Psst... have you heard? Wimbledon is about to kick off! Are you excited?

Whether Wimbledon has always been a part of your summer television lineup or you're brand new to the tournament and tennis in general - maybe you want to get started in tennis yourself? - you should get familiar with the rules of the game.

Briefly, the include:

  • the player serving must stay behind the baseline
  • before serving, the server must call out the score
  • the player receiving the serve may stand anywhere but should take care to not return the ball before it bounces whenever possible
  • there is no required number of hits
  • tennis scoring: 15 (1 point), 30 (2 points), 40 (3 points); four points are needed to win
  • if the score is 40-40, it's called a deuce; the game continues until one player earns two extra points
  • players must shake hands after the match

Other common questions, such as how many sets in tennis (depends on the event but the most common number is three), wheelchair tennis rules (they hew as closely as possible to the standard game rules) and the rules of tennis are laid out below.

In this article, Superprof covers the basic tennis rules so you'll be ready to hit the courts with a decent understanding of the game.

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General Tennis Rules

Nobody is quite sure how tennis got its start or even how old the game really is but there is a distinction made between real tennis and what used to be called lawn tennis.

Real tennis - or, as it used to be called, royal tennis, is often called the sport of kings. It is usually played indoors, on a very long court, with asymmetrical rackets and cork-cored balls wrapped in fabric tape. Real tennis is still played today - and with the same equipment, but it doesn't have the elevated profile that the modern game has.

Fun fact: Mary, Queen of Scots loved playing tennis. She shocked her subjects by donning men's breeches so she could play more energetically. 

You can know the basic tennis lessons for beginners here.

Freer clothing styles mean less constraint of movement
Mary, Queen of Scots would have appreciated today's freer clothing styles for tennis. Photo credit: StuSeeger on VisualHunt.com

Modern tennis evolved from a game that itself derived from real tennis: lawn tennis.

Lawn tennis got its name from the croquet lawn it was played on; specifically, Augurio Perera's lawn in Birmingham. He and his friend, Harry Gem, borrowed elements from croquet and pelota, a Basque game that involves hitting a ball against a wall with either your hand or a racket, as well as aspects of real tennis to come up with a brand new pastime.

Those august gentlemen founded the UK's first tennis club in the late 19th Century but that's the only 'first' claim they can make. The game, in its original form, predates them by about 19 centuries.

Remarkably, the rules for tennis have not changed very much in all that time, even in its most recent iteration, modern tennis. Of course, some rules have been refined and adjusted to suit modern tennis' shorter courts and new playing materials - hollow rubber balls bounce so much more energetically than cloth-wrapped cork ones do.

Furthermore, whereas women generally had to play sports by a different set of rules or be barred from playing altogether, tennis didn't exclude female players or hold them to a different standard.

All of this helps to explain why tennis is unusually formal and why rules violations carry such stiff penalties. Now, let's find out what those rules are.

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Playing Tennis: Equipment Rules

Like most other sports, keeping the equipment needed for fair play to certain standards is crucial. Could you imagine if a Tour de France cyclist rode an e-bike in mountainous terrain while everyone else was furiously pedalling?

The same is true in tennis. Any piece of equipment that could give a player an edge over their opponents is strictly verboten and the main target of these rules is rackets.

You may play with a racket made of graphite or aluminium, even wood (if you feel particularly muscular) but its dimensions must conform to standard. it cannot be longer than 29 inches (73.66cm) including the handle, and it must be no wider than 12.5 inches (31.75cm). The racket head may be no longer than 15.5 inches long (39.37cm), with a maximum width of 11.25 inches (29.21cm).

Tennis balls come under less scrutiny because it would be hard to doctor a ball to gain any advantage. After all, your opponent will play with the same ball so anything that orb might do for you, it would also do for the other player(s). Nevertheless, there are size rules to consider: a diameter of between 2.5  and 2.63 inches is suitable for tournament play. Furthermore, it must weigh no more than 60 grams.

These days, as tennis balls are factory-made, their dimensions are less of a concern than when they were spheres of cork in a hand-sewn wrapping.

You can learn more about equipment rules in our beginner's guide to tennis; now, let's get to the rules for playing.

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Rules for Tennis: Serving

The primary rule for serving addresses where your feet should be as you serve: behind the baseline. In fact, if you so much as step on the line as you serve, whether by accident or on purpose, you will be charged with a foot fault.

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Don't put a foot on the baseline when serving
Your feet must stay well away from the baseline when serving. Photo by Sicong Li on Unsplash

Other foot faults you might incur while serving include:

  • changing your position on the court, either in a walk or run
  • adjusting your foot position is fine as long as it does not touch or cross the baseline
  • touching any part of your foot to the court, even unintentionally
  • stepping on or crossing the extended line of the sidelines
  • stepping on or crossing the centre mark's extended line

Note that some of these lines are not marked; the sideline and centre line extensions are imaginary. Still, you could suffer a penalty if you cross them, so it's best to remain firmly away from any lines, real and imagined, as you serve.

The server is chosen at the beginning of each game and they serve throughout the game. As in many sports, a coin toss determines who gets to serve. Unlike other racket games such as badminton and racquetball, the serve does not change sides during a game.

As for the process of serving, it begins with you standing perfectly still for a moment before tossing the ball in the air and swinging your racket to send it flying. Failure to not take that moment of stillness could cost you a point.

And here, I always thought tennis players were standing still to marshal their focus and strength.

Finally, if the ball touches the net or the posts, or your opponent is not ready to receive the serve, that is considered a let. You may serve a second time but beware that if that second serve does not result in play, you could lose a point.

Naturally, these rules are stringently upheld in tournaments; you probably won't have to worry about them so much during a friendly match with your mates... unless they're terribly competitive or mad at you.

Tennis Court Rules

Yes, there are even rules for tennis courts! Of course, you have nothing to do with the court's dimension unless you're building your own but there are still court rules you must heed.

You've surely noticed the lines that divide the centre-court into four sections, with the net bisecting the middle two.

If you're playing singles - you and your opponent, you will only play one half of the court, either to the right or the left of the centre line. However, if you're playing doubles, meaning you and a partner are playing against another pair, both sides of the court will be used.

So, if you're playing singles, you will stand on your chosen side of the centre line to serve and strive to hit on the diagonal, so that the ball flies across the centre line, to the side of the court your receiver is standing on.

And if you are building your own tennis court, the dimensions should be 78 feet (23.77m) long by 27 feet (8.23m) wide. We can't estimate how much it will cost for you to make your own court but we can tell you the cost of tennis lessons...

All tennis courts, no matter the surface, all have the same dimensions
Whether grass, clay or some hard material such as asphalt, tennis court dimensions remain the same. Photo by Gonzalo Facello on Unsplash

Rules of Wheelchair Tennis

As mentioned in this article's introduction, wheelchair tennis rules mirror standard tennis rules; the major difference is allowing the ball to bounce twice before hitting it. That doesn't mean that the wheelchair player must wait for the ball to bounce twice; they may hit it after the first bounce provided it is within the court boundaries.

If they hit on the second bounce, the ball may be either within the boundaries or outside of them.

Wheelchair tennis rules specify that the players' chairs are an extension of their bodies. Thus, they must take care to not let the ball hit their chair, just like ambulant tennis players may not allow the ball to hit any part of their bodies. Also, as a tennis player may not step on the baseline while serving, wheelchair tennis players may not encroach upon the line in any way.

Furthermore, wheelchair players may not change their location by spinning, rolling or any other means while serving. Likewise, they may not use their legs to brake their movement or stabilise themselves while serving. Finally, if conventional serving methods are impossible for quadriplegic players, an assistant may drop the ball for them to swing at.

Rules for wheelchair tennis vary slightly depending on whether the player is paraplegic or quadriplegic but, in all cases, players must present a medical diagnosis.

While some concessions are made for physical limitations, wheelchair tennis players are nevertheless held to the same standards as other players. Besides the regulations mentioned above - not part of their chair on the baseline and not allowing the ball to hit them or their chair, these players must keep at least one buttock in contact with their chair seat when striking the ball. Should a player fall out of their chair when returning the ball, the return is considered valid as long as they were in their chair when they struck the ball.

That's why you see so many wheelchair tennis players wearing some sort of harness to keep them in their chairs.

It's not uncommon for wheelchair tennis players to play against opponents who are not wheelchair-bound. In such matches, the two-bounce rule is rescinded; those wheelchair athletes must comply with the standard one-bounce rule.

The rules for tennis can be quite confusing but none so much as tennis scoring.

Some score keeping devices are simple and elegant like the one in the photo
The scorekeeping device mounted on the net post shows who won each set. Source: Wikipedia Credit: Kance

Tennis Scoring

If you're not at all familiar with tennis, you might be confused over love, deuces, advantages and ads. Considering how straightforward other sports' scoring systems are, you might think that tennis' is overly complicated but it only seems so until you get to know it.

0 - 0: both players start with love. Like football, hockey and other such sports, both sides start with zero but, unlike those other sports, tennis players must announce each side's score before serving. At the outset of a game, the announcement is simply 'love', representing both players' zero-scores.

If the server is first to win a point, meaning their opponent failed to return the ball, they will call out 15-love on the next serve. Conversely, if their opponent wins one, the server will call out love-15.

Remember that whichever player wins the serve serves the whole game. 

Now, both sides have earned a point; the server calls '15-all' before serving and, should the score be tied with each side having two points, the call  would be '30-all'. However, if they are tied at three points, the call is 'deuce' - not '40-all'.

Deuce is the ultimate point call no matter how many points the players score. What does it take to win a tennis game, then? If the score is deuce, two additional points are needed to end the game. That is where advantage (ads) comes in.

Let's say the server is really knocking it out; they're at ad, which means scoring one more point will win them the game. Their opponent just caught their second wind, though, and has just scored another point. That cost our server their advantage - the score reverts to deuce. Now, the fight is on to see who can score the additional two points to end the game.

Such an epic battle played out between Roger Federer and Andy Murray during the 2015 Men's semi-finals at Wimbledon. By the time the game finished - after seven deuces, both were completely knackered.

Fortunately, they'd had years to enjoy the benefits of playing tennis so they continued their match after a short rest.

How to Play Sets in Tennis

Those tennis superstars and their astounding endurance levels aside, most tennis players are quite happy to play the standard, best-of-three set. As that name implies, the first player to reach 40+1 wins the set. Doing so twice wins the match.

Things look a bit different in tournaments. Men's Grand Slam matches see the players challenged to best-of-five ordeals while Women's Grand Slam events maintain the best-of-three format. Doubles players remain at best-of-three with a 10-point tie-break instead of playing the third set.

Remember the formula: game, set, match.

Every time a player serves, they initiate a game that continues for as long as the ball flies back and forth over the net. A set is defined by one player winning six games and being ahead of their opponent by two points. A standard match comprises three such sets.

The most complex aspects of playing tennis are scoring and decorum.

Tennis rules specify that players can lose points for the most minimal infractions; such point losses can prolong their match. Thus, they internalise the rules of tennis; you should, too.

Now, find good tennis lessons near me here on Superprof.

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Sophia

A vagabond traveler whose first love is the written word, I advocate for continuous learning, cycling, and the joy only a beloved pet can bring. There is plenty else I am passionate about, but those three should do it, for now.