When it comes to sports, all of them have their terminologies and quirky vocabulary to communicate the intricacies of the rules and how play proceeds.
Think of words like scrum, penalty corner, drop goal, home run, free kick, or no-ball. Here you have many terms that leave someone less familiar with the game pondering what they mean on earth.
For keeping the score, however, it is usually fairly straightforward. Goal and points are tallied up in sequential order.
It's all straightforward, allowing most people to grasp instantly which team or individual is winning.
However, tennis works a little bit differently; in fact, it's a pretty damn weird scoring system, and I've even overheard people watching live at tournaments get confused by it. So how does it work?
This post will look at the scoring progression in tennis, the origins of the scoring system and everything in between. Let's take a look.
What is the Tennis Scoring System?
The tennis scoring system works in a way that players accumulate points, games, and sets.
Win enough points, and you win a game, win enough games, and you win a set, win enough sets, and you win the match. Simple, right, but it does get a little more complicated.
To achieve each of those things, a player must:
- Win a minimum of 4 points to win a game
- Play at least six games to win a set
- Win no less than two sets (sometimes three sets) to close out a match
Before Play Commences
Before a match starts, the players toss a coin, and the winner can choose whether to serve first himself or for his opponent to serve first.
They can also choose the side of the court they wish to start on, in which case the choice to serve or receive is deferred to the coin toss loser.
The winner can also defer the choice to their opponent, but The losing player can not defer it again.
From there, the players have a short warm-up before the umpire calls time and the competitive match is ready to begin.
It starts at 0 sets each, 0 games each, and the score in the opening game is 0-0.
Scoring in a Game
Scoring in tennis is unusual because each point has a corresponding call different from its point value. Except in tiebreaks where it reverts to sequential scoring seen in other sports to make it more confusing 😀
When play begins, the first player to win a point is awarded fifteen.
If it's the person serving, the score is displayed on a scoreboard as 15-0. When spoken orally, it is audible as Fifteen – Love.
If the person returning serve wins the opening point, the score is read as 0-15. And when spoken orally, it is audible as Love – Fifteen.
From there, the scoreboard increases in increments of fifteen. So if the player wins the first two points of the game, they are leading the game 30-0 (thirty-love).
Should the opponent win the following two points, the score is now 30-30; when spoken orally, this is audible as thirty all.
To win the game, a player must win a minimum of four points, with a margin of two points or more over their opponent.
The quickest way to do that is 15-0 (fifteen-love), 30-0 (thirty-love), 40-0 (forty love), and then win one more point, which is announced as ‘Game + player name'.
The player who won the game would then accumulate one game on the scoreboard.
Point System Breakdown
- 0 points= Love
- 1 point = 15
- 2 points= 30
- 3 points= 40
- Tied score= All
- 40-40 = Deuce
- Server wins deuce point = Advantage + player name, e.g. advantage Medvedev
- Receiver wins deuce point = Advantage + player name e.g. advantage Federer
What is deuce?
When both sides have won the same number of points within a given game, e.g. when each player has won one, or two, points each, the score is described as “15 all” and “30 all”, respectively.
However, if each player has won three points, the score is called “deuce”, not “forty all”.
From that point on in the game, it is described as “deuce” whenever the score is tied, regardless of how many points have been played.
To win the game after the score has reached deuce, a player must win two points consecutively to win the game.
The point won after deuce is announced audibly as ‘Advantage + player name'. If the player wins the second, it's announced audibly as ‘Game + player name'.
If no player can obtain a 2 point margin, the scoring will keep returning to deuce, and games can be played for extended periods, with several on the ATP and WTA tours lasting over 10 minutes each season.
To further explain the game scoring method, the table below shows a sample game situation below between Daniil Medvedev and Stefanos Tsitsipas.
Medvedev is serving, and it's the first game of the match.
|Medvedev wins the point||15||0|
|Tsitsipas wins the point||15||15|
|Medvedev wins the point||30||15|
|Medvedev wins the point||40||15|
|Tsitsipas wins the point||40||30|
|Tsitsipas wins the point||40||40|
|Tsitsipas wins the point||40||Advantage|
|Medvedev wins the point||40||40|
|Medvedev wins the point||Advantage||40|
|Medvedev wins the point (and the game)||(+1 game to Medvedev)||Tsitsipas to serve|
How to accumulate points
There are six ways a player can win a point:
- Your opponent misses two serves in a row, either into the net or outside the service box. This is called a double fault.
- Your opponent hits the ball into the net during a rally, and the ball does not go over the net.
- Your opponent hits a shot over the net, but it lands outside the lines (please see tennis court dimensions for the court layout for both singles and doubles)
- You hit a shot your opponent cannot hit with their racket during a rally or straight from your serve. On serve, this is called an Ace. During a rally, it is named a Winner.
- You hit a shot that bounces twice on your opponent's side of the court before they can hit it (called a double bounce)
- Your opponent receives a code violation or time violation from the umpire, which results in a point penalty.
Scoring in a Set
A set in tennis consists of a sequence of games played, with each player alternating between service and return roles.
There are two types of a set – the tie break set and the advantage set. Both are identical up until six games all.
When a player wins a game, they accumulate a game in the set.
So taking the example above where Medvedev held his first service game of the match, he leads the first set 1-0 (one game to love).
If Tsitsipas were to mirror that and hold his service game, then the score in games would be 1-1 (one game all, first set).
How many games in a set of tennis?
The first player to win six games wins the set, provided there is a margin of two games over the opponent.
Again using the example above, imagine the score is 4-4.
Medvedev holds serve for a 5-4 lead and then breaks his opponents serve in the next game. He wins the set 6-4 (Game, first set Medvedev, six games to four).
If the score were five all (5-5), a player would need to win seven games to win the set (7-5). Otherwise, the score would be 6-6, and a tiebreak would be required.
How does a tiebreak in tennis work?
So what happens if the score reaches 6-6 (six games all)? This is where the two types of sets diverge.
In a tie break set, when the score in games is 6-6, a tie break is played to decide the set, and the scoring switches to a more conventional counting method after each point won: 1-0, 1-1, 2-1 etc.
The tiebreak continues until one player has won seven points with a margin of two or more points, e.g. if the score is 6-5, and the player leading wins the next point, they win the tie break 7-5.
As a consequence of winning the tie break, they also win the set 7 games to 6. This is written as 7-6(7-5) or 7-6(5) on the scoreboard.
If a tie break reaches 6-6, it continues until one player leads by a margin of two points, e.g. 10-8 or 11-9. You would write that as 7-6(8) or 7-6(9), respectively.
In an advantage set, rather than a tie break, the players continue playing standard games until they have a two-game lead over the opponent. e.g. 9-7 in games.
Advantage sets are becoming rarer in the professional game, but they are still used in the final sets in men's and women's singles at the French Open.
The US Open (first to 7 points final set tie break) and Australian Open (first to 10 points final set tie break) play best of five tie break sets in the men's and best of three tie break sets in the women's.
Wimbledon uses a unique scoring system for the final set where the players continue to play after 6–6 mirroring an advantage set until a player earns a 2-game lead.
However, if the players reach 12–12 in games, a standard 7-point tiebreaker determines the winner.
Most other tournaments use only seven-point tiebreak sets. There are also a couple of other tie break formats, which I will discuss below in the alternative tennis scoring section.
Players alternate between who serves and who returns.
They also change ends after each odd game within a set, so after the first game, players swap ends, then after the 3rd, 5th, 9th and so on.
Because a tie break is effectively the 13th game of the set, players will also switch ends after the tie break is complete and commence the next set.
During the tie break, players switch after six points have been played, so for example, at 4-2 in the score, it's time to change ends. If the score reaches 6-6, it's time to switch again.
The winner of a tennis match is the player that wins more than half of the scheduled sets.
For example, at Grand Slam level, men's matches are the best of five sets, so the first player to win three sets wins the match.
Other tournaments and women's Grand Slam matches are the best of three sets, so the first player to win two sets wins the match.
An example match score in a best of three sets match that went the distance would be Medvedev beats Tsitsipas 7-5, 6-7(3), 6-2.
In this scenario Medvedev won the first set, Tsistipas won the second set on a tie break before playing the decider, and Medvedev won the match.
Announcing the Score in Tennis
At the professional level, all scores are announced by the Chair Umpire over the microphone for both the players and fans.
They use a reasonably standardised vocabulary, although some umpires have slight variations on the nomenclature.
For example, keeping our example players from earlier in this guide. If Medvedev wins the fourth game of the first set and leads 3-1 in games, the umpire will say the following: “Game, Medvedev. Medvedev leads by three games to one, first set.”
If Medvedev wins the next three games and thus wins the set 6-1, the umpire will announce the score as “Game and first set Medvedev, by six games to one.”
For proceeding sets, the umpire will sometimes announce the match score alongside the game outcome.
For example, if Medvedev has just won the third game in the second set to lead 3-0, the umpire will say, “Game, Medvedev. Medvedev leads by three games to love and one set to love.”
If it were Tsitsipas who had established a 3-0 lead in the second set, the umpire would state, “Game, Tsitsipas. Tsitsipas leads by three games to love, second set. First set Medvedev”.
We don't have that luxury on the recreational level, so it's up to the players themselves to keep the score and announce it.
The server has the responsibility to announce the set score before commencing serve.
The server always announces their score first, irrespective of whether they are ahead or behind in the score. For example, “2-3 (two-three), first set”.
The server's responsibility is also to announce the score before each serve. For example, if the server loses the first three points of their service game, they say “love–40” before serving.
At the club level, players often use slight variations or slang terms that are easier or quicker to say.
For example, if a server wins the first point, they'll often say “five-love” instead of fifteen love. This repeats for the entire game “Thirty-five”, “five-thirty”, “forty-five”, etc.
The point after deuce is often called “Ad-in” if the server wins it or “Ad-out” if the returner wins it.
Tennis Scoring Glossary
Point: The first step of the tennis scoring system. When a player accumulates a minimum of four points, they eventually win a game. They follow the 0, 15, 30, 40 progressions in games, and tiebreaks switch to the regular sequential numerical system (0, 1, 2,3,4).
Serve: Tennis stroke with which a player begins the point. Usually, the player makes contact with the ball above his head. They need to hit it over the net and inside the service box located diagonally from them.
Winner: When a player hits a shot that the opponent does not return. One of the six ways to win a point.
Error: When a player hits a ball into the net or outside the lines of the court.
Double Fault: When a player misses two consecutive serves, either into the net or outside the marked service box.
Double Bounce: When a player hits a shot that bounces twice on the opponent's side of the court before they can hit it back.
Point Penalty: A point awarded to a player by the umpire after repeated violations of the rulebook by their opponent. These can be time violations or code violations (ball abuse, racket smashing etc.).
Game: An accumulation of points won by the same player. To win a game, a player needs to win at least 4 points before their opponent.
Set: An accumulation of games won by the same player. To win a set, a player needs to win a minimum of 6 games before his opponent. If both players tie at six games each, they will play a tiebreaker to determine the winner of the set.
Tiebreak: A game designed to break a tie between two players. It does not follow the standard tennis counting system and instead counts sequentially: 0, 1, 2, 3, etc. The first player to reach 7 points wins the tiebreak and consequently the set. If both players tie at 6-6, the first player to establish a 2-point advantage wins the set.
Match: An accumulation of sets won by the same player. To win a match, a player needs to win 2 out of 3 sets or 3 out of 5 sets, depending on the format used by the tournament.
Best of 3: The match format applied to most tennis tournaments. A player needs to win two sets before his opponent to win the match.
Best of 5: The match format applied to men's matches at Grand Slams. Players need to win three sets before the opponent to win the match.
Long 5th Set: A match format whereby no tie break is played in the third or the fifth set. Instead, to win the set, a player needs to obtain a 2-game advantage.
10-Point Tiebreak: An extended tiebreak that is won by reaching 10 points instead of 7. This is usually a substitute for a third set and is standard on the doubles tour and Laver Cup tournament.
Quirks of the Tennis Scoring System
Tennis has a fascinating scoring system and one that makes it a mentally tricky sport.
When it comes to other games like football, the team always win if they score the most goals in a match. But tennis is different, and a player can win more points in a match and still lose it.
This has happened countless times in the professional game where players win more points yet end up losing.
Another hypothetical example using Medvedev and Tsitsipas shows how this can happen,
If Medvedev won a best of three-set match, 6-4, 6-4 and won all of his service games to 30, he won 40 points on his serve. Tsitsipas won a total of twenty points in his return games.
Tsitsipas won four service games in each set on his serve, all to love (game-0). Except for the two he lost, which Medvedev broke serve to 30. That gives Tsistipas 36 points on serve and Medvedev 8 on the return.
The total, therefore, would be 48 points for Medvedev and 56 for Tsitsipas. Yet Medvedev won the match 6-4, 6-4. Ouch!
It is also possible for a player to win more games in a match yet still lose.
A famous example is when Roger Federer won the 2009 Wimbledon final over Andy Roddick 5–7, 7–6(6), 7–6(5), 3–6, 16–14. That gave Roddick 39 games versus Federer's 38, but the outcome was a victory for the Swiss.
The key to winning in tennis? Win the last point.
Alternative Tennis Scoring
Alongside the traditional tennis scoring system, which has been consistent for several decades, there has been the introduction of some alternative methods, these include:
No ad scoring
Rather than the classic deuce game where a player must win 2 points to win the game, the no advantage scoring format means that if the score reaches 40-40, then the player who wins the next point wins the game.
This format is often used in doubles and is designed to speed up play.
In doubles, the receiving team often has the choice of who returns the serve. This is announced as “deuce, deciding point, receivers choice” by the umpire.
Fast 4 Tennis
Fast 4 is a shortened set where the first player to win four games wins the set.
At three games all a tiebreak is played to 7 points. If the score reaches one set all, then a 10 point match tiebreak will decide the match.
There is also no ad scoring which is explained above.
10 Point Tie Break
A 10 point tie break, sometimes known as a Super tiebreak or a Champions tiebreak, is an extended version of the seven-point tie break.
The format is identical, except the first player to reach 10 points, by a margin of 2 points, wins it. If it reaches 9-9, then a player must win by two clear points.
Thirty30 tennis where every game starts at 30–30. So two points can win a player a game, meaning sets can be over in a matter of 10 minutes.
In handicap events, each player is assigned a handicap, and the lesser-skilled player is usually given a certain number of points in each game.
Many tennis clubs use their own system, but a common one is explained below.
The lowest standard player will have a high receive handicap, e.g. +30.1. The higher standard would receive a low handicap, e.g. -30.1
If they played each other, then in most games, the lower handicapped player would start on minus 30, so they would need to win 2 points to reach love-love. The other player would start on +30 as if they had already won 2 points.
The .1, .2, .3 etc., are fractional and mean that an additional point is owed or received in 1, 2, or 3 out of every six games.
For example, Receive 15.1 means that the player receives 15 in every game except one out of every six where they receive 30. Each sequence of 6 games follows the same pattern.
Tennis Scoring History
What about the origins of the tennis scoring system? Unfortunately, there is nothing clear cut on how the tennis scoring system began or developed over time.
It's a mixture of hearsay, old wives tales and romantic theories. Some are more plausible than others, but there is no de facto origin of the scoring progression in tennis.
The best theory I see comes from France. This is because the modern game of tennis traces back to a medieval game called jeu de paume, which began in 12th century France and was played with the hand rather than the racket.
The traditional court was 90 feet in length, with 45 feet on each side. When the server scored, they moved forward 15 feet. If the server scored again, they would move another 15 feet. If the server scored a third time, they could only move 10 feet closer. So that does explain the 15, 30, 40 progressions.
Another theory relates to a clockface being used to keep score, although the 40 instead of 45 doesn't quite add up. Still, some justify it by saying clocks were changing all the time during this period.
The use of “love” for zero probably comes from “playing for love”, where there was no money or other stakes on the line.
Another explanation is that it derives from the French expression for an egg (l'œuf) because an egg looks like the number zero, but there aren't many uses of the word l'œuf in the tennis literature of that period.
My takeaway from researching the topic is that the origins will remain somewhat of a mystery, but that's how the scoring system works, that's how it worked since the Victorian era, and that's how it will continue to work for the foreseeable future 🙂
If you want to learn more about the origins of tennis, there are a couple of books take a scholarly look at tennis history: Tennis: A Cultural History and Tennis: Origins and Mysteries. They have some conflicting ideas as to where the scoring system originated but both make an excellent tennis-themed gift for any ardent fans of the sport.
Do you have any questions about the scoring system in tennis? Would you like to see it changed, so it's easier for potential new fans to understand? Let me know in the comments.