At a recreational level, tennis is a fun way to keep fit, meet new people and catch up with old ones. At a professional level, tennis is a fast-paced trial of skill and nerve with huge rewards for those who can make it to the top.
Finding a place to play
If you want to play tennis, then you’ll need to find a tennis court. The Lawn Tennis Association has extensive listings, including places you can play for free. You could also have a look on the internet or just ask around your local area for venues.
The layout of a tennis court
Although tennis courts can have different surfaces, the basic layout is the same. The dimensions were created in the days of feet, when they made sense. A court is 78 feet long and either 27 feet or 36 feet wide depending on whether you are playing singles or doubles. In modern terms that’s 23.77M by 8.23M or 10.97M.
The outside edges of the court are marked by lines. The vertical lines are known as the (doubles) sidelines and the horizontal lines are known as the baselines.
The net is strung across the court at the halfway point at a height of 3 feet 6 inches (1.07 metres) at the posts, and 3 feet (0.91 metres) in the centre.
There are two lines running the full length of the court, each line is 4’6” (1.37M). These are the singles sidelines and the space in between them is known as the doubles alley. Basically this is space which is considered part of the court in a doubles game but not a singles game.
There are two lines running horizontally across the court, each 21 feet (6.4M) from the net. These are known as the service lines, because a serve must land behind them (i.e. between the service line and the baseline) in order to be legal.
The area between the baseline and the service line is known as the back court (or No Man’s Land).
The two service lines are connected by a vertical line which runs down the exact centre of the court. This is known as the centre service line. It creates two boxes by the net. The one on the player’s left is known as the advantage service box (generally called the ad court) and the one on the player’s right is known deuce service box (generally called the deuce court). These are the places to serve/receive for an advantage/deuce point. We’ll explain these later when we get to rules, scoring and gameplay.
There is a centre mark on the baseline, which, as its name suggests, is not really a line, just a point marked on the court to show where the centre is.
The basic rules, scoring and gameplay of tennis
Players toss a coin to decide who serves first. The serving player must stand completely behind the baseline and must be on one or other side of the court (i.e. not on the centre mark). They must land the ball behind the opponent’s service line and one the diagonally-opposite side of the court (i.e. the other side of the centre mark).
If the server hits the ball so that it clips the net in flight but still reaches the service area, then they are permitted to take the service again without any penalty and, in principle may continue to do so for as long as they need. If their first service fails to reach the service area at all then it is discounted and they are given a second service. If their second service also fails to reach the service area, then this is considered a fault and they lose the point.
The receiving player aims to return the ball before it bounces twice. They must send it over the net, but keep it within the designated playing lines. For as long as players are able to do this, the game continues (this is called a rally). When a player either fails to return the ball or returns it in a way that it goes out of the designated playing area, then their opponent wins the point.
Scoring in tennis is quite unusual. Matches are divided into sets, which are further divided into games, which is why every tennis player loves the phrase “Game, set, match X” because it means they’ve won.
Men’s matches last up to five sets and women’s matches last up to three sets. Mixed-doubles matches also last up to three sets. Men can win their games by winning three sets and women/mixed-doubles players can win their game by winning two sets.
Sets are typically played to 6 games, although they can go further if the players are tied at five games each, then a player has to win two consecutive games to take the set and if they are ties at six games each then a tie is played.
Games have an interesting scoring system, but essentially players need to win at least four points to win a match and each point has a “special” name
- 0 = "love"
- 1 = "15"
- 2 = "30"
- 3 = "40"
- 4 = Game
Scores are given for the server and then the receiver. So if a server wins the first point, the score will be 1/0 or 15/love. If the receiver wins it will be 0/1 or love/15.
There are, however a couple of quirks to this.
If a game reaches 3/3 it is called as “deuce” and one of the players then has to take two consecutive points to win. The player who takes the next point is said to have the “advantage” and if they win the next point they take the game, but if they don’t it goes back to deuce and continues deuce/advantage until one player takes the game.
Getting kitted out for tennis
The first requirement of a good pair of tennis shoes is that they fit to perfection. The second requirement of a good pair of tennis shoes is that they have outstanding lateral support to keep you protected through all the directional changes you’ll be making. Running shoes have zero lateral support and as such are a horrendous choice for tennis. If you already have basketball shoes, they will probably be OK for beginners but if you decide to proceed with the game then you’ll want a proper pair of tennis shoes as soon as possible.
When buying tennis shoes remember that there are different types of shoes for different surfaces so be sure to get the right one(s) for the surface(s) on which you’ll be playing. You don’t have to go for the super-premium brands, but it is a good idea to go for a style with a removable insole as swapping out the provided insole with a better one is an easy and affordable upgrade which can really add to your comfort.
It’s a good idea to try out your first pair of tennis shoes in the real world so you can literally feel how well they suit your feet (not your coach’s or your friend’s or your favourite tennis star’s, yours).
Your main “investment purchase” will be your racquet. These can be bought very affordably from high-street retailers, but if you’re at all interested in taking the game seriously, then it’s worth spending some money on a decent one. You don’t have to go crazy.
A smart approach is to look for a racquet which was top-of-the-range between one and three years ago. This will still be pretty good, certainly more than adequate for a beginner, but much more affordable than buying one from the latest season.
You could look at pre-loved racquets and there are certainly some good bargains to be had here, but in the pre-loved market, the onus is on the buyer to make sure that they are happy with their purchase, so if you’re new to the sport, you might want to enlist the help of someone more knowledgeable before looking on the pre-loved market.
Keep in mind that all racquet will need to be restrung from time to time, how often this will be will depend partly on the strings you use and partly on how often you play.
Last but not least, you’ll need plenty of tennis balls as they, literally, take a pounding and hence have a fairly short lifespan.
Getting to grips with the game
Before you start learning tennis, there are two things you really need to know.
Firstly, professional tennis players are some of the fittest athletes around. As a recreational player, you don’t need to be nearly that fit, but assuming you’re playing the standard version of tennis, you do need to be able to get around the court at speed so it definitely helps to be fairly fit to begin with.
For the sake of completeness, there are versions of tennis which are suitable for those who are unable to zoom around the court, such as disability tennis.
Secondly, tennis is a very technical game, which means it can have a bit of a challenging learning curve. If you’ve never played before, in all honesty, you will probably find yourself struggling to begin with, even if you’ve played other racket sports. This is why it can be massively helpful to have a coach to begin with, plus it will stop you getting into bad habits.
This second point is really important because getting the technicalities of the movements spot on is one of the three main keys to avoiding injuries. The other two are to make sure to warm up completely before every match, even ones you are just playing for fun and to make sure you are wearing a good pair of tennis shoes.
Once you get past this first, very challenging, stage you’ll probably find that you make very good progress for a while and then start to plateau. This is completely normal and you will continue to improve, just at a slower rate.
Realistically, most beginners are going to need at least three months of regular lessons and practice before they start to be able to hold their own and for some people it may take a bit longer. Once you get there, which you will, you’ll be able to start playing proper games and then everything will become a whole lot more fun.
On the plus side, this early slog will stand you in good stead later as tennis is as much a mental game as it is a physical one and having the will to win really matters.
The basic movements of tennis
The basic movements of tennis are called strokes and there are between four and six of them, depending on your point of view. These are: serve, backhand (groundstroke and volley) forehand (groundstroke and volley) and the overhead smash. That’s it.
Serves get the ball into play (and may win you a point if your opponent can’t return the ball. This is called “serving an ace”).
Groundstrokes are strokes which are delivered once the ball has bounced. These days they are the bread-and-butter strokes of tennis. They are usually performed from the baseline, but in principle, they can be performed from anywhere on the court.
Volleys are strokes which are hit while the ball is still in the air, in other words, before it bounces. Volleys are typically played from close to the net. Technically this is not a requirement, but in practical terms it would be almost impossible to hit them from anywhere else.
Overhead smashes, or just smashes, are pretty much what their name suggests. They are played from above a player’s head (the player may even jump to hit them) and tend to look a bit like the service stroke, although they are played to return the ball rather than get it into play.
While these strokes may look as though it comes from the arm, in actual fact, they all start from a player’s feet and then come up through the legs, hips, chest, shoulders, playing arm, and playing wrist until the energy is finally transmitted into the racquet and the ball is released.
The key to learning these moves is to repeat them, literally, thousands of times until they become part of your muscle memory. The more often your practice (the right way) the quicker you will get to grips with these movements.
For completeness, the difference between a stroke and a shot is that a stroke is the movement and a shot is what you do with it. For example, you may use a forehand stroke to send a shot to the baseline.
Understanding “watching the ball”
“Watch the ball” may be one of the most misunderstood expressions in tennis. There is a certain element of literal truth to it, but it’s often overstated, for which read impossible. Tennis courts are big, tennis balls are very small and very fast. Basically if you try and play your game by watching the ball you will never get anywhere because your brain won’t have time to process what is going on quickly enough for you to react effectively.
So basically what “watch the ball” really means is that you need to stay aware of what is going on in the game and what your opponent is doing, so that you can anticipate and prepare as much as possible rather than being forced to rely on pure visual reactions.
Understanding tennis strategy
Picking up from the above point, what you need to understand about tennis is that it is essentially a game of psychology which just happens to involve a racquet and ball. In short, effective tennis players are people who master technique and then adjust it to their specific opponent and this comes partly with study but mostly with practice. The good news is that it is a skill which can be learned.
You can play with people you know or try asking around for partners at tennis clubs and/or via local tennis leagues.
Tennis can be a frustrating game to start with, even if you’ve already played other racquet sports, you can expect a fairly challenging learning curve. Once you get the hang of it, however, it’s an amazing game which you can enjoy for life and its popularity opens up lots of networking opportunities.
If you’re a parent thinking about a sport for your child, tennis could be a good option from the point of view of future educational opportunities (e.g. sports scholarships) and also for the potential career opportunities both direct (through involvement with the game) and indirect (through the connections which can be made on court and in the club rooms).