee and screams, or a ball falls out of their pocket, then the point should be replayed.
It’s worth noting that if you’re playing a match and your cell phone rings or makes noise during a point, your opponent can claim an intentional hindrance because you had control over it and wins the point.
Frequently Asked Questions
Here are some of the most common questions we get from players regarding unique situations and how to handle them.
Is coaching allowed during a match?
In professional and competitive tennis outside of high school and collegiate sports, coaching is not allowed.
However, during team events, the on-court captain may coach during changeovers except after the first or during a tiebreak.
In high school and collegiate tennis in the US, coaching is allowed as long as it doesn’t interfere with play.
Update: during the remainder of the 2020 season, the WTA Tour will allow coaching from the stands as a pilot test.
Can you touch the net?
A player loses the point if anything they’re wearing or holding touches the net during a point.
Can players take a bathroom or toilet break during a match?
Although the rules do not permit bathroom breaks in their own right, players are allowed to use the bathroom during the two-minute break at the end of a set.
What happens if a player’s strings break during a point?
If a player’s strings break during a point, then play continues until the conclusion of the point at which time they are allowed to replace their racquet.
What happens if a player’s hat falls off during a point?
If a player’s hat falls off during a point, it’s an unintentional hindrance, and the opponents can call a let, at which time players should replay the point. It’s important to note that if it’s your hat, then you can’t call a let.
If your opponent doesn’t call a let for hindrance, then play continues, but the hat now becomes fair play, so if the hat falls out of bounds and your opponent hits your hat, they win the point.
Can I hit my opponent with a shot?
Ideally, both players will avoid hitting their opponent at all costs – it’s good etiquette. However, there are no rules in place saying that one player can’t hit another, and it’s perfectly valid to hit toward the body of your opponent, who then must adjust their positioning to defend.
If your shot hits your opponent, you win the point whether they are standing in bounds or out of bounds. However, speaking of proper etiquette, if you hit your opponent at proximity, you should issue an apology.
How do medical timeouts work?
In professional tennis, one medical timeout is allowed per distinct treatable condition and is limited to three minutes or 90 seconds during changeovers or at the end of a set. For example, heat illness is one condition, while blister treatment on a hand would be considered another.
In lower levels of competition, medical timeouts may be granted immediately after a request.
What happens if I drop my racquet during a point?
If you drop your tennis racquet during a point, then play would continue unless your opponent calls a let as an unintentional hindrance. If your opponent does call a let, you should replay the point.
It’s important to note that if you drop your racquet, you may not call a let. As a side note, if the ball touches the racquet while you’re not holding it, then you would lose the point.
Is the net post considered fair play?
Most courts feature net posts that are positioned three feet outside oft he doubles sideline.
When playing singles in this scenario, the net posts and any area of the net outside the singles sidelines is a permanent fixture and, therefore, not fair play if the ball bounces off these and then subsequently lands in the court. However, in doubles, both are fair play.
If singles sticks are in use and the ball hits the singles stick and lands in play, then it is considered fair play.
When are new balls allowed in a match?
In professional tennis, new balls are issued after the first seven games and then subsequently after every nine games. They are switched initially after the first seven games because of their use during warmup.
In most other competitive tennis matches, new balls are issued during the third set if the tournament organizer provides them.
Does the ball have to bounce before hitting it?
The only time the ball needs to bounce before hitting it is when the receiver returns their opponent’s serve. After the return, players do not need to let the ball bounce before hitting it.
What happens if a ball falls out of my pocket?
If a ball falls out of a player’s pocket during a point, their opponent can call a let as an unintentional hindrance, which requires players to replay the point. It’s important to note if it’s your pocket, you may not call a let.
What happens if I hit a ball on the court during a point?
If a player does not clear a ball from the court that is inbounds, and their opponent hits that ball during the point, then they win the point.
What happens if the ball hits the scorecards?
Scorecards are considered permanent fixtures. Therefore, if your ball hits the scorecards, you automatically lose the point even if the ball lands in the correct court afterward.
Scorecards that sit on top of the net should lie outside the singles sideline during singles play. In doubles, they should not sit on the net.
What are the rules for vibration dampeners?
Players can install vibration dampeners outside the cross-section of strings on a tennis racquet.
If a vibration dampener falls off during a point and hinders play, a player can call a let as an unintentional, and replay the point.
As in most sports, there’s quite a bit to learn when it comes to the nuances of tennis. However, for the most part, it’s pretty straightforward – we just have a lot of edge cases that rules need to cover.
Although we intended this guide to be a thorough review of the rules in tennis, we didn’t cover every last detail, so please be sure to let us know if you have additional questions in the comments.
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