When you’re unsure what you’re doing, tennis can be a tricky sport. However, as soon as you know the basics, it becomes a fast-paced, exciting game that you’ll want to play for hours upon hours.
When you play tennis, you’re always improving. Even Andy Murray improves his technique from game to game. To speed up the learning process and advance your skills, you may want to consider finding a tennis coach. However, having tennis lessons is not crucial to your play.
With time and dedication, including time spent in the gym to keep fit when you’re off the court, it won’t take long for you to learn how to play tennis to a moderate standard. If you have your eye on professional play and tournaments, you should get a coach.
For budding tennis players, our tips on how to play tennis provide everything you need to begin.
As with most sports, tennis is a game of immense skill and comes with a whole host of rules that must be abided by for scoring to count and a win to be a real win.
If you want to learn how to play the game, it’s essential you understand the rules of the tennis and adhere to them strictly.
Here, we share the rules of tennis for beginners so that you can get involved.
Table of Contents
- 1 What is Tennis?
- 2 The Basic Rules of the Game
- 3 How to Play Tennis
- 4 In Summary
What is Tennis?
Tennis dates to the 12th-century and was originally a game played by kings.
The principle idea behind tennis is that two (singles) or four (doubles) players take to the court, standing on opposite sides of a large net. They use a stringed racket to hit the ball back and forth to one another. The aim of tennis is to win enough points to win a game, enough games to win a set, and enough sets to win a match. Every set is a race to six. The first person to win six games wins the set.
The Basic Rules of the Game
The basic rules of scoring tennis are relatively simple.
When you’re receiving the ball, it can only bounce once on your side of the court. If it hits the ground twice before you return it over the net, you lose the point. All the while, you and the ball must stay within the boundaries of the court.
You don’t only lose the point if the ball bounces twice within the boundaries of the court. You also lose the point if you leave the boundaries of the court during play, if the ball you’re serving lands outside the boundaries of the court, or if you fail to return the ball to the other player.
Generally, tennis matches are played to the best of three or the best of five sets.
Difference Between Singles and Doubles Tennis
While the differences between singles and doubles tennis are not too extensive, there are some.
The main difference is that singles tennis is a two-player game, with one player on either side of the court whereas doubles is a four-player game, with two players on either side of the court.
Also, the boundaries of the court are wider for doubles tennis, allowing each player more room.
Rules of Singles Tennis
As mentioned, singles tennis is played between two players, one of each side of the court, and is played on the narrower tennis court.
When the game begins, the person that plays the ball is the server and the player that returns it is the receiver. To determine who serves first and what ends of the court each player will begin at it’s traditional to toss a coin or spin a racket. As well as using the coin toss, for example, to choose ends and who serves first, the winner of the toss can also choose to ask the other player to decide.
Every game, the player’s swap and the other will serve. The players swap ends of the court every game, too.
Players are not penalized for serving when it’s not their turn; however, as soon as the mistake is realized, the correct server must take over.
At the beginning of the game, the players or another authority should decide whether they are playing to the best of three or the best of five as this will determine the length of the game.
Throughout the game, players must adhere to the four dominant rules: the receiver must return the ball, the ball must not bounce more than once, the ball must not land outside of the court boundaries, and all players must stay inside the court boundaries.
The first to win six games wins the set. And the first to three or five sets, the game.
Rules of Doubles Tennis
The rules of tennis for doubles games is virtually the same as singles tennis; however, a doubles game is played on a wider court.
When playing as a pair, many wrongly believe that the players must hit alternate shots. However, both players can hit the ball as much or little as they like.
Technically, both players can stand wherever they like on the court when a serve is taking place, but it’s traditional for each player to take a side of the court.
Serving the Ball
In both singles and doubles tennis, the players alternate between whose turn it is to serve, which can be confusing when there’s four of you (doubles), in which case player should serve once every fourth game.
In doubles tennis, the server starts behind the baseline to the right-hand side of the court and must send the ball into the service box diagonally opposite, on the left. After each point, the server should swap sides.
If on a first serve the ball lands outside the service box, the server can try again. However, if the ball lands outside the service box twice, they are at fault and forfeit the point to their opponent.
When serving, players must throw the ball up in the air using their arm rather than the racket and hit the ball before it hits the ground. Generally, the higher the ball is, the more power a player can get on their strike, which creates a faster serve.
It is against the rules for players to run or walk while serving; however, they can move on the spot.
If you think you need to warm up before a tennis match, try these pre-match exercises.
Breaking Between End Changes
If you are playing tennis for leisure, it’s not essential that you adhere to the general rules around breaks between end changes and sets; however, it’s something you can do if you want to play professionally.
Typically, in professional tennis, players can break for a minute and a half (90 seconds) between end changes and up to two minutes between sets. This break is designed to allow players to go to the toilet or request on-court treatment.
How to Score
As soon as you know how to score a tennis match, you can start practicing your style of play.
When announcing the score, the server’s score is always said first. For example, if the server has one point and their opponent has none, the score is 15-love. In tennis, ‘love’ means zero.
The scoring system is structured as followed:
- Love: Equal to zero
- 15: Equal to one point
- 30: Equal to two points
- 40: Equal to three points
- Deuce: Both players have four points (40)
- Advantage: One player needs just one more point to win
- Match Point: The point that wins the match when a player is at ‘Advantage’
If a player is at advantage and their opponent wins a point, they return to deuce and play on.
When choosing how many matches to play to a game, you can choose to play to the best of three or the best of five.
The way tennis is scored is a peculiar one as the numbers do not rise as you’d imagine:
- The points in a game of tennis are called ‘love’.
- If you’re at zero, you’re referred to as having ‘love’, without a number in front of it.
- The first point in a game is 15-love and the second 30-love. However, the third point is 40-love rather than 45.
- When a player gets to 40-love, if the other player is below 40, they need to score once more to win the game.
- However, if both players are at 40, which is called ‘deuce’, the winner of the next point will get the “advantage”. If the same player goes on to win the point after that they will win the game. If the opposing player wins the next point the score will drop back down to duece.
- Essentially when duece is reached the winner is the first player to get two points in a row.
Now you know all the rules it’s time to look at how to actually play this wonderful game.
How to Play Tennis
A standard tennis court measures 78ft x 27ft and is split down the middle by a court-wide net, but it can feel much bigger or, in some cases, smaller when you’re in play. That’s why it’s crucial to know how to navigate the court.
Either end of the court has white baselines, from which you serve. These lines are also used as ‘out of bounds’ lines, which means, if the ball lands outside them, the person playing the shot loses the point. The same lines appear at the side of the court. Also, at the side of the court are the lines that dictate the type of game you’re playing; if you’re playing a single tennis match, you should use the lines on the inside whereas the lines on the outside should be used for doubles play, to create a wider court.
When you play tennis, often, one of the best ways to improve your technique is to get your opponent moving around the court. By being unpredictable with your style of play, you’ll make it difficult for your opponent to keep up. If you’re constantly making your opponent move from the back of the court to the front and vice-versa, they’ll tire quickly.
The Guardian’s diagram and explanation of the markings of a tennis court is an excellent reference point for further information about navigating a tennis court.
Playing Singles Matches
Playing singles and doubles tennis has some specific differences that you must know beforehand.
In a singles match, there are just two opponents; one of either side of the net. The game, and every point, starts with a serve, which is take from behind the baseline (the furthest line at the back of the court). You must serve the ball diagonally, so it lands in the left-hand service court opposite.
The service court is marked by a white line just over half way on either side of the court. Once the serve has been made, play continues until one player fails to hit the ball back or the ball lands out of bounds, in which case the opponent that played the ball will lose the point. You then continue to play until you reach match point.
The person that wins the match point wins the match. The first person to win three or five matches, depending on what you’ve agreed, wins the game.
At the end of the first game and then every-other game (odd-numbered games), the players switch ends of the court.
Playing Doubles Matches
Playing doubles matches is a little more complicated, predominately because you must navigate your gameplay with your tennis partner in a way that works strategically. However, the rules of doubles tennis are almost the same as singles.
When playing doubles, there are two players on either side of the court that work in unison. The two players and teams take it in turn to serve. For example, if players A and B are on a team and players C and D are on a team, player A would serve first, player C second, player B third, and player D fourth. It’s that simple.
Like singles tennis, at the end of the first game and then every odd-numbered game thereafter, the players switch ends of the court.
How to Serve
When learning how to play tennis, learning to serve properly is crucial as it can make or break a game.
- Stand sideways with both feet apart, just behind the baseline. Hold the ball in your left hand and throw the ball straight upwards.
- The ball should be tossed around one foot in front of your left foot and approximately 40cm in the air, so it’s within reaching distance without too much strain.
- Then, move your racket back to get some force behind it, and swing it towards the ball.
- Your racket arm should be straight when it meets the ball.
- You should aim to hit the tennis ball when it’s at its highest point, moving your body weight from your back foot to your front foot as you do so, to give you enough force for a powerful serving shot.
- You must aim to strike the ball from just above, towards your opponent’s court.
- When serving, follow through with your racket, so you complete a full swing.
You must do the same as detailed for right-handed players but reverse the directions for your dominant hand.
It is a good idea to practice serving by yourself, without any competition, until you get your swing right. To practice, visit your local tennis court, or mark out an area in your garden, and hit one ball after another, and then repeat.
Remember, as soon as you’ve served the ball, you need to get into position and be ready to receive the returned ball. There are a variety of shots you can use throughout gameplay, including groundstrokes, which is when you strike the ball after it has bounced once. When striking the ball, you must consider whether to use a forehand or a backhand stroke, which will alter the force of the ball. To learn the difference between strokes, explore ATG’s quick video tutorial.
Choosing your Equipment
When choosing your tennis equipment, right down to your clothes, there are a variety of considerations to be made.
Firstly, it’s essential you have a good tennis grip, which will help you to grasp the racket and prevent blistering on your palm. Try a variety of grips to find one that works for you.
When selecting your tennis clothes, like any other sport, you should wear clothes that are comfortable, loose-fitting, and breathable, to keep you cool and help wick away sweat during gameplay. Choose tennis shorts with an elasticated waist and a top with vents under the arms and on the back; these will help to keep you dry throughout the game.
When choosing tennis shoes, you should purchase shoes with a distinct arch, to prevent problems with flat feet, and with a heavily cushioned sole and mesh upper. Combined, these features will ensure you are comfortable, dry, and blister-free.
For both men and women, when playing tennis, underwear is an important consideration. You should wear supportive sports underwear that holds everything in place, therefore preventing injury with excessive game play.
There are hundreds of tennis rackets, tennis balls and racket strings on the market, each suited to different levels of skill. Some of the best tennis brands include Wilson, Head, Prince, and Yonex, all of which have equipment varying in price for all types of players. As a novice you should choose a racket that is best for beginners.
With practice, tennis is a rewarding, thrilling sport that will get you moving while relying on strategy. Spend as much time as you can on the court, get the right equipment, and try different types of gameplay; both singles and doubles. Over time, you’ll find your preference. If you want to become a professional, seek a qualified tennis coach near you (UK) or search for one in the US.