Guide to Tennis Terminology and Lingo
Tennis players can sometimes be thought of as a bit strange by other sports enthusiasts, and if we’re honest, we can see why! Not only do we wear long socks, headbands and grunt after our shots, but we also use some very obscure terms to describe what we are doing!
So, if you are just starting off on your tennis journey and want to know what all of these strange terms and phrases mean, or you have simply always wondered where some of them originated from, you’ve come to the right place!
The Tennis Court
Whilst the appearance and size of a tennis court may not be something out of the ordinary, the terminology associated with it is far from conventional!
First of all, you have the two far ends of the tennis court, which signify the outer limits into which you can hit the ball. These are called the baselines.
You’ll notice a small indent in the middle of the baseline, this represents the centre line and will show you where you can stand to serve depending on what the score is in a match.
Then, you have the centre line itself. This again represents the centre of the court, but actually only divides the court from service line to the net.
This is because we only need to know which side of the court the ball lands on the serve, after that the ball can go anywhere as long as it is within the confines of the court space.
Next up is the service line. This is used to cordon off the front half of the court and show you the edge of where your serve is allowed to land.
You must serve the ball diagonally into the box on the opposite side of your opponent’s court. So, if you are serving from the right hand side, your serve must land in the left hand service box and visa versa.
Even more confusingly, in tennis we call the right hand side of the court the deuce side and the left hand side of the court the Advantage side!
The final area of the court you need to know about is the doubles alley. This is only used in doubles play as it makes the court space wider to make sure there is enough room for four players to play at the same time. This is the extended, long, thin gap between the sideline and the outer sideline on the far edge of the court.
One of the most unique things about the game of tennis is the scoring system. The reality of the situation is that no one really knows why the scoring system is the way it is, but we all just roll with it! Even the professionals don’t know why we call out the score in such a strange way, so don’t feel bad about it!
First of all, to win a tennis match you will either be playing a best of 3 set or best of 5 set match. In a best of 3 set match, the player that wins 2 sets first is the winner, whereas in a best of 5 set match, the player that wins 3 sets first is the winner.
In order to win a set, you need to win 6 games, so for example you may win a set 6-4. However, if the score is 6-6 you will play a tie break, which is a single game to decide the outcome of a set. This is played as first to 7 points, unless the score is 6-6 and then one player must win by 2 clear points.
Clear as mud, right?
This is where things start to get a bit more abstract… in order to win a game (6 of which you need to win a set), you need to win 4 points. However, instead of counting these logically 1,2,3,4, in tennis for some reason we count the score as 15, 30, 40, game.
As we have mentioned, we (like many other tennis enthusiasts around the world) are not really sure why this is the case, but it just is!
It is also worth noting that all games in tennis must start from the right hand side of the court and points are played from alternative sides. So, at 0-0 you’ll play from the right, then 15-0 from the left, 15-15 from the right and so on.
If a game goes to 40-40 i.e. both players have won 3 points, we call it deuce. This point is played from the right hand side of the court (hence the deuce side) and whichever player wins the next point will have the ‘advantage’ and play the next point from the left hand side (hence advantage side).
Hopefully this now makes a bit more sense! Although, it is worth mentioning that there are various other scoring systems that use different formats to try and speed up the game, such as FAST4, Pro Sets and Champions Tiebreaks.
Thankfully, these all use the same terminology but just in a different scoring format, so we won’t dive into them here!
Next, let’s move on to tennis shots!
We’ll start with the serve as that’s how all tennis points start. The serve is typically hit overarm (although we have recently seen the resurgence of the underarm serve in the professional game!). The serve must land in the diagonal service box to be counted and you get two attempts at the serve to start off the point.
The return is the shot hit when receiving a serve. It tends to have a shorter backswing and is a more defensive shot when a first serve is hit, but can also be aggressive when receiving a second serve.
The forehand is hit on the player’s dominant side of the body and tends to be the more powerful and aggressive shot of the two groundstrokes. It makes use of a larger space to backswing the racket and tends to be hit with more spin and have more control than the backhand.
The backhand is the shot hit on the non-dominant side of a player’s body. It tends to be a smaller swing due to the player hitting the ball with what would be the back of their hand (hence the name), and that a player must swing across their body to play the shot.
A volley is a ball that is hit in the air before it has bounced on your side of the court, usually up close to the net.
An overhead or smash tends to be hit when a ball is hit up high, as it is an aggressive volley that aims to send the ball with power and height away from the opponent. This tends to be a finishing shot that should end the point there and then.
A drop shot is a soft, touch shot that tends to be hit well within the service box. It is a surprise attack that aims to take your opponent by surprise and draw them into the net.
A lob is usually hit from a defensive position and is a high, looping shot that is aimed over the opponent’s head. If the opponent is at the net, this can be very effective as it gets them backpedalling quickly.
A tweener or ‘through the legs shot’ is a trickshot that sees a player hit the ball between their legs when facing the court or when facing the net.
Tennis Terminology and Lingo
Now, let’s explore some of the most obscure tennis lingo that you may hear on the court!
If someone shouts ‘out’ then it’s pretty obvious that they are calling your ball out. But, what you may not know is that the correct term is a fault. Some old school players will still call fault rather than out when they are playing, so listen out for it to avoid getting confused!
A double fault refers to when a player misses both their first and second serve. This results in them conceding the point.
A let is called when a player hits the net cord or net tape whilst serving, but the ball still goes over the net and into the correct service box. In this case, the player serving can serve the ball again and continue the point.
A let may also be called to replay the point if there is a hindrance out of the control of either player, such as a ball rolling across from another court, someone running behind the court or an object blowing on to your court.
Serve and Volleyer
A serve and volleyer is a player that tends to serve and rush into the net, putting their opponent under constant pressure. Their aim is to hit a volley straight after their serve. These players are few and far between these days but you still see them at club level from time to time.
A moonballer, hacker or junkballer is a player that is often mocked for their inability to hit the ball with any power. These can often be found in the junior ranks as younger players are still in the development stage of their physicality.
The tactic is to hit a very high, slow ball that pushes the opponent back but lacks any real aggressive intent and is quite a passive way to play the game.
Whilst it can be a very effective tactic at the junior level, as players get bigger and stronger they tend to be able to hit through these slow balls and win points quickly, thereby negating the moonballer’s advantage.
A hook occurs when a player deliberately cheats by calling a ball out that is clearly in. This is difficult at club and recreational level as there are very rarely any line judges, so players must trust each other to call lines honestly and fairly.
So, we have discussed some of the strange lingo and tennis terminology you may come across on the tennis court! We hope that this makes things clearer for you the next time you are out there and you can fit in with your fellow tennis enthusiasts!
Ready to Improve Your Game?
Check out our extensive range of online courses, lead by Ex ATP Player, Dave Ireland! Start improving your tennis today!Browse Courses
How to Be a Good Tennis Parent: Nurturing Youthful Success
In the world of tennis parenting, the journey is just as important as the destination. It's a role that goes well beyond the tennis court. As parents, we often dream of our children winning championships and becoming tennis stars. It's natural to want the best for them, but the road…Read More
Tennis Governance Explained: ITF vs ATP vs WTA
The governing bodies of tennis play a vital role in ensuring the sport is organised properly, upholds professional standards and helps maintain the integrity of the sport. These important roles are vital to ensure tennis remains a highly regarded sport on the world stage, but who are the tennis governing…Read More