The aim of tennis
Tennis is a wonderful sport and is also wonderfully simple. Although there are a few basic rules to consider.
It is played on a rectangular court by either two players (singles) or four (doubles).
Players stand on opposite sides of a net and use a stringed racket to hit a ball back and forth to each other.
Each player has a maximum of one bounce after it has been hit by their opponent to return the ball over the net and within the boundaries of the court.
Once a player fails to do any of these three things, their opponent wins a point.
The aim is to win enough points to win a game, enough games to win a set and enough sets to win a match.
The first person to win six games wins a set, but only if they are leading by two clear games.
That means that if your opponent wins five games, you must win the set 7-5, or play a tie-break if the game score reaches six all.
Matches are usually the best of three (women) or the best of five sets (men), although some men's tournaments just play the best of three sets.
A basic guide to singles play
A two-player game is known as a singles match.
Players use the narrower singles court.
The player who plays the ball first is the server and the person who returns it is the receiver.
Players swap serve every game and change ends every other game.
There is no penalty for serving out of turn but as soon as the mistake is discovered, the correct player must begin serving.
The right to be server or receiver or the choice of ends is decided by tossing a coin or spinning a racket.
The winner of the toss can choose one of four options:
- To serve, in which case the opponent can choose ends
- To receive, in which case the opponent can choose ends
- The end of the court at which he or she wishes to begin the match, in which case the opponent can choose to serve or receive
- To ask the opponent to choose
The rules for doubles are the same as singles, except the wider court is used.
Players within a pair do not have to hit alternate shots.
However, the serve rotates so that each player serves once every fourth game.
For instance from Player A in Pair A, to Player B in pair B, back to Player C in Pair A and then to Player D in Pair B.
Players can only change the order of serving and receiving at the end of a set.
The server's partner and the receiver's partner may stand anywhere they like on the court during the serve, even if it obstructs play.
Traditionally however, each player takes one side of the court.
The job of the tennis officials
But in professional competitions, officials keep the score, judge whether the ball is in and interpret rules.
The senior umpire, who calls the score and can overrule all other officials, sits in a tall chair at one end of the net.
There are also line judges who sit outside the court looking down all the court lines. It is their job to decide whether a ball is in or out.
From the 1980s, when players' serves began to regularly top 100mph, the service line judge has had the help of an electronic machine.
It's known as Cyclops, after the one-eyed giant of ancient Greek legend.
There may also be a net-cord judge to determine whether a serve has clipped the net and should be called a let.
Players who argue with tournament officials can be penalised points and in extreme cases disqualified.
In the event of a major dispute, the umpire can call on the match referee who watches play from the stands.
A guide to a tennis court
The net should be 3ft high at its centre.
The singles court is 8.23m.
In doubles, the addition of 1.4m 'tramlines' along either side court increases the width to 11m.
The court is edged by sidelines and a baseline at the end.
The service area is marked by a line 6.4m from the net and parallel to it.
It is divided in half to form the two service boxes.
If any part of the ball hits the line, it's judged to be in or 'good'.
All the basics of scoring
There's no getting away from it, tennis has an unusual scoring system.
The score does not go up in units of one or even in units of the same amount.
The first point in a game is called 15 and the next 30. So you'd think that the next point should be 45 - but it isn't, it's 40.
And the score of a player who has not won any points is not 'nil' or 'zero', but 'love'.
This is said to come from the French word 'oeuf', which means "egg" and is shaped like a zero.
The server's score is always called first by the umpire.
So if Player A is serving to Player B and Player B wins the point, the score is love-15.
If Player A wins the next point the score is 15-all, and so on.
Scoring basics: games
The first player to win four points wins a game.
So if a player wins four points straight their scoring will go 15-0, 30-0, 40-0 then game.
The exception is if both players win three points each (i.e. 40-40) which is called deuce.
Then the winner is the first player to then win two points in a row.
Scoring basics: deuce
When the score gets to 40-40, it is known as 'deuce'.
Once at deuce, a player must win two consecutive points to take the game.
The word comes from the French phrase "à deux" - meaning 'at two', as in needing two more points.
If Player A wins the next point the score is 'advantage server'.
If Player B wins the point the score is 'advantage receiver'.
If the player at advantage wins the point, they win the game. If she loses it, the score goes back to deuce.
To shorten matches, players sometimes opt to play 'no-advantage', where the person to win the first point after deuce, wins the game.
Scoring basics: sets
The maximum number of sets in a match is five for men and three for women.
Usually the first player to win six games wins a set but if the score becomes five-games-all, one player must be two games ahead to win the set.
So a player must win the set 7-5 or 8-6 or 9-7 and so on.
Until the 1970s, this meant sets could potentially last indefinitely.
But in 1971 the All England Club introduced the tie break rule.
Under this rule, once the score reaches six-games-all (it was originally eight-all but reduced to six in 1979), a tie break is played to decide who wins the set.
Scoring basics: tie-break
The first player to reach seven points wins the tie-break and the set.
But if the score reaches six-points-all, the winner is the first player to win two points in a row.
The player whose turn it was to serve in the set serves the first point of the tie-break.
Their opponent serves the next two points and after that the serve rotates after every two further points.
The players change ends after every six points, even if a player is between his two service points, and at the end of the tie-break.
A tie-break is played in all sets except the last one (the third set in women's tennis and the fifth set in the men's game).
In the last set, players continue until one secures a two-game lead.
Scoring basics: losing points
Apart from playing the ball into the net or out of court there are a number of ways of losing a point.
- Throwing the racquet at the ball. Letting go of the racquet accidentally is not a fault, unless it hits a permanent fixture such as the net before the ball is out of play
- Hitting the ball twice, carrying it or catching it on the racquet
- Touching the net, posts, umpire or line judge chairs, ball girls or the ground in your opponents court while the ball is in play
- Hitting the ball before it crosses the net
- Returning a serve before it has bounced
- Catching or hitting the ball while it is outside the court before it has bounced
- If the player volleys the ball outside the court and it lands in, the rally continues. If it lands out, they lose the point.
- The ball touches the player or anything they wear or carries (except the racquet) while in play
- The ball hits a permanent fixture such as the umpire's chair, ball boy, line judge machine (but not the net posts) - before it bounces - even if the ball appeared to be going in
- If the ball strikes the permanent fixture after it bounces and before the opponent can hit the ball, the opponent loses the point.
- In tournaments, umpires can deduct points for racquet abuse or dissent
Serve basics: where to stand
The server starts each game serving behind the baseline of the right hand court.
They must put the ball into the service box diagonally opposite.
The server must stand between the centre mark and an imaginary continuation of the sideline (the singles line in singles, the doubles line in doubles).
Serve basics: faults
The server has two attempts to get the ball in.
If the ball lands outside the service box or does not clear the net or the net post, it is known as a 'fault'.
If any part of the ball touches the line, the ball is in (as shown above).
After one fault the server may try again. If both tries result in faults, a 'double fault' is called and the opponent wins the point.
With service speeds up to 220 km/hr, it can be difficult for line judges to tell whether a serve is in or out. That is why the electronic eye - often called Cyclops - has been introduced to championship tennis.
The eye consists of a series of horizontal light beams 4cm above the court surface.
The way the ball breaks the beam allows the electronics to determine exactly where the ball bounces.
The rules of tennis still allow the chair umpire to overrule the result of an electronic eye, just as he or she can overrule a line judge.
The server must stand behind the baseline, between the centre mark and the sideline.
A 'foot fault' is called if any of the following happens before the ball is struck:
- The feet touch the ground inside the baseline
- The feet touch the wrong side of the centre mark OR
- The feet touch the wrong side of the imaginary extension of the sideline.
A foot fault is the same as a fault on a serve so the player is given the chance of a second serve.
A ball which clips the net and bounces inside the service box is known as a 'let'.
If this happens the player is allowed to serve again.
However, if the ball hits the net and lands outside the service box, it is a fault.
A 'let' can also be called during any point in the match if it seems fair for a point to be played again.
For example, if there is a dispute over a line call.
If the server throws the ball in the air but does not attempt a shot, it is a 'let'.
If the server throws the ball in the air, attempts a shot but misses, it is a fault.
Serve basics: throw up
The server must toss the ball in the air using their arm, not their racquet.
They must also hit the ball before it hits the ground.
Good players usually strike the ball high above their head to gain power but there is nothing in the rules to stop a player serving underarm.
Players may not run or walk while delivering the serve, but they may move their feet.
Serve basics: changing ends
The players change ends at the end of the first, third, fifth game, and so on until the end of the set.
If the set ends and the total number of games played is even, then the players play the first game of the next set before changing ends.
If the number of games played in a set is uneven, the players change ends straight away.
They then carry on changing at the end of the first, third, fifth game as before.
In the professional game, players are allowed a 90-second rest between end changes.
This is extended to two minutes at the end of a set, although at the first changeover of the next set the players do not get a rest.
They are also allowed to leave the court to go to the toilet and can request treatment on court.
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