The Rules of Tennis

How well do you know the rules of tennis? While many people have played at local courts, some of the finer points of the game get lost or confused in this informal setting. Can the ball hit the net on a serve? Which set of sidelines counts as an out? With this quick refresher, you'll be able to call the next televised Wimbeldon or US Open match like a pro.

Doubles and Singles
Tennis can be played a variety of different ways. There are men's and women's singles, men's and women's doubles and mixed doubles (one man and one woman). There is also wheelchair tennis. Singles games, both men's and women's, are the most popular on TV, although major tournaments always feature singles and doubles play.

Singles focuses more on moving your partner side to side in the back court. Doubles is about specific shots and strategy. Doubles also has a faster pace and is played at the net more, as opposed to the back court. Both singles and doubles games have the same scoring rules, but the court is larger for a doubles match.

Court Size and Net
Tennis tournaments can be played on grass, clay or concrete courts. Each type of court affects the performance of the ball and the movement of players. Running can be much more difficult on grass courts, concrete courts create a faster game and the ball tends to bounce more on clay courts. Amateur courts, like those found at local parks, are generally made of concrete for durability and ease of maintenance.

The regulation court size for singles games is 78 feet long and 27 feet wide. For doubles games, the court must be 78 feet long and 36 feet wide.

Lines determine legal plays in tennis. There are three baselines that are exactly 36 feet long, one at each end of the court and one in the center beneath the net. The center of the baselines at each end has a hash mark in the center, and players must serve to the left or right of this mark.

There are two sets of sidelines. The outer sidelines are doubles sidelines that determine what is out of bounds in doubles play. The inner sidelines are singles sidelines. In a singles game, all shots must land between the singles sidelines.

The area near the net is divided by two more sets of lines. The service lines are centered between the baselines on each side. The center service line runs between the service lines and the baseline beneath the net. When a player is serving, the ball must land inside the service lines on the side diagonally opposite the baseline hash mark; for example, if a player is serving on the right-hand side of the baseline, the serve must land inside the left-hand service lines on the opponent's side.

The net is the same for all forms of tennis. It should be exactly 36 inches in the middle and 42 inches at the net posts on the side of the court.

Choosing the First Server
A coin toss or racket toss is usually conducted to determine which player in a singles or doubles team goes first. The winner of the coin toss can serve first or allow the opponent to go first. If the winner declines the serve, he or she can choose which side of the court to play on first. The server is switched off after a game, and players switch sides on the court after a set.

Playing the Ball
The ball is hit back and forth by two or four players on the court. The ball may only be hit once, even in doubles, before it must go back over the net. Players can let the ball bounce once before they hit it, but this isn't required. If the ball bounces more than once, gets hit more than once, gets stopped by the net or lands out of bounds, the point goes to the opponent.

If any part of the ball touches the sidelines or baselines, it is a legal shot. For singles play, the ball must land on or inside the singles sidelines. Once the ball has been served, players are free to make shots from any part of the court.

Tennis matches consist of sets, which in turn consist of individual games. Generally, a tennis match is the best two out of three sets. In each set, there must be at least six games, with the winner of the set winning with six games and at least two more than their opponent (it is common to play to seven sets).

Points are scored at zero ("love"), 15, 30 and 40. A player must win four straight rallies to win the game, and the player must win by two points. If a player is ahead by 40 to 30, this is known as a break point, because the player who's ahead only needs one more point to win. If a player leads by 40 to 15, it's called a double break point.

If both players have exactly the same score, it is referred to as a deuce. One player must now win two consecutive rallies to win the game. When a player scores a point in deuce, that player has an advantage. If the opponent wins the next point, the score goes back to deuce. Deuce only occurs when both players are tied at 40 to 40.

The player who wins the serve will put the ball in play throughout an entire game. When the next game begins, the serve goes to the opponent, trading back and forth throughout the match.

The server must stand behind the baseline in the back court and to the proper side of the center hash mark in order to serve. The side changes after each point, so a player who serves to the right of the line for the first point must serve to the left for the second point, and so on.

The ball must go across the court, cross the net and land in the service box to be legal. The server must stay behind the baseline throughout the serve; if any part of the body touches or crosses the line, it is considered a fault.

If the ball fails to cross the net or lands outside the service box, it is also considered a fault. If a server has two faults called before putting the ball in play, a double fault is charged and a point is awarded to the opponent. The opponent must let the ball bounce once or the server gets a point. If the serve is legal and the opponent fails to return it, an ace is scored and the server gets a point.

A let serve occurs if the ball hits the net and bounces legally into the service box, or if a player serves before an opponent is ready to resume play. In both of these cases, no fault is charged to the server. In tournament play, a let may be called by the judges if crowd noise or thrown objects distract a player during a serve.

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