The Rules for Lawn Tennis

Players compete in doubles on the grass courts at Wimbledon.
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Given the word "lawn" in the title, you might draw the reasonable conclusion that tennis matches played on grass are conducted under different rules than tennis matches played on other surfaces. Not so. In 1877, the first Wimbledon championship was held on lawn courts at the All England Croquet Club, later re-named the All England Croquet and Tennis Club. The club established rules governing the sport that largely survive today, according to But in terms of the rules, there is no difference between tennis played on grass and tennis played on other surfaces.

International Tennis Federation

    When the governing body of tennis was founded in 1913, it was called the International Lawn Tennis Federation, a nod toward the early history of the sport. But in 1977, the ILTF renamed itself the International Tennis Foundation. Whether you play tennis on a hard-to-find grass court, a clay court, a hard surface court such as the acrylic courts used at the U.S. Open or on concrete at the local park, the rules promulgated by the ITF and adopted by more than 200 countries are exactly the same.

The Court

    An official tennis court is 78 feet long and 36 feet wide. However, the area of the court used for singles is 27 feet wide. The net is precisely 3 1/2 feet tall and it is suspended by a cord or a metal cable. The mesh in the net has to be designed so that balls hit into it don't travel through to the opposing court, even serves smoked by Venus Williams at 100 mph or more.

The Serve

    There are lots of rules regarding serving, and even the pros on the lawns at Wimbledon violate them on a regular basis. The basics are simple. You hold the ball in your hand, release it into the air in any direction and smack it with the racket beforethe ball hits the ground. If the ball travels over the net and into the receiving court for singles play, the serve is a legal one and it's "Game On!" But watch those toes. If you change positions by running or walking as you serve, or you touch or cross the baseline with either foot, you're guilty of a foot fault and you have to re-serve. A double fault -- two faults in a row -- and you lose the point.


    Once a serve is in play, you hit the ball back and forth until someone makes a mistake. If the ball bounces twice on your opponent's side of the net before she hits it, you win the point. If the ball touches your opponent "or anything that the player is wearing or carrying, except the racket," you win the point. And if you're wondering what else a player could be carrying, other than her racket, you're not alone. If she returns a shot that flies over the baseline or to the right or left of the singles lines, you win the point. Rallies on grass don't last as long than rallies on clay, a slower surface that allows players to get to more balls and keep rallies going. But grass is slower than hard-surface courts, which reward big serves and favor brief rallies.


    Scoring in tennis is quite simple, except for some traditional -- some would say archaic -- terminology. Each game is played to four points, unless the score is tied at three points apiece. Then you must win the game by opening up a two point lead over your opponent. A player who wins six games in awarded the set, but you must win by two games, so it is possible to win a set 7-5. If the players reach 6-6 in games, a tiebreaker is played. The first player to win seven points by two points wins the tiebreaker and the set. To win the match, you'll need to be the first player to capture two sets. Most women's matches are best two of three sets, but men's matches at Grand Slam tournaments are best of five sets. Players also change sides of the court after each odd numbered game. As far as tennis lingo goes, instead of counting off points in a game by saying "1, 2, 3, 4," points are labeled 15, 30 and 40. Old school lingo includes the word "love" for zero and "deuce" for a game that is tied at three points apiece or higher.

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