Tennis is a racquet sport played between either two players ("singles") or two teams of two players ("doubles"). It is officially called lawn tennis to distinguish it from real tennis (also known as royal tennis or court tennis), an older form of the game that is played indoors on a very different kind of a court. Tennis is an Olympic sport that is played in many countries around the world.
Manner of play
Tennis is played on a rectangular flat surface, usually of grass, clay, concrete or a synthetic such as "Rebound Ace". Concrete courts usually are coated with a synthetic surface to provide color to the surface and a particular bounce characteristic for the tennis ball. Coated concrete courts are generally referred to as "hard courts". White lines are drawn on the ground to delimit the tennis court. The court is 78 feet (23.77 m) long, and its width is 27 feet (8.23 m) for singles matches and 36 feet (10.97 m) for doubles matches. The lines at the ends of the court are called baselines, and the lines at the sides are called sidelines. There is additional clear space around the court.
A net is stretched across the full width of the court, parallel with the baselines, in the middle, dividing it into two ends, each of which is 39 feet (11.89 m) long. The net posts are centred 3 feet (914 mm) outside the court. The net is 3 feet 6 inches (1.07 m) high at the posts, and 3 feet (914 mm) high in the centre, where it is strapped to the ground. A white band marks the top of the net.
There are two more types of line used to delimit the service courts. Servicelines are parallel with the baselines and the net, 21 feet (6.40 m) from the net on each side, drawn only between the singles sidelines. The centre serviceline is parallel with the sidelines, in the centre of the court, drawn between the servicelines only. The centre serviceline is echoed in a white strap in a vertical orientation in the centre of the net. The four service courts are the rectangular areas each delimited by the net, a singles sideline, a serviceline, and the centre serviceline.
The service court on the player's right is known as the deuce court, while the service court on the left is known as the advantage court, or ad court for short.
The centre of each baseline is marked by a short centre mark.
All the lines, except those marking the centre, are drawn just within the court that they delimit. Thus it is the outer edge of each line that is significant.
Play of a single point
The players (or teams) stand on opposite sides of the net. One player is designated the server, and the opposing player, or in doubles one of the opposing players, is the receiver. Service takes place in either the left or right half of the court. All of these designations are discussed in later sections.
The server stands strictly behind his baseline, between the centre mark and the sideline at the appropriate side of the court. The receiver may stand anywhere on his side of the net, in practice usually around the diagonally opposite section of baseline. When the receiver is ready, the server serves by releasing the ball from his hand in any manner (usually tossing it up in the air) and hitting it with his racquet before it hits the ground (usually near the apex of its trajectory). A player may bounce or toss the ball as often as desired before serving, and does not have to declare when he is about to serve; thus a player unsatisfied with his toss can let the ball fall to the ground and try again. However, if he swings the racquet and misses the ball this is a faulty service.
The server is required to keep his feet in nearly the same position during the service motion. Slight movements are permitted, and the feet may be raised off the ground, but walking or running are not permitted. This is to prevent the opponent being misled as to where the serve will originate. Breaching this rule or exceeding the permitted part of the court constitutes a foot fault.
In a legal service, the ball, after being hit by the server, travels over the net without touching it and then bounces in the diagonally opposite service court. If the ball hits the net but the service is otherwise legal (the ball goes over the net and lands in the service court), this is a let service, which is void, and the service is attempted again as if the let service had never occurred. If the first service (excluding let services) is faulty in any way, then the serving player has a second attempt at service. If the second service (excluding let services) is also faulty, this is a double fault and the receiver wins the point.
A legal service starts a rally, in which the players alternately hit the ball across the net. A legal return consists of the player/team hitting the ball exactly once, before it has bounced twice or hit any fixtures, such that it then travels back over the net and bounces in the court on the opposite side. The first player/team to fail to make a legal return loses the point.
If a player hits the ball before it has bounced at all on his side of the net, then the preceding return from his opponent is legal despite the ball not having bounced. Touching the net, hitting the ball before it has passed the net, touching the ball with anything other than the racquet, deliberately hitting the ball twice, and various other transgressions result in losing the point. In wheelchair tennis, in which the players move in wheelchairs instead of using legs, an extra bounce is permitted: the player must hit the ball before it has bounced three times. In doubles, after the service and initial return either player may make any return; it is not permitted for both players on a team to hit the ball in the same return.
The ball is deemed to have bounced inside a court if any part of the ball has touched the ground inside the court. Because the lines are drawn just inside the courts, this means that the ball is in if any part of it touches any part of the relevant line. Judgement of this is made more difficult because the ball deforms greatly when it bounces, so it covers a much greater area on the ground than is intuitively apparent. On clay courts the ball leaves an impression in the ground that can be checked, and on grass courts a puff of chalk from the line indicates contact from the ball.
In an unumpired game, the players are to give each other the benefit of the doubt in all line calls. In an umpired game it is for the umpire or line umpire to call "out". The umpire may overrule an "out" call from a line umpire by immediately calling "play on". In high-level tournaments, automatic equipment is increasingly used for line calls, especially for the serviceline.
Scoring a game
A game consists of a sequence of points played with the same player serving, and is won by the first player to have won at least four points and at least two points more than their opponent. (Note: the term "game" is not to be confused with "match". An entire competitive encounter between two players or teams is referred to as a "match". A game is a small part of a match.) Although the server remains the same for the entire game, the half of the court used for service alternates between courts, beginning with the right half for the first point.
The score of an incomplete game is described in a manner peculiar to tennis: scores of zero to three points are described as "love", "fifteen", "thirty", and "forty". These are usually represented textually as "0", "15", "30", "40". When stating the score, the server's score is stated first. Thus, for example, the phrase "thirty-love" or text "30/0" means that the server has won two points in the game and the receiver none. Verbally, the word "all" is used when the scores are tied, so "fifteen-all" (written "15/15") means that each player has won one point.
If each player has won three points, the score is described as "deuce" rather than "forty-all". It may be written either as "40/40" or "deuce". From this point on, the exact number of points won is not counted, because it is no longer significant: each player now has sufficiently many points that they need only get two points ahead of their opponent in order to win the game. Whenever the score is tied, it is described as "deuce", and may still be written "40/40" regardless of how many points have been won. When a player is one point ahead, the score is "advantage" to that player, for example "advantage Smith" if Mr Smith is one point ahead of Mr Jones. This score may be written in that form, or as "40/A" or "A/40" as appropriate. If the player with advantage loses the next point then the score returns to "deuce".
Thus, using the tennis terminology for scores, a player wins the game when they win a point while their score is "forty" and their opponent's score is "thirty" or less, or when they win a point while they have "advantage".
The system of "deuce" and "advantage" describes identically scores that are not actually identical in terms of numbers of points won but are equivalent in terms of their effect on future scoring. There are further such equivalences: a score of "thirty-all" is equivalent to "deuce", and "forty-thirty" is equivalent to "advantage". These equivalences are never used in describing the score; "thirty-all" always means that the players have won exactly two points each, and "deuce" always means that the players have won at least three points each.
The current point score is announced verbally before each point by the umpire, or by the server if there is no umpire. The score of a complete game is never described using the standard terminology.
Scoring a set
A set consists of a sequence of games played with service alternating between games, ending when the count of games won meets certain criteria. The score of games within a set is counted in the ordinary manner, except that a score of zero games is read as "love". The score is written using digits separated by a dash. The score is announced, by the umpire or server, at the start of each game, in the form "Mr Smith leads two games to one" (which would be written "2-1") or "two games all" (which would be written "2-2").
The serving player/team alternates between games, to even out the large advantage that serving carries within a game. The players also swap ends after the first game and every two games thereafter, to even out any advantage to be gained from differences between the ends. All four combinations of serving player/team and ends are rotated through. In doubles, service also alternate within each team, in a more complicated manner, and reception alternates within the receiving team between points.
Traditionally, the set is won by the first player to have won at least six games and at least two games more than their opponent. More commonly, when the score is tied at 6-6 (each player having won six games), a special tie-breaker game is played and the set is won 7-6. Where the tie-breaker system is employed, often a deciding final set will nevertheless be played in the traditional manner, to avoid the match being decided solely by a tie-breaker game.
In a tie-breaker game, points are counted using ordinary numbering, with zero read as "zero", and the game is won by the first player to have won at least seven points and at least two points more than their opponent. In the tie-breaker game, service alternates between points as it does between normal games within a set, and ends are changed every six points.
The minimum match length is one set. Longer matches consist of an odd number of sets, the match winner being the player that wins more than half of the sets. The match ends as soon as this winning condition is met; sets that cannot influence the outcome are not played. Most commonly, men's singles matches are five sets (the winner being the first to three sets), and all other forms are three sets (the winner being the first to two sets).
The sequence of service and end alternation between games applies throughout the match without regard to sets. A tie-breaker game is treated as a single game for the purposes of this alternation, despite its similar internal alternation.
The score of a complete match is stated first overall in sets, and then the scores of each complete set is given separately, in each case the match winner's score being stated first. For example, a five-set match with tie-breakers might yield the score "7-5 6-7 6-4 7-6": the match was won three sets to one, with the match loser winning the second set on a tie-breaker.
In serious play there is an officiating chair umpire (usually simply referred to as the umpire), who sits in a raised chair to one side of the court to have a good view of the action. The umpire has absolute authority to determine matters of fact, and for a player to dispute a ruling is extremely poor form. The chair umpire may be assisted by line umpires, who determine whether the ball has landed within the required part of the court and also call foot faults. There may also be a net umpire who determines whether the ball has touched the net during service. Ball boys (who are usually children) may be employed to retrieve balls and pass them to the players, and have no adjudicative role. The referee, who is usually located off the court, is the final authority on the rules.
A tennis match is intended to be continuous. Stamina is a relevant factor, so arbitrary delays during play are not permitted. In most cases, service is required to occur no more than 20s after the end of the previous point. This is increased to 90 s when the players change ends (every two games), and a 120 s break is permitted between sets. Other than this, breaks are permitted only when forced by events beyond the players' control, such as rain, damaged footwear, or the need to chase an errant ball.
Balls wear out quickly in serious play, and so are changed after every nine games. However, the first ball change occurs after only seven games, because the first set of balls is also used for the pre-match warm-up. Continuity of the balls' condition is considered part of the game, so if a re-warm-up is required after an extended break in play (usually due to rain) then the re-warm-up is done using a separate set of balls, and use of the match balls is resumed only when play resumes.
Wheelchair tennis can be played by able-bodied players as well as people who require a wheelchair for mobility. The use of legs or feet is then prohibited, and the player is required to remain seated in the wheelchair. There is an exception for those who are able to propel themselves only using a foot.
The rule allowing wheelchair users an extra bounce of the ball before returning it is so well balanced that it is possible to have mixed wheelchair/legs matches. It is possible for a doubles team to consist of a wheelchair user and a legs user, or even for a wheelchair user to play against a legs user. In such cases, the extra bounce is permitted for the wheelchair users only.
A competent tennis player has seven basic shots in his or her repertoire: the forehand, backhand, volley, half-volley, overhead smash, drop shot, and lob. When a player serves the ball to the opponent at the beginning of each point, he or she will use different kinds of serving motions to generate one of four different services: a flat, a top-spin, an American twist (or kick), or a slice serve. A severely sliced serve is sometimes called a sidespin.
The forehand is generally considered the easiest of the tennis shots to master, perhaps because it is considered to be the most natural stroke. It is made by swinging the racquet across one's body in the direction of the net. There are various grips for holding the racquet for executing the forehand. The popularity of these grips has changed over the years. In the early part of the 20th century the western grip was nearly as popular as the eastern grip. In the 20s and 30s the continental grip was popularized by Fred Perry and the so-called "Four Musketeers" from France. Throughout the 40s and 50s the eastern was used by most American players, while many of the great Australian players used a continental or semi-continental grip. Most forehands are executed with one hand holding the racquet, but there have been fine players with two-handed forehands. In the 1940s and 50s the Ecuadorian/American player Pancho Segura used a two-handed forehand to devastating effect against larger, more powerful players. Jack Kramer called Segura's forehand the single best shot in the history of tennis. In the latter part of the 20th century, as shot-making techniques and equipment changed radically, the western forehand made a strong comeback and is now used by (and is being taught to) most modern players.
The backhand, which is struck by swinging the racquet away from one's body in the direction of the net, is generally considered more difficult to master than the forehand. It can be executed with either one hand or two. For most of the 20th Century it was performed with one hand, using either an eastern or a continental grip. The most notable players to use two hands were the 1930s Australians Vivian McGrath and John Bromwich . The two-handed grip gained popularity in the 1970s as Chris Evert and Jimmy Connors used it to great effect, and it is now used by a large number of the world's best players, including Andre Agassi and the Williams sisters. Two hands give the player more power, while one hand can generate a slice shot, applying backspin on the tennis ball to produce a low trajectory bounce on the opponent's side of the court. The player long considered to have had the best backhand of all time, Don Budge, used one hand with a very powerful stroke and imparted topspin onto the ball. Ken Rosewall, another player noted for his one-handed backhand, used a deadly accurate slice backhand with underspin. A small number of players, most notably Monica Seles, use two hands on both the backhand and forehand sides.
There are significant differences between the different types of courts:
- Clay court
- Grass court
Clay courts are generally the slowest, and hardcourts are generally the fastest, though there is some variability within each type of court. Grass courts are perhaps best characterized by the variability that is produced by how healthy the grass is and how recently it has been mowed. Of the major Grand Slam tournaments, the Australian Open and U.S. Open use hardcourts - though both originally used grass courts - the French Open uses clay courts and Wimbledon uses grass courts.
Other types of courts have been used as well, and there is no consistent definition of what qualifies as a "hardcourt". Non-traditional surfaces are rarely used in competitive tennis.
Tournaments are often organized by gender and number of players. Common tournament configurations include men's singles, women's singles, doubles (where two players of the same sex play on each side), and mixed doubles (with a member of each sex per side). There are also tournaments for specific age groups, with upper age limits for youth and lower age limits for senior players. There are also tournaments for handicapped players.
Tennis has a short history, and its invention can be dated. In December 1873, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield devised the game for the amusement of his guests at a garden party on his estate at Nantclywd, Wales. He based the game on the older sport of indoor tennis or real tennis ("royal tennis"), which had been invented in 12th century France and played by French aristocrats down to the time of the French Revolution.
Wingfield borrowed both the name and much of the French vocabulary of royal tennis and applied them to his new game.
- tennis comes from the French tenez, the imperative form of the verb tenir, to hold: it thus means "Hold!" This was a cry used by the player serving in royal tennis, meaning "I am about to serve!" (rather like the cry "Fore!" in golf).
- Racquet comes from the French raquette, although it ultimately derives from the Arabic rakhat, meaning the palm of the hand.
- Deuce comes from the French expression à deux le jeu, meaning "to both is the game" (that is, the two players have equal scores).
- love comes from the French l'oeuf, the egg, a reference to the egg-shaped zero symbol
- The convention of numbering scores "15," "30" and "40" comes from the French quinze, trente and quarante, which to French ears makes a euphonious sequence.
Seeing the commercial potential of the game, Wingfield patented it in 1874, but never succeeded in enforcing his patent. Tennis spread rapidly among the leisured classes in Britain and the United States. It was first played in the U.S. at the home of Mary Ewing Outerbridge on Staten Island, New York in 1874.
In 1881 the desire to play tennis competitively led to the establishment of tennis clubs. The first championships at Wimbledon, in London were played in 1877. In 1881 the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (now the United States Tennis Association) was formed to standardise the rules and organise competitions. The U.S. National Men's Singles Championship, now the U.S. Open, was first held in 1881 at Newport, Rhode Island. the U.S. National Women's Singles Championships were first held in 1887. The Davis Cup, an annual competition between national teams, dates to 1900.
In 1926 a group of American tennis players established a professional tennis circuit, playing exhibition matches to paying audiences. For 40 years professional and amateur tennis remained strictly separate. Once a player turned pro he or she could not compete in the major (amateur) tournaments. In 1968 however, commercial pressures led to the abandonment of this distinction, inaugurating the Open era, in which all players could compete in all tournaments, and top players made their living from tennis.
Tennis was for many years predominantly a sport of the English-speaking world, dominated by the United States, Britain and Australia. It was also popular in France, where the French Open dates to 1891. Thus Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the French Open and the Australian Open (dating to 1905) became and have remained the most prestigious events in tennis. Together these four events are called the Grand Slam (a term borrowed from bridge). Winning the Grand Slam, by capturing these four titles in one calendar year, is the highest ambition of most tennis players.
In 1954 James Van Alen founded the International Tennis Hall of Fame, a not-for-profit museum in Newport, Rhode Island which contains a large collection of tennis memorabilia as well as a hall of fame honoring prominent members and tennis players from all over the world.
With the beginning of the Open era, the establishment of an international professional tennis circuit, and revenues from the sale of television rights, tennis has spread all over the world and has lost its upper-class English-speaking image. Since the 1970s great champions have emerged from Germany (Boris Becker, Steffi Graf), the former Czechoslovakia (Ivan Lendl and Martina Navratilova), Sweden (Björn Borg), Brazil (Gustavo Kuerten), Russia (Yevgeni Kafelnikov), and many other countries. Recently African American players such as Venus and Serena Williams have become a force in the game.
Among the greatest male players of the Open era are Rod Laver, Jimmy Connors, John Newcombe, Stan Smith, Björn Borg, John McEnroe, Ivan Lendl, Stefan Edberg, Jim Courier, Mats Wilander, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras, and Roger Federer. Among the women are Chris Evert, Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, the Williams sisters, and Martina Hingis.
Many great players played in the days before Open tennis. Most of them are unknown by modern sports fans. Among them are Bill Tilden, Ellsworth Vines, Fred Perry, Don Budge, Bobby Riggs, Jack Kramer, Pancho Segura, Frank Sedgman, Pancho Gonzales, Ken Rosewall, and Lew Hoad. For many years observers considered Tilden to be the greatest player who ever lived. In the 1950s and 1960s, there was general agreement that Gonzales had replaced Tilden as the best ever. Any one of these eleven would be competitive in today's game.
Other great players of the pre-Open era include Maurice McLoughlin , "Little Bill" Johnston, the "Four Musketeers" (Jean Borotra, Jacques Brugnon, Henri Cochet, and René Lacoste), Vinnie Richards, Jack Crawford, Vic Seixas , and Tony Trabert.
Who is the greatest male player of all time? It is impossible to give a clear answer, as new techniques and improved equipment have changed the game greatly in the last thirty years. There is no reason to believe, however, that a 1920s Bill Tilden, for instance, who was noted for his intelligence, adaptability, and tennis athleticism, would not be able to change his game and strokes to emulate those of the modern players. As we see in the frequent upsets of top seeds in the major tournaments by much lower ranked players, there is relatively little difference in the quality of play among the top hundred players. If one believes that the stars of past decades would rank at least in the top hundred today, they would arguably be just as able to defeat the top players some of the time. Just as many believe that baseball stars of the past could excel in today's major leagues, there is no reason to believe that the best past tennis players would not be able to hold their own against today's stars.
A feasible listing of the six greatest players of all time is, in chronological order: Bill Tilden, Don Budge, Pancho Gonzales, Rod Laver, John McEnroe, and Pete Sampras. A study of their records against other players could support an argument for any one of these six as the best player of all time. A similar case could perhaps be made for Jack Kramer or Björn Borg. Kramer himself, who became a top player in the early 1940s, believes that Ellsworth Vines was the greatest of all time ... and so it goes -- a fascinating topic for never-ending speculation.
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