When you are first being introduced to tennis, one of the most confusing and overwhelming aspects of it is its scoring system. There are several different terms you need to learn, including points, games, advantage, sets, and tie-breaks. You also need to learn how to count points in a completely new way (0, 15, 30, 40) – and which makes absolutely no sense. You need to learn when each player serves, and when they switch sides.
This is no easy task, especially when you are still not even sure if you like the sport. My wife has been watching me play tennis for about 4 years now, and she is still not sure how the scoring rules work. And I don’t blame her, because I understand how difficult it can be to understand how scoring works at first.
However, there’s no need to panic! Once you have a basic understanding of how the point system works, it actually becomes very easy to follow tennis matches. Today we will try to explain the tennis scoring rules in an easily digestible way, so even absolute beginners will be able to count tennis points after reading this article – without a headache!
The tennis scoring system works in a way in which players accumulate points, games, and sets. Tennis points are counted as 0, 15, 30, and 40. The first player to win 4 points wins a game, and the first player to win 6 games wins a set. In order to win the match, a player must win 2 sets.
I know, this is a lot to understand. I’ve done my best to explain it in one paragraph, but if you’re still not sure what everything means, I’ve explained everything a lot more in-depth below. If you continue reading, I’ll guarantee you will understand the tennis scoring system when you are done. Enjoy!
How To Score Points In Tennis
Points are the foundation of the tennis scoring system. You can think of them as the building blocks of a tennis match. When a tennis player accumulates points, he or she will eventually score a game. Once enough games are accumulated, the player will score a set. Depending on which tournament the player is participating, he or she will need to win 2 or 3 sets to win the whole match.
The first point in a tennis score is called “15”. The second, third, and fourth point are called “30”, “40”, and “game.” When learning how to count points in tennis, it is important to remember that the score of the server comes first (15×0 if the server wins the first point).
We can draw a parallel to our standard numeral system. First, we begin counting with units (1, 2, 3, …). Eventually, when we accumulate enough units, we move to tens (10, 20, …). After we have enough tens, we move on to hundreds (100, 200). Finally, after we get enough hundreds, we arrive at thousands (1,000, 2,000). Put it simply, this is how our standard numeral system works:
Units → Tens → Hundreds → Thousands
The same principle applies to tennis. Below is the basic structure of the tennis scoring system:
Points → Games → Sets → Match
So how can a player score points in tennis? The basic principle of tennis is that a player needs to hit the ball over the net, into a delimited area called the court. Your opponent will try to do the same, and if both of you are successful, you will engage in a rally (a ball going from one side of the court to the other). Based on that principle, there are 5 ways a player can score points in tennis:
- Your opponent misses two serves in a row, either at the net or outside of the box (called a double fault)
- Your opponent misses at the net during a rally (called error)
- Your opponent hits a shot over the net, but outside your court (also called error)
- You hit a shot that goes past your opponent (called a winner)
- You hit a shot that bounces twice on your opponent’s court before he or she can hit it (called double bounce)
Provided you can win a point by any of the methods mentioned above, you will start accumulating points. Eventually, these will turn into a game (see below).
What Is A Game In Tennis?
A game in tennis is the second stage of the scoring system. In essence, it is an accumulation of 4 or more points won by the same player. After winning 6 games, a player wins a set.
When a tennis match starts, one player starts serving and the other starts receiving. The game begins at 0x0.
The first player to win a point will get a nominal score of “15”. If the player who is serving wins the first point, the score, therefore, will be 15 x 0. On the other hand, if the player who is receiving wins the first point, the score will be 0 x 15. The sequence of tennis points within a game is the following:
0 (Love) → 15 → 30 → 40 → Game
As players keep winning points, their score will move from 0 to 15 to 30 to 40, and he or she will eventually score a game. Basically, the player who first wins 4 points scores a game. However, if both players win 3 points in a game (and the score is 40 x 40), one of them will need to get a margin of 2 points in order to win the game. Both players will keep playing the game until one of them gets a 2-point lead.
To make it easier to understand, we will show a sample game situation below. Let’s assume player A is serving during this game.
|Point Outcome||Player A Score||Player B Score|
|Player A wins the point||15||0|
|Player B wins the point||15||15|
|Player A wins the point||30||15|
|Player A wins the point||40||15|
|Player B wins the point||40||30|
|Player B wins the point||40||40|
|Player B wins the point||40||Advantage|
|Player A wins the point||40||40|
|Player A wins the point||Advantage||40|
|Player A wins the point (and the game)||(+1 Game) 0||0|
As you can see, if no player can obtain a 2 point margin, the scoring will keep going from 40 x 40 to Advantage x 40. Once one player finally wins the game, he or she will get a little closer from winning a set (see below). The player who was serving will then receive, and vice-versa. The point scoring will go back to 0 x 0 and will start again.
What Is A Set In Tennis?
A set is the third stage of the tennis scoring system. Once a player accumulates enough games (as mentioned above), he or she will win a set. Generally, a player will win a set if he can win 6 games before his opponent can win 5. If one of the players can do that, he will win a set, both players will take a break, and both the point and game counting will go back to 0 x 0. For example, if player A wins 5 games, then player B wins 4, followed by player A winning 1 more, player A will have won a set by 6 x 4 and the score will go back to 0 x 0.
However, if both players tie at 5 games to 5, one of them will need to win by a margin of 2 games. That means that one of them would need to win 2 games before his opponent can win 1 game. If that happens, the player who does so wins the set by 7 x 5 and the point and game counting goes back to 0 x 0.
Finally, if both players tie at 6 games to 6, they will need to play a tiebreak, which is some sort of “special game” in tennis. We will cover the tiebreak rules below. But first, we will show how a standard tennis set would work.
|Game Outcome||Player A Game Score||Player B Game Score|
|Player A wins the game||1||0|
|Player A wins the game||2||0|
|Player A wins the game||3||0|
|Player B wins the game||3||1|
|Player B wins the game||3||2|
|Player B wins the game||3||3|
|Player A wins the game||4||3|
|Player B wins the game||4||4|
|Player A wins the game||5||4|
|Player B wins the game||5||5|
|Player B wins the game||5||6|
|Player A wins the game||6||6|
|Player A wins the game (and the set)||(+1 Set) 0||0|
What Is A Tiebreak In Tennis?
A tiebreak is a special type of game, designed to break a tie between two players (hence the name). Normally, a tiebreak occurs when both players are tied at 6 games to 6. The scoring system in a tiebreak game works differently than regular games (0, 15, 30, 40), and you should count the points using the regular numerical system (0, 1, 2, 3, 4, …). Normally, the first player to reach a total of 7 points wins the tiebreak, also winning the set. If both players tie at 6 x 6 points in the tiebreak, the winner will be whoever gets a 2 point advantage (for example 8 x 6 or 9 x 7).
Once the tiebreak is over, both the point scoring and the game scoring goes back to 0 x 0, and the regular tennis scoring starts over (0, 15, 30, 40). During the tiebreak, the player who begins serving (player A) serves for one point. The other player (player B) will then serve for 2 points. After that, each player will serve for 2 points until the game is over.
On a side note, during a tiebreak, players will switch court sides whenever the sum of points equals 6 or any multiple of 6 (4×2, 3×3, 6×6, 9×9, …).
How To Win A Tennis Match
Now that we have covered how to win tennis points, games, and sets, it is time to explain how a player can win a match. If you understand how the rest of the scoring system works, understanding how to win a match should be a breeze.
In order to win a tennis match, a player needs to win either 2 out of 3 sets or 3 out of 5 sets, depending on the tournament he or she is playing. The vast majority of tennis tournaments works under the “2 out of 3 rule”. What that means is that, in order to win a match, a player needs to win 2 sets before his or her opponent. Possible final scores are 2 sets to 0 or 2 sets to 1. Some possible game scores would be 6×3 7×5 (2 sets to 0 win) or 2×6 6×4 7×6 (2 sets to 1 win).
Very few tournaments throughout the year apply the “3 out of 5 rule”. Mostly, such a scoring system is only used in Grand Slams. In order to win the match, a player needs to be the first one to win 3 sets. Possible scores are 3 sets to 0, 3 sets to 1, or 3 sets to 2. These matches end up taking a lot longer, usually with a duration of more than 3 hours (or even 11 hours!!).
Below are some sample scores for a “3 out of 5” match:
|Example||Set 1||Set 2||Set 3||Set 4||Set 5|
|3 sets to 0||6×3||6×2||6×1||–||–|
|3 sets to 1||6×4||4×6||7×5||6×2||–|
|3 sets to 2||6×2||6×4||3×6||5×7||6×4|
Alternative Scoring Methods
If you have managed to read up to this point, you should by now be ready to play (and understand) a basic tennis match. I would say about 90% of every tennis tournament follows the rules above, so you can rest assured that you are well prepared.
The other 10% of tournaments might follow special rules, but they are just slight adaptations of the traditional rules. We will cover some of them below, in case you are interested in being a tennis master.
Long 5th Set
This rule has been used less and less, and it is extremely unlikely that you will ever play a match with such a rule. The “Long 5th Set” rule used to apply to every Davis Cup match and every Grand Slam, but most of those tournaments have now eliminated such rule. As of 2020, the only tournament that still uses the “Long 5th Set” rule is the French Open (Roland Garros).
When this rule is applied, players do not play a tiebreak in the fifth set once they tie at 6 games to 6. Instead, they just keep playing until one of them obtains a 2-game advantage. The reason tournaments have decided to drop this rule is that it can cause too big of a burden to players. For instance, in 2010 John Isner and Nicholas Mahut had to play for 11 hours because there was no tiebreak, and the final result was 70 games to 68 in favor of Isner.
Wimbledon used to use the Long 5th Set rule, but it dropped it in 2019. Now, players at Wimbledon have to play a variation of the normal counting system, where they play a tiebreak if the fifth set is tied at 12 games to 12.
A much more common alternative scoring method is the “10-point tiebreaker rule”. Also called super tiebreak, this rule is used in some professional doubles tournaments and in a lot of club tournaments. According to this rule, when both players win a set each, instead of playing a regular 3rd set, they just play a tiebreak that goes to 10 (instead of 7). The super tiebreak follows the same counting system as a regular tiebreak, and whoever wins it takes the whole match.
Some tournaments choose to apply the 10-point tiebreaker rule as it is less exhaustive and allows players to recover faster from their matches.
Another alternative scoring method used by some club tournaments is the 8-Game Pro-Set. A such, instead of playing 3 or 5 sets, players only play 1 long set. It follows the regular point counting system, but the winner is the player who scores 8 games first. If both players tie at 7 games to 7, they play a 7-point tiebreak. Whoever wins the tiebreak then wins the match.
The reason tournaments might choose to apply the 8-Game Pro-Set rule is that it may need to fit too many matches in one day, so it needs matches to be faster.
Finally, a new tennis scoring format that has been recently adopted is the 4-Game Set. This format has been introduced as a way to shorten the amount of time players need to spend on the court. It is currently only used in two tournaments throughout the year: the NextGen Cup and the Hopman Cup.
The 4-Game Set rule is an adaptation of the regular scoring system. Instead of having to win 6 games in order to win a set, a player only needs to win 4. If both players tie at 3 games to 3, they play a deciding tiebreak. Instead of playing a 7-point tiebreak, they only play it up to 5 points. If the tiebreak is tied at 4 points to 4, a single deciding point is played. Whoever wins that point, wins the tiebreak and consequently the set.
Another change in the 4-Game Sets is that, when the point count is tied at 40 x 40, a single deciding point is played. Whoever wins the point, wins the game. Therefore, players do not need to win games by a margin of 2 points.
Tennis Scoring Cheat Sheet
Tennis Scoring Terms
Below you can find a quick definition of the terms mentioned above, in case you need to brush up on something:
- Point: The first step of the tennis scoring system. Normally follow the 0, 15, 30, 40 progression, but follows the regular numerical system (0, 1, 2) during tiebreaks. Starts with one of the players serving and can end with either a winner, error, double fault, or double bounce. When a player accumulates points, he or she eventually wins a game.
- Serve: Tennis stroke with which a player begins the point. Usually the player hits the ball above his head, and he needs to hit it over the net and inside the service box located diagonally to him.
- Winner: When a player hits a shot that is not returned by the opponent. One of the 5 ways to win a point.
- Error: When a player hits a ball at the net or outside the court. These are 2 of the 5 ways to win (or lose) a point.
- Double Fault: When a player misses 2 consecutive serves, either at the net or outside the service box. It results in a lost point.
- Double Bounce: When a player hits a shot that bounces twice on the opponents’ court before he or she can hit it back. One of the 5 ways to win a point.
- Game: An accumulation of points won by the same player. In order to win a game, a player needs to win 4 points before his opponent. If both players tie at 3 points to 3 (40 x 40), a player needs to obtain a 2-point advantage in order to win the game.
- Set: An accumulation of games won by the same player. In order to win a set, a player needs to win 6 games before his opponent. If both players tie at 5 games to 5, a player needs to reach 7 games before his opponent. If both players tie at 6 games to 6, a tiebreaker will be played to determine the winner of the set.
- Tiebreak: A special type of game, designed to break a tie between two players. It does not follow the standard tennis counting system, and instead follows the regular numerical counting system: 0, 1, 2, 3, etc. The first player to reach 7 points wins the tiebreak and consequently the set. If both players tie at 6 points to 6, the first player to establish a 2-point advantage wins the set.
- Match: An accumulation of sets won by the same player. In order to win a match, a player needs to win 2 out of 3 sets or 3 out of 5 sets, depending on the rule used by the tournament.
- 2 Out Of 3: Rule applied to most tennis tournaments. A player needs to win 2 sets before his opponent in order to win the match.
- 3 Out Of 5: Rule applied to Grand Slams. Players need to win 3 sets before opponent in order to win the match.
- Long 5th Set: Alternative scoring method. If a tournament follows this format, no tiebreak is played in the 5th set. Instead, in order to win the set, a player needs to obtain a 2-game advantage.
- 10-Point Tiebreak: Alternative scoring method. A tiebreak that is won by reaching 10 points instead of 7. Normally played as a substitute to a 3rd set.
- 8-Game Pro Set: Alternative scoring method. Players only play 1 set instead of 3 or 5. The player who scores 8 games first wins the set. If both players are tied at 7 games to 7, they play a tiebreak to decide who wins the set.
- 4-Game Set: Alternative scoring method. Sets that end when a player wins 4 games. If players are tied at 3 games to 3, they play a 5-point tiebreak. If the tiebreak is tied at 4 points to 4, a single deciding point is played to determine the winner.
Tennis Scoring History & Origin
Now that you have mastered the tennis scoring system, you have earned the right to ask yourself “Who was bored enough to come up with this thing?” Seriously though, I think it’s fair to say that there were a lot of simpler scoring formats they could have come up with.
While it is hard to determine exactly how the tennis scoring system started, it is believed that it goes all the way back to 15th Century France. Tennis had its origin in France, and the sport became very popular among the elites. It is believed that the first tennis players used a clock in order to keep score, and each point was represented by a quarter-hour on the clock. This means that the original scores were 0, 15, 30, 45, and 60 – which would have made more sense. However, since a player needs to win a game by a margin of 2 points, they later changed it to 0, 15, 30, 40, 50, and 60 (game). With time, the “50” became what is now know as Advantage, and the 60 was completely dropped.
As I think about it, this theory makes sense. With a lack of better technologies to keep score, a clock would have done a pretty good job. If you think about it, in order to win most matches a player needs to win 12 games. And in order to win a game, he needs to win 4 points. If you translate each point into a quarter-hour, that means that winning one match (48 points) would equal a perfect circle around the clock (48 x ¼ hour = 12 hours).