How confidently could you answer these questions about the rules of tennis?
1. Can you start a point with a broken racquet string?
2. Can you call a foot-fault in a match with no chair or line umpires?
3. When is a ball considered “dead”, and the point over?
Even those with a strong understanding of tennis and a long playing history may struggle to answer – when they’re approaching technical territory within the rules of the sport. But it’s important information to know, especially given that at a local level, you’re most likely officiating yourself with no umpires present.
How many times have you replayed a point because you and your opponent couldn’t decide on a call? You might have rightfully won the point. Or stewed at length over a seemingly-unjust call? The rules may have shown the call was never in your favour, helping you mentally move on more quickly.
“If there’s no [official] there, it’s a bit hard to make a ruling on a disputed call,” says Wayne McKewen, ITF Grand Slam official and Australian Open Tournament Referee.
“You can always write into the governing body of whatever competition you’re playing, and seek a rule clarification. But by then it’s too late. The point’s been played.”
Having a strong knowledge of tennis’ rules will help you play it properly. And rather than have to dissect the entire International Tennis Federation’s (ITF) Rules of Tennis, Australian Tennis Magazine has broken it down into this handy reference tool to help you. And you can discover the answers to our little quiz above.
Equipment and attire
You’ll need a couple of essentials to play. Have a racquet – no longer than 29 inches or wider than 12.5 – with strings intact; the rules of tennis call for a “uniform” stringing pattern. You can play out a point with a broken string if you snap one mid-point, but you can’t start a point with a broken string.
You’ll also need a few balls. There’s a mind-numbing list of specifications relating to ball bounce height, weight, colour and pressure but don’t worry about that – balls meeting those requirements are readily available at sports shops, department stores, tennis venues and even newsagents.
Footwear is something you need to be mindful of. As well as ensuring your safety – such as shoes designed for clay courts to give you more traction on the slippery surface – several venues have footwear policies to protect their courts.
That may mean no blacksoled shoes that could mark hardcourt surfaces, or ripplesoled shoes that could damage clay or grass courts.
Before arriving, it’s best to contact the venue where you’re playing to check if there are any clothing requirements that you need to know about.
Once on court, you should know where to position yourself and where to hit the ball.
Courts are bounded by baselines (parallel to the net) and sidelines, running perpendicular to the net. Aim to clear the net and land the ball in the space within these lines (or even on the lines but not beyond) as otherwise you’ll lose the point.
There’s a second set of sidelines running parallel to the first forming “alleys” or “tramlines”. These are part of the court if you’re playing doubles, but if it’s a singles match, don’t hit the ball there.
To start a point, serve from behind the baseline. Depending on the point, you’ll be standing to the left or right of the centre mark, a little notch marking the baseline’s mid-point. Don’t serve the ball beyond the service line, which runs parallel to the net and baseline about half-way between. You’re aiming to land the ball in the service box diagonally opposite where you’re standing – this is bounded by the service and side-lines and also the centre service line, which separates the two boxes.
Observed Jerry Seinfeld: “That goofy scoring? You win one point, all of a sudden you’re up by 15. Two points, 30 love! Thirty love. Sounds like an English callgirl: ‘That’ll be 30, love’.”
Tennis’ scoring system is possibly the least-intuitive of any sport, and full of jargon. But if you can master it, you’ll see why it makes the sport so great Players begin at love, and must win four points to win a game. With the server’s score listed first, one winning point takes your tally to 15, a second makes it 30, a third puts you at 40, and a fourth seals the game. If both players win points and scores reach 40-40, it’s called “deuce”. From here, you must win two consecutive points to win the game. One winning point will give you “advantage”, but if you drop the next point, scores return to deuce.
Servers begin games by serving to the right of the centre mark, and start every point on the opposite side of the mark to the previous point. Every time a game concludes and a new one begins, point scores return to love and server and receiver swap roles, changing ends of the court whenever game scores add to an odd number.
Players continue to contest games in this fashion, needing six won games to claim a set. You must win the set by an advantage of two games; that is, scores can’t be closer than 6-4. If scores progress to 5-5, you’ll need to win it 7-5.
At 6-6, a “tiebreak” comes into play. To win a tiebreak, you must win seven points with a margin of at least two over your opponent. The receiver in the previous game begins the tiebreak by serving, and after that first point, players alternate between serving and receiving every two points, switching ends every six points. Matches most commonly use a best-of-three set format, meaning you must win two sets to seal victory.
And it’s this traditional scoring format – points within a game, games within a set, sets within a match – that a former professional player once said was tennis’ strength; suspense and pressure is constantly building.
Correction of errors
McKewen says that in addition to understanding the scoring system, knowledge of procedures for correcting errors is also important. “[This is] people serving or receiving out of turn, starting a set on the wrong side [of the net]; knowing how to fix a mistake when something happens,” he explains.
Admittedly, it’s a slightly complicated process. The ITF Rules of Tennis state: “As a principle, when an error … is discovered, all points previously played shall stand.”
Sounds simple enough. But it gets complicated given that different procedures exist in different situations. There are times when the last fault served before an error is discovered shall stand, and times when it doesn’t. Sometimes, if the order of service or receiving is discovered to be incorrect, players immediately make the necessary adjustments according to the score. But if the error has persisted longer, then the incorrect order may have to be adopted as the correct one.
If there’s a section of the ITF Rules of Tennis to be familiar with, this is the one. Go to section 27 on page 12 to find out more.
Having played all their lives and working regularly with the finest officials in the game, even the pros occasionally misinterpret the rules.
In their epic 2013 Roland Garros semi-final, Novak Djokovic was serving to Rafael Nadal in the fifth set, a break10 in hand at 4-3. He swatted a high forehand volley winner well out of Nadal’s reach, but in the process over-balanced and fell into the net. When the chair umpire awarded the point to Nadal, Djokovic fumed, claiming that the ball was outside the dimensions of the court by the time he’d touched the net, a no-no if the point is still alive.
“The chair umpire was totally right,” said McKewen. “The ball wasn’t dead. It’s not dead until it’s bounced twice or hit a permanent fixture.”
Flustered, Djokovic dropped his serve, and eventually the match. Could a more secure understanding of the rules possibly have helped him better retain his focus?
Also getting flustered – to put it mildly – was Serena Williams when she was called for a foot-fault on a second serve at a critical juncture of her 2009 US Open semifinal against Kim Clijsters. With Serena’s eyes firmly fixed on her ball toss, there’s no way she could have seen where her feet were positioned, and whether or not they were touching the baseline – the infringement that prompts such a call.
It’s for this reason that foot faults can’t be called in a club or social match if an official isn’t present. Opponents can’t call it either, as they’re not positioned to judge correctly. Therefore, foot faulting is unfortunately common at a local level. Yet honesty and integrity hopefully prevail.
And these are some of the core principles guiding the ITF Rules of Tennis; they’re designed to “[preserve] the traditional character and integrity of the game of tennis … [and ensure] fair competition.”
By having a solid grasp of these rules, and following them, your experience of the court will most likely be a rewarding one.
This article first appeared in Australian Tennis Magazine.
16 February 2017
In the first part of our series analysing the similarities and differences between men's ... More
23 February 2016
Tennis is a funny old game. People love you one minute and then want to drop you the next;... More
8 February 2016
Negative thoughts and self-doubt can sometimes prove to be tougher opponents than the pers... More