Tennis Rules and Scoring Systems Explained
To the untrained eye, tennis scoring can be incredibly confusing! Walking from side to side calling out what seem to be random numbers and phrases, with little to no logical order behind why the scoring system is the way it is, it’s no wonder tennis is a difficult sport to play! What’s more, there is actually a lot of variation in tennis rules and scoring systems depending on what type of competition you may be playing.
So, if you have ever wondered exactly how the different tennis scoring systems actually work, you’ve come to the right place!
How Many Sets in Tennis
Now, as we know, scoring in tennis can be a little confusing at times. It is not always easy to keep track of how many games or sets are needed to win a match, which is why we have put together this ultimate guide to tennis rules and scoring systems.
Certainly the most common scoring system in tennis is the traditional 3 set match. Whilst we often see 5 setters being played at the grand slams on the TV, this is actually not very common to see at the recreational level.
What you have to remember is, you have to be a supreme athlete to play at the highest level of tennis, so it is only these elite physical specimens that tend to play 5 set matches.
It’s no wonder they are hardly played throughout the tenis calendar, as they can be so gruelling!
5 set matches have actually evolved quite a lot over the years. Traditionally, an ‘advantage set’ is played in the 5th set of a match (if one is needed), which sees both players continue the set until one is able to win by 2 clear games.
Whilst this can make for some thrilling viewing, it can also drag out matches which can be detrimental to TV schedules and the longevity of the players.
Some of the most epic matches of all time have been contested over 5 long and enthralling sets, which make for some of the most memorable and jaw dropping moments in our sport.
5 set matches with advantage sets can go on for an awfully long time though, and this has seen almost all of the grand slams bring in a tie break to shorten the final set.
First introduced into the professional game at the 1970 US Open, the tie break is a single game that consists of one player trying to reach 7 points before their opponent. However, much like a traditional advantage set, the player must win by a margin of 2 clear points to actually win the tie break.
The most common form of tennis scoring system is the 3 set match. Played across the ATP and WTA tours, 3 set matches provide a more fan and player friendly alternative to the sometimes long and drawn out 5 set format.
3 set matches are also commonplace at the recreational level of tennis, since they offer players a taste of the professional game but also aren’t so demanding on the body and mind that it puts people off the sport altogether!
Generally speaking, a best of 3 set match will be decided by a final set played out in full. However, a 10 point tie break being used to replace a final set in this scoring system is becoming more and more common across both the professional and recreational games.
This is again a way to shorten the length of tennis matches and also adds more pressure to the final stages of an encounter.
Pro sets tend to be used at the recreational level and simplify the format of a tennis match completely. Instead of playing multiple sets, opponents will instead engage in a single set which is first to 8 games.
Instead of a tie break being played at 6-6, it is played at 8-8 in a pro set. This again shortens the game even further and gives a nice alternative to a traditional 3 set match.
Tennis Score After Deuce
Traditionally, if a game goes to deuce (40-40), a player must win 2 consecutive points in order to win the game overall. This means there can often be a lot of back and forth between sides if a player can only win 1 of the 2 proceeding points.
The deuce point is always played from the right hand side of the court, and whoever wins the deuce point will then have the ‘advantage’ point.
This is then played from the left hand side of the court, and if the player with the advantage point wins the next one, they go on to win the game.
Deuces can make for some nail biting moments on the court, as the constant chopping and changing can add some pressure to both players, making the game even more important to win the longer it goes on.
However, in some tennis scoring systems, there is such a thing as ‘no-ad’ scoring. This tears up the traditional rule book and adds pressure to the deuce point itself, rather than prolonging the length of a game in the usual sense.
You see, whilst a game that goes on for a long time can hold more significance in the context of a match due to it signifying a big switch in momentum, it can also give a player a sense of comfort if they were losing the game but managed to get it back to deuce.
In this situation, the player that has come from behind can relax in the knowledge that they are no longer just 1 point away from losing the game, as their opponent must win 2 consecutive points in order to close the game out from this position.
However, in a no-ad scoring system, there is instant pressure in the deuce point, as whoever wins it will automatically win the game there and then.
There is also the added twist of the returner being able to decide which side they would like to play the point from in a no-ad scoring format, which switches the usual dominance of the server up a bit.
No-ad scoring tends to be used in FAST4 scoring and in professional and recreational doubles.
How Many Games in a Tennis Set
As we have discussed, a traditional tennis match will be played over 3 or 5 sets, in which a set will usually be played to 6 games.
Therefore, a common score for a 3 set match won in straight sets for example would be 6-3 6-4, whereas a 5 set match could be 6-2 6-4 6-1. If both players are able to reach 5 games, then there are a couple of possible outcomes at this point.
Either, one player may win the next 2 games in a row and claim the set 7-5, or both players split the next 2 games and the score will be 6-6. This is when we play a tie break.
Aside from the more conventional ways to score a set in tennis, we have the FAST 4 format which is growing in popularity year on year.
FAST 4 rules are somewhat controversial, as they speed up the game but also make changes to the rules that some purists find difficult to adapt to.
As the name would suggest, a FAST 4 set is played to 4 games, rather than the traditional 6. So rather than a player winning a set 6-1 or 6-4, they may win a FAST 4 set 4-0 or 4-2.
Also, where a more traditional set would play a tie break at 6-6, a tie break is played at just 3-3 in a FAST 4 set. The tie break in this format is also usually changed, so the player who reaches 5 points first will win it rather than the more conventional 7 point version.
Also, where a normal tie break must be won by 2 clear points, a FAST 4 tie break will play a deciding point at 4-4, so a winner will be decided quickly either way.
In this scoring format, you also tend to play a 10 point tie break in the final set rather than a full third set, which again helps to speed things up a bit.
The FAST 4 format does away with lets, which is arguably the most controversial rule change in this system.
So, if you hit a serve and it hits the net and still lands in the correct service box, you play the point out from there rather than go back and retake the serve. Crazy right!
FAST 4 matches also make use of no-ad scoring, which is another way in which the matches end up being quicker than traditional tennis matches.
Additionally, pro sets that are traditionally played to 8 games can also be played to 9 or even 10 games, so are a very flexible scoring format that many recreational tennis clubs utilise in their annual tournaments to save on court space and time.
Can a Tennis Match Go On Forever?
This is a question that has been pondered by many keen tennis fans. Since the scoring system is so open ended, how long can a tennis match actually go on for?
Well, in theory, the answer is infinite. Unlike time bound sports like soccer, basketball or football that may end up having extra time but ultimately are played to a set number of minutes, tennis matches can vary massively in length!
Whilst the shortest tennis match on record was at the Surrey Open Hard Court Championships in 1946, where Jack Harper defeated J. Sandiford 6-0 6-0 in just 18 minutes, some matches go on for literally days!
This is most common in the grand slams, where the fifth set can actually go on indefinitely, since a player must win by 2 clear games to end the match.
The most famous example of this came at Wimbledon in 2010 when John Isner took on Nicolas Mahut in a match for the ages.
Mahut, a crafty serve and volleyer took on the 6”11 American giant Isner, who has one of the biggest serves the world has ever seen on court 18 at the All England Club.
The match had to be played over 3 consecutive days and lasted a total of 11 hours and 5 minutes, with the American Isner eventually claiming the win 70-68 in the final set.
This is an illustrative example of how long tennis matches can go on for, as both players dug deep and kept on plugging away as the clock ticked on.
Some matches before the era of tie breaks would actually see any of the first 4 sets of the match extend too, for example in the 1973 Davis Cup, the United States took on Chile in a doubles match that consisted of the second highest number of games played (behind the Isner and Mahut epic).
The Americans won 7-9, 37-39, 8-6, 6-1, 6-3.
Overall, we can see that the scoring system and rules used in tennis can be a little complicated at times to say the least!
It can be confusing to understand the naming conventions behind the scores as well as the different formats of the game, but once you understand the logic behind them and actually go out and play for real, they will soon become second nature!
As we have discussed, there are a wide range of different tennis scoring systems out there, many of which are used at the recreational level. So, if one isn’t working for you, by all means try out another one!
Ready To Take Your Game Next Level?
Make the tennis rules work FOR you with our Singles and Doubles Tactics Courses!Browse Courses
Oct 14, 2021 • Etiquette
Ultimate Guide to Tennis Etiquette
Tennis has historically been a ‘gentleman’s’ sport. Through the years it has been taken up globally by more and more people, but fundamentally, tennis is supposed to be played in a ‘polite’ way. Whilst many players will want to be competitive on court, show their passion and commitment to the…Read More
Jan 11, 2021 • Etiquette
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!…Read More