If you’re new to the game of tennis, one of the first and most important things you can learn is the tennis scoring system. You’ve probably watched different tennis matches on TV where you would hear the commentators say phrases like “love-15,” “deuce” or “break point,” and to an untrained ear, none of it seems to make much sense. Tennis scoring terminology can seem a little convoluted at first, but all it takes is a little getting used to, and after a while it will seem like second nature to you. Below is a basic primer on tennis scoring rules to help you sharpen your knowledge of the game.
The Big Picture
You may have heard the phrase “Game, set, match” before; it’s a common idiom that means winning a decisive victory, or simply, “I win.” But more than just declaring the winner, this phrase actually explains the basic structure of the tennis scoring system:
- It takes four points to win a game
- It takes six games to win a set
- It takes two (and sometimes three) sets to win a match
Starting the Game
The way to start the tennis game is to determine who will serve first. This is usually done by either flipping a coin or spinning a racket. The person who wins the toss gets to choose one of the following four options:
- To serve first
- To allow the other player to serve first
- To choose which side of the court they want to start on
- To leave the choices up to the other player
If Player A wins the toss and chooses to serve, then Player B gets to choose which side of the court he/she will start on. Player A will serve for the entire game, and then once that game is over, serving privileges move to Player B. One of the critical events that can happen during a match is known as “breaking serve” (a.k.a. “service break”), which means that the receiving player wins a game instead of the serving player. Since it is more common (especially in professional tennis) for the serving player to win a game, service breaks are typically very key moments in a tennis match.
Playing the Game
To serve, you can stand anywhere behind the baseline from the center mark to the right singles sideline. Your serve must clear the net and land in the service box that is diagonally opposite your position; if it doesn’t, this is known as a “fault.” If you miss both serves, this is considered to be a “double fault,” which will cause you to lose the point. If the serve grazes the net but still falls into your opponent’s service box, this is called a “let,” which basically means that it doesn’t count, and you get a do-over.
If your serve is successful, the ball is allowed to bounce no more than one time before it has to be returned by the opposing player. You will then return your opponent’s shot after no more than one bounce, and this back-and-forth action will continue until either you or your opponent misses, which usually happens one of three ways:
- The ball goes into the net
- The ball goes out of bounds, or
- A player fails to make contact with the ball. If your opponent misses, you get the point, but if you miss, your opponent gets the point.
Scoring the Game
- Each player starts at zero, which is called “love” in tennis. Before each point is played, it’s customary for the serving player (or an announcer in organized matches) to announce the score. For example, if you have zero and your opponent has 15, you would announce the score by saying “Love-15.”
- There are really only four points in one game of tennis, but they are scored in an interesting manner. After starting at “love,” you go up to 15, then 30, then 40, then game point.
- A player must win by a two-point advantage. For example, the score can be 40-love, but the server must still win the very next point to win the game. If the score is 40-love and the receiving player wins the very next point, the score will then be 40-15 and the server must try for the two-point advantage again.
- When the score is tied at 40-40, this scenario is known as “deuce.” The two-point advantage rule still applies at deuce, so a player must score two consecutive points back-to-back in order to win the game. If the player fails to do this, the score reverts back to deuce. This rule is why some tennis matches can last for three or more hours.
- If the server won the first point after deuce has been announced, this is known as “Advantage In” or “Ad In.” If the receiving player won the first point after deuce has been announced, this is known as “Advantage Out” or “Ad Out.”
- After the game is over, the other player will serve. After every odd-numbered game (e.g., 1, 3, 5), players will switch sides on the court.
- The first player to win six games wins the set. The first player to win two sets (best 2 out of 3) wins the match.
As you can see, all it takes is a little bit of basic information to understand the tennis scoring system. Keep the above rules in mind the next time you watch a match on TV, and you’ll be able to follow the game that much easier. Then, bring your new knowledge with you to the court and try your own hand at “game, set, match!”