Tennis is scoring some major points these days thanks to the U.S. Open (currently in full swing). But you don’t have to be a pro to enjoy a friendly match of racket-swinging. Tennis can be played year-round, indoors or out. That’s a good thing, because regular bouts can improve strength, cardiovascular fitness, agility, and balance. Here we’ll break down the rules, gear, lingo, and more to help any would-be tennis pro get started.
What’s Love Got to Do with It? — The Need-to-Know
Got questions on talking the talk, swinging, or figuring out what all those lines mean? Here's your ultimate tennis starter guide.
- The Court. Too many lines, not enough time? Check out the video below for a quick primer.
- Matches. Each competition between tennis players is referred to as a match.
- Within each match, opponents play several sets (the number varies for genders and levels of play). Pros play sets consisting of at least six games (hence the phrase “game, set, match”). Each game must be won by two points, and traditionally each set must be won by two games. If the score is tied at 6 games, there’s usually a tie-breaker.
- The scoring for each game progresses from “love” (or zero) to 15, 30, 40 points, then game. It only takes four points to win (for example, a player who has won three points has “40”). The score is announced before each serve by the server (finally, a term that makes sense!), and the server’s score is said first.
- Serving. Each point starts with a serve. The server gets two chances to get the ball into the service court across the net; otherwise, they lose the point. A missed serve is called a fault. If the serve hits the net and drops in (a let), the server gets to try that serve again. On the serve, the ball must bounce once before it’s hit.
- Strokes. Play consists of the basic forehand and backhand strokes — as well as lobs, volleys, drop shots, and whatever contortions players come up with to keep the ball in play. A sequence of shots is called a rally.
- Winning the Point. A player win if their opponent misses the ball, hits the ball into the net or out of the court, if the ball touches the opposing player or their clothing, or if the opponent intentionally hits the ball more than once.
- It’s Still Good! A ball is still in play as long as it falls in-bounds after hitting the net or net post (except on serve!). In all but the highest-level matches, players call their own games — which means that the honor code is pretty darn important.
Courting Tennis — Your Action Plan
Follow these guidelines, put in some hours, and you’ll be moving like Federer in no time.
- Equip thyself. Forget fancy gizmos and high-tech fashion: All that’s needed for a round of tennis is a racket and some balls. Most people prefer fresh balls for competitive matches and softer practice balls for teaching or when kids are involved. (There are also new rules and court sizes for young players.)
- Choose a racket.
- Most rackets are 27-28 inches long from the tip to the end of the handle. Racket weight (unstrung) varies from about nine to 11 ounces — sounds like nothin’, but weight actually can make a difference. It’s important to pick a racket that suits body type and not aim for something too light or too heavy for your arm. Lighter rackets can generate more racket head speed, creating spin, but don’t have as much power as their heavier counterparts. Rackets are weighted differently, too (some have more weight in the handle while others are more evenly distributed), which can affect the speed of the swing and the feel of the racket in a player’s hand. [Note: These are general guidelines. All rackets are built differently and even lighter ones can pack a punch!].
- After weight, it’s time to pick a head size. Head size is important for racket head speed and also the size of a racket’s “sweet spot,” or the area that generates the most power when striking the ball (usually the center of the racket). Smaller racket heads have smaller sweet spots and offer more control, while larger heads offer less precision but more power. Most advanced players use rackets with head sizes between 95 and 100 square inches.
- Finally, it’s time to pick a grip size. An easy way to find the correct size is to hold the racket with the dominant hand and slide the index finger of the other hand between the tips of the fingers and the base of the palm. If the grip is too small, the index finger won’t fit. If the grip is too large, the index finger will have extra wiggle room. Choose a grip size that’s comfortable, but keep in mind that a too-large grip size will force a player to squeeze the racket more tightly, tiring the arm.
- Choose tension. String tension refers to how tightly a racket is strung. More pressure will create a tighter, stiffer racket, whereas lower tension will create a looser, more powerful racket. [Note: Also general guidelines. Advanced strings can alter the feel of the ball!] Most rackets will have a recommended tension range. Try stringing in the middle of that range (this is where the racket will perform best) and adjust up or down depending on preference. Watch out, though: higher tension brings more risk for the infamous tennis elbow.
- String theorize. There are a ton of choices for strings out there. Each professes its own supposed benefits, but most offer little difference to beginner or intermediate players. Experiment to find one that suits you best.
- Choose a surface. In the U.S., most tennis is played on hard courts, which are made from asphalt or concrete and are considered relatively fast surfaces that offer good ball bounce. Clay (or soft courts) can be more challenging because they can have trickier bounces, but the softer surface is also more forgiving to bodies as they lunge, slip, and slide. Tennis was originally played on grass courts, but they’re hard to maintain and also hard to come by these days.
- Shoe up. Wear sneakers that provide good support. Other shoes might wear out too quickly, hurt your feet, or damage the court. Avoid black soles, as these can permanently mark the court, and be aware that most courts won’t allow you on unless you’re wearing non-marking footwear.
- Wear white… or don’t. Tennis has a reputation for requiring its players to wear all white (save for the baby blue cardigan wrapped ‘round their necks), but for the most part the “all-white rule” is a myth. These days most places don’t care what colors players wear—although it’s worth checking before you head to the courts, particularly at private clubs, where dress codes might be enforced. In general, it’s fine to wear whatever you’d wear to the gym (with non-marking shoes, of course!).
- Next steps. All dressed up with nowhere to go? Check out the United States Tennis Association’s court finder. Most courts will have pros or group lessons to ease new players into the sport. Speak to the front office and see if there’s a level or class that’s right for your skill level and interests.
Are you a tennis newbie or the future Federer? What are your best tips for beginners? Let us know in comments below!