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Sports & Games

How to Play Tennis: The Beginner’s Guide to Tennis

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Sep 16, 2020 • 9 min read

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Whether you’re a tennis beginner or an advanced player, tennis is a physically taxing sport that requires every muscle group of your body working in tandem for long periods. Tennis is also a mental game, requiring players to think quickly and decide which is the best shot they’re going to use to win the point. The more you practice the tennis fundamentals, the more you can hone your abilities as a tennis player and improve your game exponentially.

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Why Play Tennis?

Playing tennis provides many benefits to both your mind and body. It improves your hand-eye coordination, balance, and agility. Like most rigorous physical activity, the footwork and upper body movement involved in tennis can help keep you healthy and in shape and reduce stress. Tennis techniques require quick thinking and strategizing, improving your problem-solving skills and critical thinking—like when to time your split-step from the ready position, how to shift your body weight, when to hit cross-court or down the line, or when to go for an overhead smash.

Along with these benefits, tennis requires at least two players for a match, which means it also trains your social skills, and if you’re playing doubles, your teamwork skills.

What Equipment Do You Need to Play Tennis?

The only equipment you need to play a tennis match is a tennis racket, tennis shoes, a tennis ball, and a tennis court with a regulation net. Your racket head and grip should be the right size and weight for your skill level so you can wield it easily. Your shoes should provide enough lateral support to prevent rolling your ankles during side-to-side movements (running shoes are not recommended). For some tennis clubs, a specific dress code might be required. You may also elect to wear fabric wristbands and headbands to keep the sweat out of your eyes and off of your overgrip.

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What Are the Basic Rules of Tennis?

Even if you’ve both geared up and warmed up, you still need to know all the tennis basics before you step onto the court and play. You can use any combination of tennis grips (like the Semi-Western or Continental grip) and moves like drop shots, lobs, backhand volleys, or forehand strokes to try and win each point. However, learning all the fundamentals of tennis is imperative to play your best tennis:

  • Keep it inside the lines. For singles tennis, the serve must always land over the net, and within the opponent’s opposite service box (the box on either side of the center mark at the service line, also known as the “T”). If the ball hits the net and still lands in the proper service box, it’s called a “let,” and the server gets to start over from the first serve again. Even if the ball technically lands outside the box, as long as any part of it still touches the line, it is still in-play. During a rally, the ball must stay within the singles court boundaries, which are the inner sidelines. For doubles tennis, the outer alleys are in-play. However, most beginner players won’t have a line judge present, so they must call the ball out or raise their finger if the ball lands outside the lines.
  • Keep score. Tennis has a unique scoring system, and it’s important to keep track of your points to determine who will win (and which side you should be serving from). The server always says their score first, even if it is lower than their opponent’s. For example, if the server loses the first three points in a row, the score is love-40.
  • Avoid touching the net. You can rush the net and perform any volleying maneuver you like. However, if any part of you or your racket physically touches the net at any time during a point, you automatically lose. The net is the equal divider between both sides, and any alteration to its positioning, even accidental, is not allowed.
  • Hold onto your racket. Your racket must stay in your hands at all times. If you drop or throw the racket at the ball, you will lose the point. You can only return the ball with your racket and no other part of your body. However, the ball doesn’t necessarily have to touch the racket face—it’s still in-play even if it hits the handle or triangle as well.
  • Hit the ball after one bounce. Once the ball bounces twice, the point is over. Similarly, you can only hit the ball once as well. Even if you clip the ball and it lands in front of you again, the point is over if the ball doesn’t reach your opponent’s side.
  • A ball in the air is a ball in play. Even if your opponent is well behind the baseline in “out” territory, if they make contact with the ball or it hits a part of their body before the bounce, it’s still in-play. A ball can’t be called until it bounces.
  • Win by two. Both games and points must be won by two in a tennis match. In the event of a tie, where both players each win six games in a set resulting in a score of 6-6, a tiebreak is introduced. This is where players must face off in a seven-point mini-match. The players switch sides after each serve point, and the end of the court when the sum of the points equals six or multiples thereof. The first player to reach seven points (leading by two) wins. If the tiebreaker occurs in the last set, the points are instead played first to 10, and the winning player must still win by two points.

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How Does Scoring Work in Tennis?

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Part of learning the basics of tennis involves knowing how to keep score. Tennis scoring seems confusing at first but is relatively simple once you get the hang of it. There are six games in a set, and most sets are played best out of three (unless it is men’s professional tennis, in which case the sets are best out of five). Players must win each set by two games. Here’s how the tennis scoring system works:

  • The game starts at love. Each game starts out at 0-0, or “love,” increasing to 15, then 30, then 40 for each point scored. For example, if both players each win one point in the game, it is 15-15, or 15-all.
  • The server’s score is announced first. Only one player serves per game, and always starts on the right side of the court, alternating sides each point. At the end of the game, the players switch turns serving, and on every odd game, they’ll switch the end of the court they play on. The server’s score is always announced first (so if the server wins the first point of the game and the following point, the score is 30-love).
  • Enter the ad-phase. If each player wins enough points to get the score to 40-40 (also known as a deuce or 40-all), they enter the “ad phase.” Since every game must be won by two points, one player must score two points in a row. If the server wins the first point after the deuce, the score becomes advantage-in (ad-in).
  • Win or go back to deuce. Winning the next point wins the game for the server, but losing the point will return the game score back to deuce, in which case the server must try to win two consecutive points again.
  • Ad-out triggers a must-win situation. If the server loses the first point after deuce, the score becomes advantage-out (ad-out), and they must then win the next three points in succession—the first point returns the score to deuce, and then two more points to win the game.
  • No-ad scoring speeds up the pace. According to the official tennis rules, if you prefer to play a quicker game, “no-ad scoring” is also acceptable. If you and the opposing player elect to play that way, 40-40/deuce becomes the game point, so the first person to win the next point wins the game.

How to Play Tennis

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If you’ve been practicing with a friend or tennis coach, and think your tennis skills are ready to play a real match, check out the steps below:

  1. Decide who serves first. A coin toss or racket spin is a good way to decide who should serve first. Since the tennis serve is an inherent advantage to the player serving, it is only fair to let chance determine who will get to. Once you determine who serves, the server only has two opportunities to get the ball in. Should they hit it out, into the net, or step on the line while serving, it is considered a fault. Failing to land your second serve will result in a double fault, and the loss of the point.
  2. Alternate serving sides. The first serve of each game starts on the right side of the court, also known as the “deuce side” of the court. The next point comes from the left side, also known as the “ad court” (short for “advantage”). Serve sides are always alternated, and unless you’re doing a second serve, you should never serve from the same side twice in a row.
  3. Use your arsenal. Whether you use your left hand or right hand, your forehand and backhand groundstrokes will be instrumental in winning points, along with your serve. Be sure to play to your strengths (for example, if you’re a player whose backhand is stronger than their forehand, try to maneuver your footwork around down the middle balls so you can hit more of them).
  4. Use your mind. You’ll have to make quick decisions as to which tennis strokes you’re going to use—like whether to stay at the baseline with your basic strokes or serve and volley, how much topspin to use, or whether you attempt a winner or try to keep the ball in play longer to push the opposing player to make an unforced error.
  5. Change playing sides on the odd games. Having equal conditions for each player contributes to a fair game; this is especially true for outdoor courts. The sun and the wind can be major factors when playing tennis, and certain sides of the court may be more affected than others. When the sum of the games is an odd number, the players switch sides (for example, 1-0, 3-2, 5-0, etc.). This means that the players will always switch after the first game, and then after every two games after that.
  6. Be prepared for a tiebreak. Sometimes, each player wins an equal amount of games, bringing the score to 6-6. In that case, the players enter a tiebreak, which is played out of seven points, and must also be won by two. An example of a game score with a tiebreak would be 7-6 (to represent the games) and 7-5 (to represent the tiebreak points).

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