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Tennis balls
Tennis balls
This article is about the sport, tennis. For the video game, see Tennis (video game).

Tennis is a racquet sport played between either two players ("singles") or two teams of two players ("doubles"). Player(s) use a stringed racquet to strike a hollow rubber ball covered in felt over a net into the opponent's court. In some places, tennis is still called lawn tennis, to distinguish it from real tennis (also known as royal tennis or court tennis), an older form of the game that is played indoors on a very different kind of a court. Originating in England in the late 19th Century, the game spread first throughout the English-speaking world, particularly among the upper classes.

Tennis is now an Olympic sport that is played at all levels of society and by all ages in many countries around the world. Its rules have remained remarkably unchanged since the 1920s. Along with its millions of players, millions of people follow tennis as a spectator sport, especially the four Grand Slam tournaments.


Manner of play

The court

Main article: Tennis court
The dimensions of a tennis court, in feet.
The dimensions of a tennis court, in feet.

Tennis is played on a rectangular flat surface, usually of grass, clay, or concrete. The court is 78 feet (23.77 m) long, and its width is 27 feet (8.23 m) for singles matches and 36 feet (10.97 m) for doubles matches. Additional clear space around the court is required in order for players to reach overrun balls. A net is stretched across the full width of the court, parallel with the baselines, dividing it into two equal ends. The net is 3 feet 6 inches (1.07 m) high at the posts, and 3 feet (914 mm) high in the center.

There are three main types of courts, depending on the materials used for the court surface. Each surface provides a difference in the speed and bounce of the ball.

Hardcourt encompasses many different surfaces, ranging from old-fashioned concrete courts to coated asphalt to wooden gymnasium surfaces to artificial grass similar to AstroTurf.

Clay courts are considered "slow," meaning that the balls bounce relatively high and more slowly, making it more difficult for a player to hit an unreturnable shot. On clay courts, line calls are easily reviewable because the ball leaves a visible mark. Hardcourts and grass are "fast" surfaces, where fast, low bounces keep rallies short, and powerful, hard-serving players have an advantage. Grass courts add an additional variable, with bounces depending on how healthy the grass is and how recently it has been mowed. Of the major Grand Slam tournaments, the Australian Open and U.S. Open use hardcourts - though both originally used grass courts - the French Open is played on clay, and Wimbledon on grass.

Play of a single point

Main article: Play of a single point

The players (or teams) stand on opposite sides of the net. One player is designated the server, and the opposing player, or in doubles one of the opposing players, is the receiver. Service alternates between the two halves of the court.

For each point, the server stands behind his baseline, between the center mark and the sideline. The receiver may stand anywhere on his side of the net, usually behind the diagonally opposite service box. When the receiver is ready, the server will serve.

In a legal service, the ball travels over the net (without touching it) and into the diagonally opposite service court. If the ball hits the net but lands in the service court, this is a let service, which is void. If the first service is otherwise faulty in any way, the serving player has a second attempt at service. If the second service is also faulty, this is a double fault and the receiver wins the point.

A legal service starts a rally, in which the players alternate hitting the ball across the net. A legal return consists of the player or team hitting the ball exactly once before it has bounced twice or hit any fixtures. It then travels back over the net and bounces in the court on the opposite side. The first player or team to fail to make a legal return loses the point.


Main article: Tennis score

A tennis match usually comprises one to five sets. A set consists of a number of games, which in turn consist of points.

Matches consist of an odd number of multiple sets, the match winner being the player that wins more than half of the sets. The match ends as soon as this winning condition is met. Some matches may consist of five sets (the winner being the first to win three sets), while most matches are three sets (the winner being the first to win two sets).

A set consists of a sequence of games played with service alternating between games, ending when the count of games won meets certain criteria. Typically, a player wins a set when he wins at least six games and at least two games more than his opponent.

A game consists of a sequence of points played with the same player serving, and is won by the first player to have won at least four points and at least two points more than their opponent. The running score of each game is described in a manner particular to tennis: scores of zero to three points are described as "love" (or "zero"), "fifteen", "thirty", and "forty" respectively.

A game point occurs in tennis whenever the player who is in the lead in the game (the smallest unit of play) needs only one more point to win the game. The terminology is extended to sets (set point), matches (match point), and even championships (championship point). A break point occurs if the returner, not the server, has a game point. It is of importance in professionals since service breaks happen less frequently.

It may happen that the course of play has been such that the player who is in the lead in the game has more than one chance to score the winning point, even if their opponent should take the first point(s); this circumstance is called double game point (double set point, etc) and triple game point, as the case might be. Should the player in the lead take any one of those points, they win the game (set, etc).


In serious play there is an officiating chair umpire (usually referred to as the umpire), who sits in a raised chair to one side of the court. The umpire has absolute authority to determine matters of fact. The chair umpire may be assisted by line umpires, who determine whether the ball has landed within the required part of the court and who also call foot faults. There may also be a net umpire who determines whether the ball has touched the net during service.

Ball boys or girls (who are usually children) may be employed to retrieve balls, pass them to the players, and hand players their towels. They have no adjudicative role. The referee, who is usually located off the court, is the final authority on the rules.


A tennis match is intended to be continuous. Stamina is a relevant factor, so arbitrary delays are not permitted. In most cases, service is required to occur no more than 20 seconds after the end of the previous point. This is increased to 90 seconds when the players change ends (every two games), and a 120 second break is permitted between sets. Other than this, breaks are permitted only when forced by events beyond the players' control, such as rain, damaged footwear, or the need to chase an errant ball.

Balls wear out quickly in serious play, and therefore are changed after every nine games. The first such change occurs after only seven games, because the first set of balls is also used for the pre-match warm-up. Continuity of the balls' condition is considered part of the game, so if a re-warm-up is required after an extended break in play (usually due to rain) then the re-warm-up is done using a separate set of balls, and use of the match balls is resumed only when play resumes.

Wheelchair tennis can be played by able-bodied players as well as people who require a wheelchair for mobility. The use of legs or feet is then prohibited, and the player is required to remain seated in the wheelchair. There is an exception for those who are only able to propel themselves using a foot. In wheelchair tennis, in which the players move in wheelchairs instead of using legs, an extra bounce is permitted. This rule makes it possible to have mixed wheelchair and legs matches. It is possible for a doubles team to consist of a wheelchair user and a legs user, or for a wheelchair user to play against a legs user. In such cases, the extra bounce is permitted for the wheelchair users only.

Another tennis format is called "Canadian doubles". This involves three players, with one person playing against a doubles team. For the single person, single court rules apply (such that the ball must be within the singles court lines) but on the side of the doubles team, doubles court rules apply (the alleys are considered in). The scoring is the same as a regular game.


A competent tennis player has eight basic shots in his or her repertoire: the serve, forehand, backhand, volley, half-volley, overhead smash, drop shot, and lob.


Main article: Serve

A serve (or, more formally, a service) in tennis is a shot to start a point. The serve is initiated by tossing the ball into the air and hitting it (usually near the apex of its trajectory) into the diagonally opposite service box without touching the net. The server may employ different types of serve: a flat, a top-spin, an American twist (or kick), a reverse spin, or a slice serve. A reverse spin serve is hit in a manner that spins the ball opposite the natural spin of the server, the spin direction depending upon right- or left-handedness, while a severely sliced serve is sometimes called a sidespin. Some servers are content to use the serve simply to initiate the point; advanced players often try to hit a winning shot with their serve. A winning serve that is not touched by the opponent is called an ace.


Main article: Forehand

The forehand is made by swinging the racquet across one's body in the direction of where the player wants to place the shot. It is considered the easiest shot to master, perhaps because it is the most natural stroke. Beginners and advanced players often have better forehands than any other shots and use it as a weapon.

There are various grips for executing the forehand and their popularity has fluctuated over the years. The most important ones are the Continental, the Eastern, and the Western. For a number of years the small, apparently frail 1920s player Bill Johnston was considered by many to have had the best forehand of all time, a stroke that he hit shoulder-high using a western grip. Few top players used the western grip after the 1920s, but in the latter part of the 20th century, as shot-making techniques and equipment changed radically, the western forehand made a strong comeback and is now used by many modern players. No matter which grip is used, most forehands are generally executed with one hand holding the racquet, but there have been fine players with two-handed forehands. In the 1940s and 50s the Ecuadorian/American player Pancho Segura used a two-handed forehand to devastating effect against larger, more powerful players, and many female and young players use the two-handed stroke today.

The correct way to hit a forehand is to hold the racquet above the height of the ball in the begining of the backswing. Then you drop it below the height of the ball with the face closed. At this point you relax and then start to accelerate. The contact point should be one elbow's length away from your shoulder. You then accelerate through the shot through contact over the shoulder.


Main article: Backhand
Andre Agassi, a right-handed player, hits a solid backhand using a two-handed grip
Andre Agassi, a right-handed player, hits a solid backhand using a two-handed grip

The backhand, which is struck by swinging the racquet away from one's body in the direction of where the player wants the ball to go, is generally considered more difficult to master than the forehand. It can be executed with either one or both hands. For most of the 20th Century it was performed with one hand, using either an eastern or a continental grip. The first notable players to use two hands were the 1930s Australians Vivian McGrath and John Bromwich. The two-handed grip gained popularity in the 1970s as Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors used it to great effect, and it is now used by a large number of the world's best players, including Andre Agassi and the Williams sisters. Two hands give the player more power, while one hand can generate a slice shot, applying backspin on the ball to produce a low trajectory bounce. The player long considered to have had the best backhand of all time, Don Budge, had a very powerful one-handed stroke in the 1930s and '40s that imparted topspin onto the ball. Ken Rosewall, another player noted for his one-handed backhand, used a deadly accurate slice backhand with underspin through the 1950s and '60s. A small number of players, notably Monica Seles, use two hands on both the backhand and forehand sides.

Other shots

A volley is made in the air before the ball bounces, generally near the net, and is usually made with a stiff-wristed punching motion to hit the ball into an open area of the opponent's court. The half-volley is made by hitting the ball on the rise just after it has bounced, once again generally in the vicinity of the net. From a poor defensive position on the baseline, the lob can be used as either an offensive or defensive weapon, hitting the ball high and deep into the opponent's court to either enable the lobber to get into better defensive position or to win the point outright by hitting it over the opponent's head. If the lob is not hit deeply enough into the other court, however, the opponent may then hit an overhead smash, a hard, serve-like shot, to try to end the point. A moonball is a purely defensive shot, similar to a lob but on a slightly lower trajectory, designed to hit near the opponent's baseline and keep the rally going. Finally, if an opponent is deep in his court, a player may suddenly employ an unexpected drop shot, softly tapping the ball just over the net so that the opponent is unable to run in fast enough to retrieve it.


Tournaments are often organized by gender and number of players. Common tournament configurations include men's singles, women's singles, doubles (where two players of the same sex play on each side), and mixed doubles (with a member of each sex per side). Tournaments may be arranged for for specific age groups, with upper age limits for youth and lower age limits for senior players. There are also tournaments for handicapped players. In the four grand slams, the draw (the maximum number of players allowed in a particular category of the tournament) is 128 people.

Players may also be matched by their skill level. According to how well a person does in sanctioned play, he or she is given a rating (examples from the U.S. system called the National Tennis Rating Program (NTRP): 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, 4.5, etc.) which is adjusted periodically to maintain competitive matches.


Tennis has a long history (deriving from the 'jeu de paume'), but its establishment as the modern sport can be dated to two separate roots. In 1859 Major Thomas Henry Gem, a solicitor, and his friend Batista Pereira, a Spanish merchant, who both lived in Birmingham, England played a game they named "pelota", after a Spanish ball game. The game was played on a lawn in Edgbaston. In 1872 both men moved to Leamington Spa, and with two doctors from the Warneford Hospital, played pelota on the lawn behind the Manor House Hotel (now residential apartments). Pereira joined with Dr. Frederick Haynes and Dr. A. Wellesley Tomkins to found the first lawn tennis club in the world, and played the game on nearby lawns. In 1874 they formed the Leamington Tennis Club, setting out the original rules of the game. The Courier of 23 July 1884 recorded one of the first tennis tournaments, held in the grounds of Shrubland Hall (demolished 1948).

In December 1873, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield devised a similar game for the amusement of his guests at a garden party on his estate at Nantclwyd, Wales. He based the game on the older sport of indoor tennis or real tennis ("royal tennis"), which had been invented in 12th century France and was played by French aristocrats down to the time of the French Revolution.

According to most tennis historians, modern tennis terminology also derives from this period, as Wingfield borrowed both the name and much of the French vocabulary of royal tennis and applied them to his new game:

  • Tennis comes from the French tenez, the imperative form of the verb tenir, to hold: This was a cry used by the player serving in royal tennis, meaning "I am about to serve!" (rather like the cry "Fore!" in golf).
  • Racquet comes from raquette, which derives from the Arabic rakhat, meaning the palm of the hand.
  • Deuce comes from à deux le jeu, meaning "to both is the game" (that is, the two players have equal scores).
  • Love may come from l'oeuf, the egg, a reference to the egg-shaped zero symbol; however, since "un oeuf" is more commonly used, the etymology remains in question.
  • The convention of numbering scores "15," "30" and "40" comes from quinze, trente and quarante, which to French ears makes a euphonious sequence.

Seeing the commercial potential of the game, Wingfield patented it in 1874, but never succeeded in enforcing his patent. Tennis spread rapidly among the leisured classes in Britain and the United States. It was first played in the U.S. at the home of Mary Ewing Outerbridge on Staten Island, New York in 1874.

In 1881 the desire to play tennis competitively led to the establishment of tennis clubs. The first championships at Wimbledon, in London were played in 1877. In 1881 the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (now the United States Tennis Association) was formed to standardize the rules and organize competitions. The comprehensive I.L.T.F. rules promulgated in 1924 have remained remarkably stable in the ensuing eighty years, the one major change being the addition of the tie-breaker system designed by James van Alen. U.S. National Men's Singles Championship, now the U.S. Open, was first held in 1881 at Newport, Rhode Island. The U.S. National Women's Singles Championships were first held in 1887. The Davis Cup, an annual competition between national teams, dates to 1900.

Tennis was for many years predominantly a sport of the English-speaking world, dominated by the United States, Britain and Australia. It was also popular in France, where the French Open dates to 1891. Thus Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the French Open and the Australian Open (dating to 1905) became and have remained the most prestigious events in tennis. Together these four events are called the Grand Slam (a term borrowed from bridge). Winning the Grand Slam, by capturing these four titles in one calendar year, is the highest ambition of most tennis players.

In 1926 promoter C.C. ("Cash and Carry") Pyle established the first professional tennis tour with a group of American and French tennis players playing exhibition matches to paying audiences. The most notable of these early professionals were the American Vinnie Richards and the Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen. For 42 years professional and amateur tennis remained strictly separate. Once a player turned pro he or she could not compete in the major (amateur) tournaments. In 1968, commercial pressures led to the abandonment of this distinction, inaugurating the Open era, in which all players could compete in all tournaments, and top players were able to make their living from tennis.

With the beginning of the Open era, the establishment of an international professional tennis circuit, and revenues from the sale of television rights, tennis has spread all over the world and has lost its upper-class English-speaking image. Since the 1970s great champions have emerged from Germany (Boris Becker, Steffi Graf), the former Czechoslovakia (Ivan Lendl, Martina Navratilova, and Hana Mandlikova), Sweden (Björn Borg, Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander), Brazil (Gustavo Kuerten), Russia (Yevgeny Kafelnikov and Marat Safin), Belgium (Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin-Hardenne), Switzerland (Martina Hingis and Roger Federer) and from many other countries.

In 1954 James Van Alen founded the International Tennis Hall of Fame, a non-profit museum in Newport, Rhode Island. The building contains a large collection of tennis memorabilia as well as a hall of fame honoring prominent members and tennis players from all over the world. Each year, a grass-court tournament is hosted on the grounds that are home to the Tennis Hall of Fame, as well as an induction ceremony honoring new Hall of Fame members.

Great players

Many great players played in the days before tennis's Open era, many of whom are unknown by modern sports fans. Among them are "Big Bill" Tilden, Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry, Don Budge, Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer, Pancho Segura, Frank Sedgman, Pancho Gonzales, Ken Rosewall, and Lew Hoad. Any one of these eleven would probably be competitive in today's game. Other fine players of the pre-Open era include Maurice McLoughlin, "Little Bill" Johnston, the "Four Musketeers" (Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet, and René Lacoste), Vinnie Richards, Jack Crawford, Vic Seixas, and Tony Trabert. Among women the top two pre-Open era players are considered to be Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills Moody.

Among the greatest male players of the Open era are Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, John Newcombe, Stan Smith, Arthur Ashe, Björn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Mats Wilander, Boris Becker, Stefan Edberg,Goran Ivanišević, Jim Courier, Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Michael Chang, Lleyton Hewitt, and Roger Federer. Among the women are Margaret Smith Court, Billie Jean King, Evonne Goolagong, Chris Evert, Hana Mandlikova, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Arantxa Sánchez Vicario, Monica Seles, Martina Hingis, Lindsay Davenport, Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Maria Sharapova, Kim Clijsters, and Justine Henin-Hardenne.

Until the mid-1950s, Bill Tilden was generally considered the greatest player ever, his only rivals being Vines, Budge, and Kramer. In the later 1950s many thought Pancho Gonzales had claimed that title. Since then, champions of the Open era, first Laver, then Borg and McEnroe, followed by Sampras and now Roger Federer, have been considered the best ever. Even among experts, no consensus exists.1 Among the women, Lenglen and Wills-Moody vie with several modern players for the same distinction.


  • Kramer himself, for instance, who became a world-class player in 1940 and promoted the professional tour for many years, still believes that Vines was the greatest player ever. He has also stated that Gonzales was better than either Laver or Sampras.
  • John McEnroe believed that Pete Sampras was the greatest of all time until Roger Federer started dominating. McEnroe now gives that title to Federer.

See also

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