Tennis can be a quite complex sport when it comes to rules. For a beginner, these rules can be quite intimidating. Even if you have played the sport for several years, you might still come across a rule or two that you had no idea existed. And if you watch tennis on tv, you will see that even the top players in the world will have arguments with umpires about certain rules.
Tennis rules cover several different areas of the game, which include scoring, violations, court boundaries, time limits, and more. On top of that, different rules apply to singles and doubles matches. While the list of rules is quite extensive, it does not have to be complicated.
In this article, we will cover every tennis rule you need to know. Whether you are a beginner, intermediate or advanced tennis player, you should be able to enjoy the information below and, by the end of the post, feel like you have a great understanding of tennis rules.
Court Boundaries & Layout
Before getting to the actual rules of tennis, it is important to understand the layout of a tennis court. By doing so, it will be easier to understand the scoring rules and the differences between singles and doubles. Below is a tennis court diagram with the basic specifications.
The picture above contains the name of every line on a tennis court. This is the purpose of each line:
- Baseline: The baseline indicates the boundary of the court lengthwise. It serves two purposes: 1) When a player is serving, he or she must stand behind the baseline; and 2) If a player hits a shot that lands past the baseline, the shot is considered out and the player will lose the point.
- Doubles Line: As the name indicates, the doubles line is only relevant during doubles matches. During a doubles match, it indicates the boundary of the court widthwise. During singles matches, it is irrelevant.
- Singles Line: It is the equivalent of the doubles line, but for singles matches. Indicates the widthwise boundaries of the court in a one-vs-one match. Any shot that bounces outside these lines is considered out, which results in the player losing a point.
- Center Service Line: This line is aligned with the center mark, and it divides the court into a left and a right half. As with the center mark and the service line, it is only relevant during a player’s serve. Depending on the score, a player needs to serve either to the right or to the left of this line. If the player misses the target, the serve is considered a miss.
- Service Line: When combined with the center service line, the service line forms the area known as the service box (see below). The service line indicates the lengthwise limit of the area where a player’s serve must land. If a serve lands beyond the service line, it is considered a miss.
- Center Mark: This line’s sole purpose is to indicate where the player who is serving must stand before the serve. A server will start serving a game serving on the right side of the center mark, and will alternate between left and right every point after. Baseline
When the lines indicated above are combined, they form the areas indicated below.
- Left and Right Service Boxes: The most important area you should understand now. These are the areas where players need to hit their serves. For now, you just need to understand that a player will have to alternate each point, hitting the right service box in one point and the left one on the next. We’ll explain with more details below.
- Doubles Alley: These areas are only relevant during doubles matches. Think of them as an “extension” to the singles court. Since there are 4 players in a doubles match instead of 2, the court becomes a little bigger.
- Total Court Area: As mentioned above, the doubles court area is bigger than the singles one. A total court area is where every player’s shot (except serves) must land on.
- Net Height: While the net height is not technically an area, it is worth mentioning. Each shot a player hits must clear the net. Otherwise, it is considered an error and results in a lost point.
Tennis Points – How Do They Work?
Now that you have a basic understanding of the layout of a tennis court, you are ready to learn about how the actual game works. The first part of the learning process is to understand what a tennis point is.
In essence, a tennis point is the most basic unit in the tennis scoring system. A tennis match is nothing more than several points played in a row. Every time you see players hitting shots, they are playing points. And after a player wins enough points, he or she wins the match. So how do you play a point?
When a tennis match starts, the players need to decide which one of the players will start the match serving. This is usually done by a coin toss, with the winner getting to choose who starts serving. The player who is serving is called the server, and the player not serving is called the receiver. After that step is done, players will start playing the first point.
In order to do so, the player who starts serving must go to his side of the court and stand behind the baseline. On the first point, he will start on the right side of the center mark. On the second, he will start on the left side, and will alternate every point after. In order to successfully start a point, the player who is serving must hit his serve (see what a serve is here) on the service box located over the net and diagonally from him. So if a player is standing on the right side of the court, she needs to hit her serve on the right service box across the net, and vice versa.
A player has the right to two serves on each point. If she misses her first serve, she has another attempt to hit the service box on her second serve. If the player misses both serves (either at the net or outside the service box), she has hit a double fault and consequently lost the point.
If the player was able to hit the serve inside the service box, the point will have officially started. From then on, each player’s goal is to hit the ball over the net and inside the court area, until one of them wins the point. After the ball has bounced on the service box for the first time, players can either hit the ball directly in the air or let it bounce once on their court. There are 5 ways a player can win a point:
- If the opponent misses two serves in a row (double fault)
- If the opponent misses a shot at the net
- If the opponent hits a shot over the net, but outside the court area – either long or wide
- If the player hits a shot that goes past her opponent
- If the player hits a shot that bounces twice on the opponent’s court before the opponent can hit it
Tennis Let Rules
Another important tennis rule is regarding lets. In tennis, a let is short for let’s play again, and it can happen in two different ways. First, a let can happen if a player’s serve hits the net and subsequently bounces inside the correct service box. If that is the case, the player has a chance to retake that same serve.
The second occurrence of a let will happen if any type of interference happens between a point. Whether the let is caused by a spectator yelling outside the court, by a second ball entering the court, or by a crazy fan streaking the court, it can be called out by either player or by the umpire. If this type of let happens, the point is replayed with the server getting back his two serves.
Tennis Scoring Rules
After understanding how tennis points work, you are ready to move on to the most complex part of the tennis rules: the scoring system. We have written a complete guide on how the scoring system works (you can check it here), so we will keep it short and sweet in this article.
The first part is to understand that tennis follows a pretty unique counting system. When a player wins points, his points will accumulate until he wins a game. Once the player wins enough games, he will win a set. When a player wins multiple sets, he will have finally won the match. So when reading the next few paragraphs, keep in mind that the scoring system follows this pattern:
Point→ Game → Set → Match
As we have mentioned above, players can win a point in 5 different ways. Once they win points, they get on the scoreboard. Instead of counting points like 1, 2, 3, 4, tennis points are counted as 0, 15, 30, and 40. So if the player who is serving wins the first point of the match, the score goes to 15 x 0. If he loses the first point, the score is 0 x 15 (you always count the score of the server first).
Once a player has a point score of 40 and wins another point, he will have won a game. If both players are tied at 40 x 40 (also called deuce), the first player to obtain a margin of two points wins the game. So if the score is 40 x 40, the counting sequence is 40 → Ad → Game. If the score is Ad x 40 and the player with Ad loses the point, the score goes back to 40 x 40.
After a player wins a game, the point score goes back to 0 x 0 and the server and receiver switch roles. Players keep accumulating games until one of them wins 6 games. Whenever a player wins 6 games, he will have won a set. If players are tied at 5 games to 5, the first one to win 7 wins the set. If the players tie again at 6 games to 6, they need to play a tiebreak.
A tiebreak is a special type of game, designed to break a tie between two players (hence the name). The point scoring system ina tiebreak works differently than other games (0, 15, 30, 40), and you should count the points using the regular numerical system (0, 1, 2, 3, …). The first player to reach a total of 7 points wins the tiebreak, and consequently the set. If players are tied at 6 points to 6 in the tiebreak, the first player to obtain a 2-point margin wins the tiebreak.
The serving turns also work differently during a tiebreak. The player who begins serving serves for one point, and then the players switch roles. From then on, each player will serve for two points until the tiebreak is over. The player who started the tiebreak as the receiver begins the new set as the server.
In most tournaments, the first player to win 2 sets wins the match. During Grand Slam tournaments (Australian Open, Roland Garros, Wimbledon, and US Open), a player needs to win 3 sets in order to win a match.
If you were able to understand the rules mentioned above, that means by now you understand about 85% of all tennis rules! From this point on, things should get a lot easier, and you will be done quickly. If for some reason you don’t get how the scoring system works yet, below you will see a video tutorial we made on how everything works.
If you ever watch a tennis match, you should have noticed that – from time to time – players keep going from one side of the net to the other. This is not done at random, as the players have to follow the changeover rules.
Players have to follow these rules in order to make the game fair. Sometimes one side of the court may have more wind or maybe be facing the sun, so players switch sides in order to make sure they have equal exposure to the conditions.
Once a match starts, players will change sides after the first game is over. From then on, they will switch sides every time the sum of the game scores is odd (2×1, 3×0, 4×3, 6×5). With the exception of the first changeover of each set (1×0), players get to sit down on their chairs and take a timed break before switching sides. Players are not allowed to sit down during the first changeover of the set, but they might drink a sip of water or quickly grab something from their bag.
Every time a set ends, players get to take a set break. They are allowed to sit down on their chairs and even go to the bathroom if they need to. However, they will only change sides if the final set ended with an odd sum of games (6×1, 6×3, 7×6). If the game sum was even, the players will go back to the same side after sitting down.
One of the most recently developed rules is the clock rule, which was designed as a way to make tennis matches faster. Some players used to take too long between points when they were serving, so the clock rule was able to end that.
According to the clock rule, players have 25 seconds between the end of one point and the start of the next point. The first time a player goes over the 25 seconds, he or she receives a warning. After that, each time the player takes longer than 25 seconds to start a point he or she will lose a serve. The receiver must play according to the server’s pace.
Another relevant set of rules is in regard to violations. The most important tennis institutions (Association of Tennis Professionals, International Tennis Federation, United States Tennis Association) have a similar code of conduct, and if a player acts in disagreement with such code of conduct, he is considered to have committed a violation. A violation can lead to fines, the loss of points, games, and matches, and even suspension from tournaments.
The most frequent tennis violations are:
- Ball Abuse: When a player aggressively and purposefully hits a ball outside of the point, whether the ball stays on the court or is hit outside the court
- Racket or Equipment Abuse: When a player aggressively hits or throws his racket or other equipment
- Physical Abuse: When a player physically abuses another player, an umpire, spectator, or staff member
- Verbal Abuse: When a player verbally abuses another player, an umpire, spectator, or staff member
- Audible Obscenity: If a player says any audible obscenity, regardless of the language, loud and clear enough so others can hear it
- Visible Obscenity: If a player makes an obscene gesture that is seen by others
- Best Efforts: When a player does not try her best, giving clear indications that she is not trying to win the match
- Coaching: When a coach gives instruction to a player during a moment he is not allowed to do so (see this article for full details)
- Timing Violation: If a player does not follow the rules regarding the rhythm of the match, whether he breaks the clock rule or takes too long to come back from the restroom
While the violations above are the most common, there are other rules in existence as well. Tennis is considered a very elegant sport, and players should behave accordingly. If a player commits the violations mentioned above, the punishments usually follow the pattern below:
- 1st Violation = Warning
- 2nd Violation = Point Penalty
- 3rd Violation & Any Subsequent Ones = Game Penalty
Some of the rules for doubles work differently than singles. For one, as we mentioned earlier, the court is extended by the doubles alleys. Second, serving turns work differently in doubles. Each doubles pair will take turns serving and receiving, similarly to the way they would if it were a singles match. However, the same player from a doubles pair should not serve twice in a row. So if a doubles match was being played by player A and player B against player X and player Y, a sample serving rotation would look like A, X, B, Y, A, X, …). Once a set ends, the players may choose to switch serving turns, which means that a player from a doubles pair could be the last one to serve in a set and the first to serve in the next set.
Another extra rule is that the doubles pair must decide, before the set starts, who is responsible for receiving serves on the left side and right side of the court. After the set starts, the players need to stick to those sides until the set is over. When a set ends, players must choose to switch sides.
Finally, when a player is serving, his partner might stand anywhere on the court. While beginners usually tend to cover the other side of the court, professional tennis players might choose to stay on the same side as the server.
Unusual Tennis Rules
Some of the rules mentioned below are not known by many people, but they do exist. By understanding them, you will be a step above every other tennis player.
- Can’t Touch The Ball – This rule is usually implied, but a player can only use his racket to hit the ball to the other side. If the ball makes contact with any body part or other materials, the player loses the point.
- Can’t Touch The Net – A player cannot touch while a point is in play. If the player makes contact with the net, whether intentionally or unintentionally, he will lose the point.
- The Racket Needs To Be In Contact With The Player’s Body – A player’s racket must be in contact with his body when hitting the shot. If the ball is out of reach and the player manages to throw his racket, hit the ball with it, and get the ball on the opponent’s court, he still loses the point because the racket was not touching his body.
- Players Can’t Make Any Noise – While tennis players are allowed to grunt, they cannot make noises that might distract their opponent. If an umpire finds that this rule has been broken, hyndrance will have occurred and the player who made the noise will lose the point.
- Can Hit The Ball Around The Net – A player can hit a shot around the net, as long as the shot lands on the opponent’s court. This shot is not only valid, but it is considered extremely skilled. A player cannot, however, hit a shot through the net (i.e. if there is a hole in the net and the ball goes through it).
- No Ad Rule: Some matches may follow a “No-Ad” format, which means that when the point score in a game is 40 x 40, the player who wins the next point wins the game. This format is designed to make matches faster. In a doubles match, the receiving pair gets to choose which player will receive the serve.
Even though that was a lot, you made it through the end. If you understand the rules mentioned above, you understand tennis better than the majority of the population. If you do have any further questions regarding tennis rules, let us know in the comment section below and we will get you an answer!