Tennis has some obscure rules, regulations and quirks.
But, this is why we love the sport. It makes it stand out and feel special every time we step on to court.
One of the most noteworthy rules in tennis is the ‘let’. This is often called when a point has been interrupted in some way.
The most common instance of a let is a service let, when the ball clips the net tape but still lands in the service box.
This causes a hindrance for the opponent and the serve is retaken.
But there is more to the let than just retaking a serve. This is one of the most unique rules in tennis that really brings the human element of the sport into play.
So, if you’ve ever wondered why a let is called a let, what you can call a let for and what some of the most famous instances of lets in professional tennis are, then sit back and carry on reading!
Why is a Let Called a Let?
First things first, one of the things that gets new tennis players very confused is the naming conventions in the sport.
For seasoned players, this is second nature. But words like deuce, love, game and let can sound like a foreign language to a beginner player.
So, just why do we call a let, a let? Well, the word is thought to have originated from the saxon word ‘lettian’, which referred to a hindrance.
This would make sense given there are multiple ways in which a let can be called in tennis.
Although, there are a few different theories out there, from let originating from the French word for net, to simply shortening the word ‘letting’ (letting your opponent have another serve).
When a Let Can Be Called?
Whilst the service let is often the most commonly used version of the rule, it can actually be used in a wide range of situations.
The idea is that anything that causes a hindrance to the point being played in a free flowing way will result in the point being stopped and replayed.
At a recreational level, let’s are generally a judgment call. If you clearly see or hear a serve clipping the top of the net and it still goes into the service box, you can call a let.
Alternative lets are also purely judgement calls in club tennis, so there is always an element of trust involved.
However, at the professional level, lets are now called by an electronic sensor that is built into the net tape and registers the ball clipping the top of the net.
This then sends a signal to the umpire’s electronic scoring device and indicates a let to them.
This job used to be done by an official that would sit by the net and hold the net cord, waiting to feel the vibration of a ball striking it. They would then actually call a let out loud!
When playing tennis at your local club, a let would be called if a ball from another court rolls on to your court.
In this situation you would simply stop your point, collect the stray ball and pass it back to the court that it came from.
This is extremely common in club tennis and the best thing to do is to call a let for the safety of everyone and the continuity of your match.
Alternatively, if there is someone walking behind your court, a loud noise or even a sprinkler turning on that blatantly distracts you or your opponent from playing, it would be acceptable to call a let and replay the point.
In the professional game, the umpire may call a let if there is a malfunction with stadium lighting, someone calls out in the crowd or a camera flash goes off during a point.
Also, if a player correctly challenges a ball using Hawkeye and the line judge’s call comes after they were able to play the shot, the umpire will often call a let.
This is because the player will always wait for the line judge or umpire’s call for a shot to be out, and if the call is made and they would have been able to play the shot, this is deemed as a hindrance that is out of the player’s control.
However, this is often a judgement call and can easily become a point of controversy in professional matches.
There are some circumstances when a point penalty would be given to an opponent rather than a let, but this is usually for a deliberate hindrance rather than an accidental one.
These two distinctions can cause controversy at times on the court, as the differentiation between an accidental or a deliberate hindrance can sometimes be difficult to determine.
For example, a point penalty would be called if the ball hits you on any part of your body or a piece of your clothing.
Whilst you may think this is an accidental hindrance, it is actually considered a purposeful one, since you could theoretically use a part of your body to steer the ball into court rather than your racket.
This would give you an unfair advantage.
Furthermore, if a player is talking during a point or banging their racket on the ground, this would be classed as a deliberate hindrance and a point penalty would be given.
‘No Let’ Rules
In recent years, some recreational tournaments have introduced a no let scoring system.
The idea behind this is that it will speed up the game and make for more entertainment as players struggle to return the unpredictable serves that clip the net cord.
The famous exhibition series ITPL used this to bring a new spin to the tennis world, and we have also seen this in some FAST4 tennis events.
The no let scoring system is more commonly used at recreational level than the professional level, but it is prevalent in the game today nonetheless.
Famous Lets in Tennis
There have been a few rare instances of multiple service lets being called in a row.
One that sticks in the mind is when Roger Federer hitting 3 service lets in a row in his 2016 quarter final match against Marin Cilic at Wimbledon!
However, another great of the game Serena Williams trumped Federer back in 2013 when she hit 4 service lets in a row at the Miami Open!
This is actually a record for the most lets in a row, that was actually equalled by Di Wu at a Challenger event in China in 2017.
Overall, lets in tennis are one of the most strange and rare occurrences in the tennis rule book.
It is a traditional part of tennis etiquette to play a let for an accidental hindrance to play, whilst a more clear cut service let is a formality in the modern game.
Lets can be frustrating if they happen too often at a recreational level, and a point of major dispute in the professional game, especially if it is not clear whether a hindrance is deliberate or accidental.
Whilst you may have only been aware of the common service let, there are actually a wide range of reasons that a let can be called by a player or an umpire.
Let calling accuracy at the professional level has become very precise thanks to the automation of the net cord device.
Whereas, at the recreational level calling a let is still very much a test of judgement.
Service lets are not often a point of contention, as there is usually a clear sound or deviation in the ball’s flight from the ball clipping the top of the net.
However, for other hindrances such as balls coming across the court, a player making too much noise or spectators moving behind the court, there is often a grey area for interpretation.
This makes a let call a very important part of the game and can actually turn a match on its head, as a player will be forced to reset their mind to replay a point that they may have been in prime position to win.
There really is more to the let in tennis than meets the eye, so be sure to call for one when the opportunity presents itself next time you are out on court!