In simple terms, the serve is the shot that starts every tennis point. If you watch the top players, however, it is so much more than that. It can be an elegant demonstration of coordination, timing, and strength, allowing a player to produce almost bullet-like speed, or astonishing spin.
The greatest servers, exemplified by Ivo Karlovic, win thousands of points during their careers with the accuracy and power of their serve, and to watch them in action first hand can be genuinely awe-inspiring. If you want to try to emulate these legends, what are the rules you must follow?
The basic tennis serve rules are that players must serve the ball diagonally into the service box across the net. The server must stand behind the baseline when serving and has two chances to hit a good serve per point. Tennis serve rules differ slightly between singles and doubles play.
Under certain circumstances, you might have to repeat a serve or be awarded the point automatically.
Tennis Serve Rules Singles
When preparing to serve, you must stand behind the baseline, holding a ball in your non-playing hand. In the middle of the baseline you will notice a small mark, known imaginatively as the ‘center mark’. If an even number of points has been played in a game, you must stand to the right of this mark when serving. Otherwise, you need to stand to the left.
For a serve to be legal, you must release the ball from your non-playing hand (there are special rules for people who do not have use of both arms), and hit the ball with your racket, before it hits the ground, over the net. Any action is fine, as long as the ball is only struck once.
The ball must land in the ‘service box’, marked out by the center line, the service line, and the inner, or ‘singles’, tramline, diagonally opposite the side you are serving from.
If the ball is stopped by the net, or does not land in the service box, it is a ‘fault’. If the first serve is a fault, a second serve can be taken, but the point is lost if the second serve is also a fault.
Once a service game has been completed, a new server takes over. The server switches more frequently in a tie-break, namely after the first point and every subsequent two.
Tennis Serve Rules Doubles
The rules for serving in doubles are virtually identical to those for singles. Despite the fact that the court is wider for doubles, the service boxes remain the same as for singles.
The only difference for serving in singles vs doubles is that, in doubles, players can serve from a position behind the tramlines, as these are now a part of the court. In doubles, the rules for switching servers are the same as for singles, except that, when it is a team’s turn to serve, partners take turns to serve every game.
In a tie-break, each of you will serve for two points (other than the first point) alternately when it is your team’s turn to serve.
Tennis Toss Rules
There are very few tennis rules about the ball toss. The key point to remember is that the ball is thrown or released with the non-playing hand, and you must hit it before it bounces. If you decide that the ball toss is not where you would have wanted, you can catch it or let it drop and try again without penalty.
However, this does not apply if you have completed your service action- so if you swung at the ball and missed it, this is a fault.
Players do not necessarily need to toss the ball over their head – they can hit underhand serves, which are considered legal (although seen as unprofessional by some players).
Weird Rules – Foot Faults, Lets, & Hitting Opponents
There are a few other important rules to be aware of – and most of them can be considered weird for new tennis players.
Firstly, when serving, players must remain behind the baseline until they have hit the ball. If any part of a player’s body touches the baseline, or the court in front of it, before they have made contact with the ball, this is a ‘foot fault’, and is treated the same way as any other service fault.
Of course, foot faults are only likely to be noticed in umpired matches, but you should nonetheless try to avoid them.
Secondly, if the ball strikes the net before it lands in the correct service box, this is a ‘let’, which simply means that the serve does not count and the player can have another try. There is no limit to the number of lets in a game.
Some pundits would like to see this rule abolished, with the returner being obligated to hit the ball back whether it hit the net or not, as this would make the game progress faster.
A slightly amusing oddity is the fact that if a serve hits an opponent before it bounces, irrespective of whether it was going to land anywhere near the service box, the server is awarded the point.
This very rarely happens, but can occur when a miscued serve strikes the returner’s partner (usually when they are not concentrating) in a game of doubles.
The rules for the serve are pretty simple and logical: stand behind the baseline, and hit the ball before it bounces into the box diagonally opposite. Nonetheless, it pays to know the details as you can then make sure that the rules are being followed in matches.