For a number of years, I had wanted to learn how to play tennis. The sport had always seemed like a great way to get some exercise while having fun. At the same time, some of the rules, court and equipment were a little intimidating to me.
The good news is that learning tennis isn’t difficult at all. Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can begin enjoying yourself on the courts in no time at all.
What is Tennis?
Tennis is a game played between either two people or two teams of two players each.
Tennis is played on a court which is divided in half by a net. Using racquets, players take turns attempting to hit a ball over the net onto the other player or team’s side of the court.
The first team unable to hit the ball back over to the other player or team’s side loses the point.
That’s a very basic outline of the game of tennis, but we’ll get much more in-depth as we proceed.
Let’s start out by covering the court on which the sport of tennis is played.
A regulation tennis court is 78 feet deep, and it cut in half by a net. The net stands 3 feet six inches high and is 36 feet wide.
A lined box delineates the bounds of the tennis court, and the largest box is 78 feet by 36 feet. There are also a number of lines drawing smaller boxes within the overall rectangle. We’ll cover those boxes and what they mean, too.
Singles Lines vs. Doubles Lines
Within the outer box of the court is a smaller inner rectangle. This rectangle runs the full 78 feet of depth but is only 29 feet in width.
This smaller box represents the playing surface for a singles game, while the larger box represents the playing surface for a doubles game. A singles game is a match between two people, while a doubles game is a match between two teams of two players each.
Two lines run parallel to the net, 21 feet away from the net on each side. These are the service lines. When a player is serving to start a given point, their serve must land in front of the service line on the opposite side of the court.
Additionally, a line divides the service area in half depth-wise, so that each service area on the two sides of the net is made up of two boxes of equal size.
Most tennis courts you’ll find in your local area are made up of what’s known as ‘hard court’. Hard courts are made up of a uniform substance, often topped with an acrylic surface. This makes the ball bounce evenly when it strikes the court.
You’ll also often find carpet courts, which are frequently used in indoor settings. Carpet courts are a surface which can be rolled out temporarily to form a tennis court and then removed when no longer needed.
Traditionally, two other surfaces used for tennis courts are clay and grass. Two of the biggest professional tennis tournaments in the world, Wimbledon and the French open, use grass and clay courts, respectively.
However, these courts aren’t commonly used by amateur players. They tend to be expensive to maintain, and don’t last as long as hard courts.
Basic Rules and Scoring
The rules of tennis are relatively simple once you get the hang of them. Scoring was a little bit more complicated for me when I first started playing. But that too is easy to get the hang of.
Let’s begin with the rules that govern winning or losing an individual point.
Hitting the Ball
First of all, let’s define a legal hit in tennis. The only way that a player can legally hit a tennis ball is with their racquet. It’s not legal to hit the ball with any other part of the player’s body, nor can you catch or carry the ball.
The ball may bounce a maximum of one time on your side of the court. If it bounces twice or more before you hit it, you have lost the point. It is legal to hit the ball before it has bounced at all, and in fact there are times when you may want to do this.
Once you hit the ball, it must travel over the net and land safely within the bounds of your opponent’s side of the court. If the ball flies out of those bounds and bounces, you have lost the point. Note that this is where the singles and doubles lines come into play – There’s more space on the court for legal shots in a doubles match.
It is legal for the ball to hit the top of the net and bounce over into your opponent’s side of the court. If this happens, the ball is live, and must be returned by the opponent. However, if you hit the ball directly into the net and it remains on your side, you have lost the point.
The first player who:
- Lets the ball bounce twice or more on their side of the court
- Hits the ball outside the bounds of the court
- Hits the ball onto their own side of the court
- Hits the ball directly into the net
Has lost the point.
Every regulation point in tennis begins with a serve. When playing casually, it’s not necessary to serve – You can just hit the ball over onto your opponent’s side of the court to begin playing. But if you’re keeping score and playing proper tennis, you begin with a serve.
To serve, a player stands behind the back line at their end of the court. They must be on either the left or the right side of center. They hit the ball so that it lands on the fly in the opposite side service box on their opponent’s side of the court.
In other words, if you’re serving from the left of center, your serve must fly over the net and land in the right-hand service box of your opponent’s. If the ball goes too far and lands past the service line, it’s a fault serve. If it lands in the same side service box (in this case, left-hand), it’s a fault serve.
A player who is serving does not lose the point with a fault serve. Instead, they get one more try to make a legal serve. If they make two fault serves in a row, they then lose the point.
Note that if the serve hits the top of the net and lands legally in the opponent’s service box, this is called a let. The serve is not considered legal, but the player is not punished with a fault. In effect, a let serve did not happen at all from a rules perspective.
Once the ball has been served legally, the opponent must hit it back over the net per the normal rules. And play continues until a player loses the point.
If you’re playing tennis casually or for exercise, you don’t even need to keep score at all. Tennis is a wonderful game to play without worrying about overall scoring. In fact, I frequently play it with friends without keeping any score. Each point is its own challenge and reward.
However, if you want to keep score, there’s a specific way to keep score in tennis. It breaks down to points, games, sets and matches. We’ll take a look at all of these in turn.
We’ve already covered the point. This is the basic unit of tennis scoring. When a player is unable to legally serve twice in a row, or either player isn’t able to return the ball legally, the other player or team gets a point.
The next unit of tennis scoring is the game. A game is made up of points. The first person to reach a certain number of points wins the game. The same person serves every point within a game.
This is one area that throws a lot of people off – Tennis games keep their score in a way that seems strange at first.
Instead of counting 0-1-2-3-4 and so on, tennis scores go: Love-15-30-40. On the surface, that looks pretty strange. But in the end, it just takes some getting used to.
Love means zero. If you haven’t won any points in the current game, your score is ‘Love’. If you win one point, your score is now 15. If you win a second, it’s 30. Win a third, and you’re up to 40. And if you win one more point, you win the game – Though there is an exception, which we’ll get to shortly.
A tennis score is stated as first the serving player’s score, then the returning player’s score. So, if the server has won 2 points and the returning player has won 3, the score would be ’30-40’. One way people like to say tennis scores to reduce confusion is ’30 serving 40’.
In order to win a game, you must have 2 more points than your opponent. If the score stands at 40-40, the next point would normally be the winner, but neither player would have two more than their opponent. This situation is known as a ‘Deuce’.
At Deuce, the individual scores no longer matter independently. The only thing that matters is who is ahead of the other. Deuce means that the two players have the same number of points. If one player then wins a point, that player has the ‘advantage’. If that same player wins the next point, they win the game. But if the other player wins, it goes right back to Deuce. A tennis game can go back and forth indefinitely if the scores remain within one of each other.
The next level of tennis scoring is the set. A set is made up of games, and the first player to win six games wins the set. Players alternate being the server from game to game.
Like with winning a game, players must win a set by two games. So, normally winning a sixth game wins you the set. But if the count was 5 games to 5 games won, that sixth win would not win the set. Play would continue until either a player wins by two games, or you reach 6-6.
At 6-6, a tiebreaker game is played. In a tiebreaker game, players take turns serving twice in a row, and the first person to win 6 games and by two games or more over their opponent wins the game. Winning a tiebreaker game wins the set by a final score of 7-6.
The final level in tennis scoring is a match. Matches are made up of sets, and are usually played as either best of 3 or best of 5. Men’s Championship matches are played as best of 5. Women’s Championship matches are played as best of 3.
With all this scoring, feel free to use as much or little of it as you choose. You can decide to play a Single Set match, in which the player who wins the first set wins. You can play a Half-Set match, in which the first player to win three games wins the set and match. Whatever fits your schedule and desire to play works.
At its simplest, all you need to play tennis is a racquet and a tennis ball. As long as you’ve got those and a free court, you can get out there and start having fun.
There are a number of other items that will make your experience a little more pleasant, though. We’ll review some tips and pointers for standard tennis equipment.
The most important piece of equipment for tennis is your tennis racquet. There are a huge variety of racquets out there, some costing hundreds of dollars or more.
The basic tradeoff with tennis racquets is power and accuracy versus surface area. What this means is that a racquet with a bigger surface area makes it easier to make contact with the ball. But a racquet with a smaller surface area generates more power and accuracy.
When I started out, I used a racquet with a large surface area. I recommend you do the same.
In theory, you could play tennis with just one ball over multiple sessions. But over time, tennis balls wear out. The biggest effect of a worn-out tennis ball is that they bounce less. In a perfect world, you want your tennis balls to bounce as much as possible.
This means you will probably want to rotate your tennis balls as you play. You can buy tennis balls in a variety of packs of different sizes. When a tennis ball gets to be less bouncy, rotate to a new one. Those old tennis balls make great dog toys.
Shoes & Socks
When you play tennis, you’re going to be moving sharply from side to side. Depending on how active you want to be, you may be dashing all over the court. A good pair of shoes should give you solid traction and be comfortable as you maneuver.
You can buy shoes specifically made for tennis, or you can get by with any shoe aimed at athletic activities. Read our full article on Choose the Right Tennis Shoes.
A good pair of tennis socks are also very important gear.
If you’re not already aware, tennis can be a major workout. And if you’re playing outdoors in the summer months especially, expect to sweat.
Make sure you wear breathable clothing that can stand up to a little perspiration. A pair of athletic shorts or a tennis skirt are excellent choices when playing tennis.
Read my post about What To Wear To Play Tennis.
When you play tennis outdoors and the sun is very dazzling. You need a good pair of sunglasses to protect your eyes.
Read our full article on the tennis bag checklist.
Once you’ve found a court, a playing partner and the right equipment, you’re ready to begin playing. In order to play tennis, you’ll need to master some basic skills.
The following are some of the fundamental skills and techniques needed to play tennis. We’ll start with the basic ways to hit the ball over the net.
Groundstroke vs. Volley
The first term we’ll cover is groundstrokes vs. volleys. A groundstroke is any shot in which you hit the ball after it has bounced on your side one time. In most tennis games, the majority of shots are going to be ground strokes.
A volley means hitting the ball back over the net before it has bounced once. Usually, you will only hit volleys if you are close to the net. The reason is that if you are standing toward the baseline and the ball still hasn’t bounced, it’s likely to be headed out of bounds. You should let those shots go, as you win the point.
When you first start out, you’ll probably be exclusively focusing on groundstrokes.
Forehand vs. Backhand
When hitting a tennis ball, you will want to angle your body slightly in the direction you’ll be hitting the ball. You never want to hit the ball as it approaches you directly – It should be slightly to the right of left of your center of mass.
If you hold your racquet in your right hand, this means you would need to swing across your body if the ball approaches on the left. And if it approaches on the right, you’d be swinging from to the side of your body.
Swinging across your body is known as a backhand shot, and swinging from the side of your body is a forehand.
Backhand shots are more difficult to execute than forehands, and so you should begin by practicing your forehand. Forehand groundstrokes are the foundation of the basic game of tennis.
When you first start out, you can use a simple forehand groundstroke for your serve. But as you improve, you may want to learn how to do a proper serve.
A proper serve is overhead – This means you’re throwing the ball over your head and then hitting down on it at its peak. An overhead serve is most powerful, and most difficult for your opponent to return. Don’t worry about a powerful overhead serve at first. You don’t need one to enjoy tennis. But it will help you play better as you grow more experienced.
Once you’ve become proficient at hitting the ball over the net with confidence, the next element to add to your game is spin. Putting spin on the ball means hitting the ball obliquely against the racquet face to cause the ball to behave in different ways.
The two primary kinds of spin are topspin and backspin. Topspin causes the ball to kick up higher in the air when it bounces. Backspin causes the ball to bounce lower when it hits the court. You can also impart side spin to the ball.
All these types of spin have various uses, and as you develop your game you’ll start to see how to use them.
Agility, Anticipation and Movement
Once you’ve mastered the basic act of hitting the tennis ball over the net, the next thing you need to do is get into position when your opponent hits it back.
Depending on your age, physical fitness level an athleticism, you will be able to travel different amounts of ground quickly. Being fast and quick helps a lot when it comes to retrieving and returning shots.
But another aspect of tennis is anticipation. Watching your opponent as they set up their shot and guessing where that shot is going to land before they hit it. Good anticipation can be more valuable than lightning quick reflexes.
Play Tennis Now
If you’ve read all of the above and want to get out there, the process of getting started is simple.
- Acquire the necessary equipment. That means a racquet and tennis ball at a minimum. Ideally, some appropriate shoes and clothes.
- Find a willing partner to play with. Any friend, family member or acquaintance will do. And there are tennis clubs where you can find partners if needed.
- Find an open court. Many cities and towns have free outdoor courts open to the public. If not, you can find a tennis club which offers courts. These are often indoors and outdoors, so you can play all times of the year.
- Meet up and start playing!
Make sure to take things slow when you first begin. It can be helpful to play with a more experienced player who can show you the ropes. But starting out as two beginners on the same level can be great as well.
Practice and Improve
Don’t worry if you struggle at first – I certainly did, and just about every beginner does. The biggest key to improving at tennis is simply playing as much as you’re able.
Through regular play, you’ll find yourself naturally improving in your accuracy as you hit the ball. You’ll also probably find yourself getting in better physical shape. That helps when chasing down your opponents’ shots.
If you want to improve more rapidly, you can focus on certain areas of the game.
Read more about Practice Tennis At Home Alone.
If you want to develop a strong serve, you may want to do some practice focused solely on serving. When practicing serving, you don’t even need a partner. Simply go to a tennis court and bring multiple balls. Practice your serve until you’ve used up all the balls, then go and retrieve them, and repeat as many times as you like.
There are a number of signature shots in tennis. These are strokes that have been shown to work in competitive tennis matches. Learning and mastering them will improve your overall skill.
The sliced backhand, the topspin lob, the drop shot and serve-and-volley are all proven tennis techniques that lead to victorious points if executed correctly.
You may want to research one of them, then spend time practicing it specifically as you play.
Another way to improve your tennis game is to become more physically fit. If you’ve got better cardiovascular health, you’ll be able to play longer and get to more returns. If you strengthen your arms and shoulders, you’ll be able to hit the ball harder.
Tennis is an outstanding source of physical activity and fun. You can play it as casually or competitively as you want, and it can be played just about anywhere in the world.
Learning the game can seem challenging at first, but it only takes a few sessions to understand the basics of the game. I hope you give tennis a try, and that this guide is helpful in mapping out your first steps.