New to the game of tennis? Our Tennis Explained series will quickly bring you up to speed with all you need to know to fully enjoy the sport. We start here with the basics of the game itself.
How to score
How is a game scored within a match?
Don’t be alarmed when, after one point, a player leads 15/0. It’s not as big a lead as it sounds.
Within a match, each individual game is played first to four points, win by two. But rather than counting points as 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, the scoring system uses Love, 15, 30, 40, Game.
The server’s score is always first. For example, if the server has won two points and the returner has earned one, the score would be 30/15.
If both players are tied at 40/40, the score is called “deuce,” and a player must win two points in a row to claim the game. The player who wins the “deuce” point earns the “advantage” and then has an opportunity to win the next point and close out the game -- or lose it and face another deuce.
How many games does it take to win a set?
A set is played to six games, win by two. If a set is knotted at 6-6, a tiebreak is played.
How does a tiebreak work?
A tiebreak is played to seven points, win by two. The players alternate serving, with one player beginning the tie-break by serving one point, followed by two serves each the rest of the way.
Because serving alternates in this manner, a player must win at least one point on return to win a tiebreak -- ensuring the player who returns first is not at a disadvantage.
If the tiebreak score is tied at 6/6, the pattern continues until one player leads by two points to win the tiebreak.
How many sets does it take to win a match?
Matches on the Hologic WTA Tour and ATP Tour are best of three sets. If a player wins the first two sets, the third is not played.
At Grand Slams (Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, US Open), men play best-of-five sets, while women play best-of-three.
Terms to know
What is a break point? What does breaking serve mean?
A break point is a game point for a returning player, a chance to “break” the opponent’s serve. Break points are critical due to the inherent advantage of the server.
What is an ace? What is a fault and what is a double fault?
These terms all relate to serves, so first thing’s first: A serve must be hit diagonally into the appropriate service box. There are two service boxes on each side of the court -- the two boxes that extend from the net to the service line, which sits just more than halfway between the net and the baseline.
An ace is a serve that lands inside the service box and goes untouched by the receiving player. It is the most straightforward way to win a point in tennis. Aces are typically the result of well-placed, powerful serves -- though some aces are the product of finesse, spinning away from the receiver.
The ugly cousin of the ace is the double fault. A fault is a serve that misses the service box, either by hitting the net or landing out. Two in a row make a double fault, which cedes the point to the receiver.
What is a winner and what is an unforced error?
Not dissimilar from an ace, a winner is a shot that lands in the court and goes untouched by the receiving player. Winners can be hit from all areas of the court with any type of shot: groundstroke (forehand or backhand), volley, overhead, drop shot and more.
What is a changeover and how long does it last?
Changeovers, which occur after every odd-numbered game in a set (other than the first game, after which there is a change of ends but no sit-down) are 90 seconds in length and allow players to recover mentally and physically at their bench.
In between sets, the changeover is extended to two minutes.
Players often refuel with drinks and occasionally snacks during this time, while evaluating their game plan.
What do players eat and drink to refuel during a match?
Common snacks and drinks on the sideline include bananas, gels, water and electrolyte drinks. Some players have refueled with chocolate, dates, maple syrup, and even coffee!
What happens when a player wins a match and what happens when a player loses?
In a standard tournament, the winning player moves on to the next round while the loser is eliminated.
Two notable exceptions on the ATP Tour are the prestigious Nitto ATP Finals and Next Gen ATP Finals, which utilize a round-robin stage before knockout semifinals and finals.
What is the difference between singles and doubles?
We’ll start with the most basic distinction: singles matches are one-on-one contests, while doubles matches see two pairs compete against one another.
The singles court is smaller and does not include the “doubles alley” -- the area of the court either side of the singles sidelines, which looks a bit like the shoulder on a highway.
In addition, doubles matches on the ATP Tour play a Match Tiebreak (a tiebreak played to 10 points) instead of a full third set to decide matches tied at one set all.
Why do they change balls and how often do they do it?
Keen observers will hear the chair umpire call out “New balls please” throughout a match. Balls are changed out after the first seven games and after every nine games thereafter (the difference accounts for the warmup).
This is done to avoid playing with balls that have become excessively fluffy and slow -- a result of the felt loosening after repeated, powerful hitting.
Did You Know? When players inspect several balls before serving, they are typically seeking to find the most aerodynamic -- or least fluffy -- options in order to maximize the advantage from their serve.
Are there challenges? Is there video review?
Many events permit player challenges for line calls, while some utilize live electronic line calling. Some clay-court events use the ball marks on the court itself for review.
Is a ball in if it touches the line?
Yes. In fact, if any part of the ball touches the line, it is good. As the saying goes: If a ball is 99 percent out, it is 100 percent in.
How big is the court?
A tennis court measures 78 feet in length from baseline to baseline. The singles court is 27 feet wide from sideline to sideline, while the doubles court is 36 feet wide. The service line is 21 feet from the net, and both service boxes measure 13.5 feet in width.
Can you touch the net?
While it’s essential to clear the net with each shot in tennis, it’s equally important for players avoid making contact with the net during play.
If a player touches the net before a point is over -- when a ball bounces twice for a winner or when an error lands out or at the bottom of the net -- the umpire will award the point to his opponent.
Who keeps score?
The chair umpire -- presiding over the match from their elevated seat between the player benches -- calls out the score following each point. The umpire also records the score digitally, as reflected on scoreboards in the stadium and around the world.
How long can a match take?
You can’t run out the clock in tennis. Barring an injury or disqualification, a match only ends when a player wins the required amount of sets.
The longest match in tennis history was an extreme outlier, lasting 11 hours and 5 minutes over the course of three days. The match between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut was played at Wimbledon in 2010, with a final score of 6-4, 3-6, 6-7(7), 7-6(3), 70-68. Such a marathon final set is no longer possible, because Grand Slam matches are now decided by a 10-point tiebreak at 6-6 in the deciding set.
Conversely, a completed match on the tours can last as few as 12 games if it ends with a 6-0, 6-0 score line, with some of the fastest contests having clocked in at less than a half hour.
A typical set lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour.
What happens if it rains?
If a match is postponed, there are certain situations in which a player might need to compete in two matches in a day. Rain delays are a part of the tours -- outside of indoor events or those with retractable roofs on stadium courts. When rain prevents play, either before or during a match, players remain on standby until the tournament officially postpones the match or the entirety of the day’s play.
How is a tournament schedule made? How does a player know who and when they are playing?
Often amid the pomp and circumstance of an official ceremony, tournament draws are made in the days leading up to the event.
A daily order of play, which informs players and fans alike of specific match times on each court, is typically released each afternoon or evening for the following day. Due to the unpredictable length of matches, organizers will often assign a “not before” start time to later matches.
How to be a tennis fan (etiquette)
When should or shouldn't you clap? Can I make noise during a point?
Fans have their own part to play on the tours. Just like any other sport, crowd support can often impact matches by providing a home or favored player an extra edge.
But it’s important to hold your applause until after a given point has ended. While an amazing shot from a world-class star might impress you, don’t forget that the player on the other side of the net still has a chance to flash his own skills by returning it and remaining in the point.
While the ball is in play, spectators should remain quiet to allow for the concentration necessary at the game’s highest level. The same goes for the period of time in between first and second serves.
Why can't I walk around during a point?
As players train their focus on the tennis ball, the movement of fans -- particularly behind the baseline -- is a distraction.
Why do players hit balls into the stands after matches?
If your favorite player just won a big match, don’t head for the exit just yet.
Winning players often celebrate victory by autographing a few balls and hitting them into the crowd as souvenirs, a way of thanking fans for their support.
When is the best time to ask a player for a selfie or autograph?
If you’re on the hunt for a selfie or an autograph from a player, there are two prime times to make your move.
One is after a match, ideally a victory. While losing players will sometimes interact with fans after a well-played match, you’re far more likely to get a moment with the winner.
The other option is to catch your favorite player at an on-site practice session. Many tournaments publicize the practice schedules of star players, allowing fans to watch their sessions and camp out for a potential selfie or autograph opportunity.
How early should I arrive?
Most tournament venues open to the public well before play begins, giving early arrivers time to stroll the grounds, grab a snack and head to their desired court in plenty of time to see the players walk onto court for the opening match.