Rules of Tennis

A Guide on How to Play Lawn Tennis

Fast, exciting, and bringing us some of the fiercest rivalries sport has ever seen – tennis, at the highest level of competition, regularly gives us some of the most compelling moments in competitive sport.

But there are many aspects of the sport which you might find a mystery. In this article, we address the rules of tennis, and hopefully, clear up some of its more mysterious aspects.

The sport of tennis originated in the Midlands of England in the mid-19th century, in the leafy surroundings of a public park on the outskirts of the city of Birmingham.

It is now one of the biggest participant and spectator sports in the world, and its top players earn millions of pounds/dollars in appearance fees and prize money.

Of course, now as a sport with a global following, it has at its heart a set of well-defined rules and laws – although of course, there are regular disputes over how some of these laws are interpreted, which, to many followers, simply adds to the sport’s appeal!

There are slightly different rules, depending on the number of players participating in the game – which, for obvious reasons, always has to be either two (known as ‘singles’) or four (‘doubles’).

What Equipment Do You Need For A Game Of Tennis?

Tennis is played on a rectangular playing surface called a court, measuring 78 feet (23.77 metres) in length by 27 feet (8.23 metres) wide. See the diagram for full dimensions.

The surface of a tennis court can be made from a variety of materials. Originally, it was a grass surface, but over time, clay, acrylic and synthetic hard courts, and even a thin carpet-type surface have all been used. At a professional level, this is because artificial surfaces allow matches to be played in all weathers, especially indoors.

Each player taking part has a racquet, with which they aim to hit the ball. Tennis racquets have a narrow handle, gripped in the player’s hand – left or right, whichever they prefer to use – and a large, rounded area in which the racquet’s frame is covered by a right-angled grid pattern of strings. 

Tennis is played using balls which in competitive events are predominantly fluorescent yellow, but can also be white. The ball is filled with air and has a surface made from a uniform rubber compound which is covered with felt.

Under the rules of the International Tennis Federation, a tennis ball should have a diameter of between 6.54 and 6.86cm (2.57–2.70 inches). Balls must weigh a minimum of 56 grams (1.98 ounces), and a maximum of 59.4 grams (2.1 ounces).  

Because the racquets, in particular, are often quite technical in their construction, and therefore are rather expensive to buy and replace, most players carry their racquets in a fully-covered sleeve.

Players use their racquets to hit the ball to each other, from one end of the court to the other and over a net strung across the width of the court. The standard tennis net is 42 inches (106.5 cm) high at the posts and 36 inches (91.5 cm) high at its centre. Each time they do so, they are aiming to make the ball land on their opponent’s side of the net, within the area bounded by the baseline and the two sidelines (the inner line if playing a singles game, the outer line if it’s a doubles match).

They score points by hitting a shot that lands inside the area of the court, and which their opponent is then unable to hit back over the net, or ‘return’. A shot which achieves this is commonly called a ‘winner’.

The Officials

An officiated game of tennis looks considerably different from one which is played simply between two players.

An official, either on court or somewhere nearby, is usually referred to as the match umpire will make determinations regarding the rules. In professional elite tournaments, many more officials are involved. There will be a chair umpire who is in charge of enforcing the rules. There can also be line umpires who are watching the lines around the edges of the court to see whether the ball stays in or goes out of play during any shot. They can make a call if they believe that a ball is out of play,  but can be overruled by the chair umpire. In professional tournaments, there will be a referee who is ultimately responsible for making sure that the competition is fair and played following the rules and regulations for that tournament, but who is not involved in refereeing any of the individual matches.

The continuity of the game can also be helped by the use of ball boys and ball girls, who are allowed to go on to the court in between players’ shots to retrieve tennis balls left on the court following a serve which is hit into the net.

How Long Does A Tennis Match Last?

Every point in a game of tennis is started by one player standing on one side of the court, throwing the ball vertically into the air, then hitting by swinging their racquet over their head. This is called a ‘serve’, and usually the player who serves for the first time in any match is decided by the toss of a coin. Players serve for one game each alternately, so that the perceived advantage of serving to start a game is spread evenly throughout a match.

Tennis matches are usually played as the best of three or best of five sets, so the first player to win two or three sets wins the match.

Because of this there is no set duration for a tennis match, and it finishes only when one player (or doubles pair) has won the requisite number of sets.

How Do Players Score Points In A Tennis Game?

Each time a player manages to hit a shot which lands inside the area of their opponent’s court which the other player is unable to return, the player who hit the shot wins the point.

Points are scored in any of the ways described earlier. 

The player who is the first to win four points in a single game wins that game. However, if a game proceeds to the stage when both players have each won three points (called ‘deuce’), the players then continue playing points until one of them has won two more points than their opponent. As a result, a single game of tennis can often be played over much more than the number needed simply to decide who is the first to score four points.

A series of games is then combined into a set, comprising a series of games which are played with the serve rotating between the players (or, in doubles, the pairs). The set continues until one player, or pair, has won six games, and in doing so, has won at least two more games than their opponent.

However, if a set proceeds to both players (or pairs) winning six games each with neither player or pair having established a lead of two games over their opponent up to this point, the set enters a tie-break, whereby the players continue playing to win points, and the first player to score seven points – disregarding all the points played up to this stage – wins the tie-break.

The scoring system of the men’s game specifically allows for the last set of a match to be played for as long as is needed for one player to establish a two-game lead in a set, with no tie-breaks allowed in the final set. This can result in the last set going on much longer than all the previous sets (see the reference to the John Isner v Nicolas Mahut ‘epic’ match of Wimbledon 2010 under the ‘Winning a Match’ heading below).

Some of the most hotly-disputed aspects of scoring a point in tennis surround the split second when a ball bounces close to one of the lines of the court which separate the area deemed ‘in’ play and ‘out’ of play.

In light of the difficulty making the call of ‘in’ or ‘out’, at elite level, the lines on the court are now monitored by infra-red sensors. These emit a ‘beep’ sound when the ball is detected to have completely crossed the line, and so a point has been conceded. But because of the extremely high stakes often involved in professional tennis, this still hasn’t completely eliminated the drama involved in a close ‘line call’ made either by the technology or one of the officials.

Ways A Player Concedes A Point

As well as scoring points, a player concedes a point to their opponent in a number of ways, as follows:

  • A player serves two consecutive faults.
  • A player does not return the ball in play before it bounces twice.
  • The player returns the ball in play so that it hits the ground. Or before it hits the ground the player hits an object outside the correct court.
  • The player returns the ball in play so that, before it bounces, it hits a permanent fixture (any part of the net, or other fixture outside the area of the court).
  • The receiver of a serve returns the serve before it bounces.
  • The player deliberately carries or catches the ball in play on the racket or deliberately touches it with the racket more than once.
  • The player (or racket whether in the player’s hand or not), or anything which the player is wearing (or carrying) touches the net, net posts/singles sticks, cord or metal cable, strap or band, or the opponent’s court at any time while the ball is in play.
  • The player hits the ball before it has passed the net.
  • The ball in play touches the player or anything that the player is wearing (or carrying) except the racket.
  • While in play, the ball touches the racket when the player is not holding it.
  • A player deliberately and materially changes the shape of the racket when the ball is in play.
  • In doubles, either player can touch the ball when returning it, but only one player must touch the ball for each shot.

Starting A Game – Serving

Playing for points in a tennis match starts with one player serving to their opponent, who then has to try to continue the game by returning the ball over the net back to the server.

The serving player alternates after each game finishes.

Servers have two attempts to deliver the ball without error. The ball must land inside the opponent’s service box by this second attempt. If not, the server loses the point – this is called a double fault.

A ‘let’ is called if the ball makes contact with the net but falls into the receiving player’s area of the court. In this case, the serve is then re-taken without a penalty to either player.

Winning A Match

As already mentioned, official tennis tournament matches are usually played to a best-of-three-sets or best-of-five-sets format. Women and junior players only play until one of them has won two sets, while men play until one has won three sets. 

By that score, a top-level men’s game can consist of between three and five sets and a women’s game will last for two to three sets.

In the men’s singles game only, if a match is played to the full five sets and the score reaches 6-6 in games in the fifth set, play continues in the regular format of games, until one player is two games ahead of their opponent. This means that, technically, there is no limit to the number of games in a final set if the players cannot be separated by two clear games.

The longest game played in this format in men’s professional tennis was a first-round match at the Wimbledon tournament in 2010, between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut. After the players won two sets each, they played a deciding fifth set in which neither player was able to establish a two-game lead until they had played an epic 138 games, the final set being won by American Isner by 70 games to 68. The match took two days to complete, with the total court time being 11 hours five minutes.

As you can imagine, the balls used in a tennis match take a lot of punishment. So at a professional level, the old balls are switched for completely new ones after every six games.

As you see, tennis is governed by a wide array of rules – which we have only touched upon in this article. There are other restrictions governing such aspects as what players are allowed to wear at the major tournaments. Yet despite these sometimes complex regulations, the drama that watching two individuals or pairs of players battle to win a tennis match generates is hard to match.