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Lawn Tennis

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A pair of tennis racquets and a ball.

Lawn tennis, or as it is more commonly known, tennis, is a competitive sport played worldwide. It is popular with both men, women and children alike, with many countries producing prospective champions.

But what is lawn tennis, and how did it come about?

History of Lawn Tennis

The beginnings of lawn tennis are a little unclear. It is alleged that lawn tennis was created in 1873 by Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, a British army officer. He claimed that he had adapted an ancient Greek game, calling his new game sphairistiké, Greek for 'playing at ball'.

However, it is believed that lawn tennis was derived from real tennis, a sport first played in Britain in monastic times, believed to be one of the most complicated ball games to play. Lawn tennis adapted real tennis play for outdoor play, and adding the principles of squash and badminton. The early players named the game tennis-on-the-lawn, or for short, lawn tennis.

It became very popular in Britain, with the first world amateur championships held at the All-England Club in Wimbledon1. Soon it spread to Australia, first being played in Melbourne in 1880. At the end of the 19th Century, lawn tennis was being played in all the British colonies and many other nations.

Features of Lawn Tennis

It is particularly easy to identify the main features of tennis, because it is so well-known across the world.

The Court

There are a number of aspects of the court that make it possible to play lawn tennis on it.


The court is marked out with white lines to show the baselines, side tramlines and service boxes. The court is 23.8m (78ft) long and 11m (36ft) wide. The service boxes are 6.4m (21ft) from the net, and a single service box is 4.1m (13ft 6in) wide. The tramlines are 1.4m (4ft 6in) wide, and are only used for doubles' matches. The net is set 0.91m (3ft) high, which is the height of the net posts.


Lawn tennis may be played on a number of surfaces. These surfaces affect the way that play goes, and the way that the tennis ball travels on court.

SurfaceEffect on Ball
GrassFast and low bounce
ClaySlow and high bounce
AcrylicMedium and medium bounce
ConcreteSlow and high bounce
ShaleVery slow and high bounce
ACE ReboundAdjustable

Certain players may prefer certain surfaces to others. For example, a player suited to a clay court would not necessarily play as well on a grass court due to the different action of the ball on a grass court compared to a clay court.

The Racquets and Ball

The racquets were initially made out of wood, but now the more lightweight racquets are favoured, made out of aluminium, graphite and other light metals. They weigh between 397g to 454g (14oz to 16oz), and vary in size depending on the player. They are usually strung with resilient gut or nylon, and can be strung to different tensions. The handle is covered with a rubber or leather grip so it does not slip out of the hand easily.

The ball is made out of inflated rubber with a wool composition. They are pressurised especially for this use. They are 6cm to 7cm (2.5in to 2.625in) wide2 and weigh between 57g to 58g (2oz to 2.0625oz). The outward appearance is most commonly a fluorescent yellow with a wavy rubber strip circling it.

The Lines

The lines on the court are marked out so it is easy to see where the boundaries of the court are. On grass courts, the lines are done in chalk, so if a ball lands plumb on a line, chalk flies up and marks the ball, reducing disputes over line calls. That is the theory, but put into practice, this is not always the case. Just because chalk flies up, it doesn't mean that the ball has landed on the line. Instead, it could have landed in an area of 'chalk spread'; an area of court surrounding the line in which the chalk has been disturbed from its designated line. This was the main sticking point for John McEnroe's now infamous 1981 tantrum at Wimbledon. He thought the ball had landed in as he saw chalk. The umpire, Ted James, had seen the chalk fly up too, from the area of chalk spread, and thus left the call as out.

On clay courts, there is a thin layer of dusty clay. When the ball lands, it imprints so it is visible where it landed. However, on hard courts, it is done in paint. This means that it is very hard to judge whether balls were on the line or not. This tends to cause major disputes, leading to tennis tantrums when the player questioning is highly stressed and pent-up with anger.


Many matches in lawn tennis are remembered for their nail-biting points. Here, it is possible to score on your opponent's serve, so points fly around very quickly on both sides.

The scoring is not consecutive, meaning that it doesn't go 1-love, 2-love etc. Instead, the point system is different, going '15-love, 30-love, 40-love, game' or 'love-15, love-30, love-40, game'. The first score is the player who served, and the second is the opponent who is receiving the serve. Zero points is referred to as love3. When the score is equal, the umpire calls out '15-all', unless the players both have 40, where it is called deuce. In this case, the next person to win the point has an advantage, and this is read out as 'Advantage (insert person's name here)'.

For the server to win a point, either of these scenarios must occur:

  • The receiver hits the ball out
  • The receiver hits the ball into the net
  • The server serves an ace
  • The server hits a winner4
  • The receiver loses the point through a code violation (see Court Etiquette for definition) or warning given by the umpire

For the receiver to win a point, either of these scenarios must occur:

  • The server serves a double-fault
  • The server hits the ball out
  • The server hits the ball into the net
  • The receiver hits a winner
  • The server loses the point through a code violation or warning given by the umpire

When a player wins a game, this is added to their main score. The first person to six games wins a set, but they must be at least two games above their opponent's score.


This occurs when the game score is six games all. To settle who wins the set, a tie-break is played. The scoring is different in this case, going up consecutively (1-love etc), and the player who is leading has his name read out. Each player has two serves each, but the person who serves first starts on their second serve.

The first person to get to six points with a gap of two points wins the game and the set. If there is not a gap of two points, the tie-break carries on until there is.


The singles game is slightly different to the doubles game, as the side tramlines are not in use. If the ball lands in them, it is called out.

The server begins on the right half of the court, outside the baseline, ready to serve. Their opponent stands diagonally opposite, ready to receive the ball.

The server throws the ball in the air and strikes it down into the box diagonally opposite him/her. If the receiver is unable to touch it and hit it back, it is called an ace and the server wins the point. If it does not bounce in the box diagonally opposite, or hits the net and does not go over, or bounces in the wrong service box, or the server foot-faults5 the serve it is called a fault. The server has another chance to serve. If he/she messes it up again, it is a double-fault, and the point is given to their opponent.

The only way that the server is able to get more than two serves in a single point is when the ball clips the net, goes over and touches the box diagonally opposite. This is called a 'let' - first/second service, depending on whether the server is on the first or second serve. The server is allow to serve again. Four lets are allowed, otherwise it is called a double-fault and the point is given to the opponent.

Golden Rule: The ball is allowed to bounce once, and once only. (In lawn tennis played by the disabled, the ball can bounce twice.)

During play, each player must try and hit a winner or force their opponent into an error to win the point. This causes thumping baseline battles or delicate net play.

When a point is won, the server serves from the left hand box. The server serves from these boxes alternately until the game is won. When the game has been won, the opponent serves, doing so from their right hand box and changing when a point is won.

Every two games, the players swap ends, and every three games is when they have a two-minute break.

Singles' matches are played first to two sets in tournaments on the tennis circuit for both men and women. In Grand Slams, however, men play first to three, creating possible five-set matches, but women still play first to two. The tie-break rule is set for all sets but the last one, where to win, a player must be two games above their opponent's game score in that set when reaching six games all.


In doubles, the entire court is used, so there is more space for the players to hit the ball.

Doubles' play is more attacking, so volleying is preferred to baseline ground strokes.

Serving is exactly the same as in singles, but the players serve alternately for each game. One person on each side serves, then the other two, meaning: X and Y are playing A and B. X serves first and wins the game. A serves for the next, Y for the one after, and B for the one after that. This continues for the whole match.

Doubles' matches are played first to two sets in tournaments on the tennis circuit for both men and women. In Grand Slams, it is different, as men's doubles play first to three sets, creating a maximum of five sets played, and women's and mixed doubles are played to three sets. The tie-break rule explained in the singles' matches applies here as well.

Court Etiquette

The players are expected to have the highest standard of sportsmanly behaviour on court. This expectation is loosened when the players are off court and not playing.

However, many tennis matches bring up a disputed line call. If the player involved is feeling extremely stressed, tense and angry, they usually let all their feelings out at the umpire. This is well-known as a tennis tantrum. The player will argue, shout, scream and mostly swear at the umpire in a virtually unfruitful attempt to win the point back.

Unfortunately, the umpire is most likely to give the player in question a code violation. A code violation is given when the player has severely broken the rules of etiquette. The player may now face a fine depending on the fierceness of their outburst. If a code violation is not given, a public warning is given instead, so the whole court knows that the player is on the verge of breaking a rule.

In some cases, the umpire may not bother to give a code violation or warning to the player. Tennis tantrums are part of playing tennis, and they give the crowd something else to watch other than the match itself.


There is such a variety of shots that it would be too complicated to list them here. For example, backhand shots can be played with one or two hands. The double-handed backhand was first pioneered by Chris Evert (a female tennis player who won Wimbledon twice and Roland Garros once) who inspired a stream of players who copied this technique. The single-handed backhand, although less powerful, is more accurate than the double-handed backhand. Here instead is a list of the shots mainly used by players in a match of tennis.

The Drive

The commonest and most simple shot played in tennis. It is a powerful shot which can win points if directed in the right place. The forehand drive is stronger than the backhand drive, which means that many players attempt to direct their shots to the backhand rather than the forehand. This is usually played at the baseline.

The Topspin Shot

This is when the ball is struck by the racquet at an angle, so it is stroked across the top, under the racquet, spinning it forward. This can be done on both forehand and backhand. The ball travels fast and low over the net, bouncing low, creating a harder shot for the opponent to pick up.

The Slice

The slice is easier to play on the backhand than the forehand. The racquet strikes the underside of the ball, taking off the speed. The slice may be played with backspin, making the ball travel slow and low over the net. The ball will bounce vertically rather than towards the player. A forehand slice is also known as a chip, where the racquet hits the ball in a chopping action, taking off speed and making it drop low over the net.

The Lob

Here, the ball is played high and far over the opponent's head, in the hope that it lands in and the opponent does not get it. However, it is possible that the opponent will just smash it down at you if an unsuccessful lob is played.

The Drop Shot

The drop shot is played at the net, usually to make an opponent run to the net if they appear to be hovering at the baseline. This is effective if played well, but it is possible that the opponent will lob it over you head and cause you to run back to collect the ball.

The Volley

Volleying the ball is generally considered to be a pure attacking shot. A volley is when the ball is struck before it bounces on the ground. This means most of the power is still in it, and all you have to do is 'punch' at it, either creating a short smash or a little drop shot. This is best played at the net to block hard ground strokes.

The Smash

As the ball usually stays low, the smash is mainly used when the ball is lobbed unsuccessfully at you. Again, this is a winner as it is almost impossible to return from a smash unless it was a rubbish smash or the court area is very large.

The Between-the-Legs Shot

Played either when bored, or as a shot-for-nothing, it is generally played at the baseline after running from the net. The player turns around and hits the ball between his/her legs, with no idea of where the ball will bounce. Strangely enough, they usually all go in and are mainly winners.

The Hot-dog Shot

Only one player is infamous for playing this shot, and is specialised at doing this - Goran Ivanisevic. This is played when extremely bored, and is a sort of between-the-legs shot. It is played as a type of volley. The player faces their opponent, but places the racquet behind them and between the legs to volley it back. This is very hard to do, as Marat Safin soon found out after rallying against Ivanisevic who persisted doing this shot. This shot is very hard to do if the player has no previous training on it. If you are a male player, it can be equally painful if you miss.

Styles of Play

The style of play affects how you hit, move and play on the court. Some players may be better suited to some courts than others depending on style.

Serve and Volley

This is an attacking method. The server serves the ball and immediately goes up to the net to receive the ball and hopefully win the point by a quick volley. Serve and volley is better suited to a grass court, and grass-court players tend to use this style, such as Pete Sampras, Tim Henman, Patrick Rafter, John McEnroe, Martina Hingis and Martina Navratilova.

Baseline Battle

This is generally defensive. The players prefer to hover around the baseline, with powerful ground strokes and long rallies occurring. It is a matter of which player runs out of steam first, and loses the momentum to carry on the rally. This is suited to a clay court, and possibly a hard court such as acrylic. Some players who use this style are Björn Borg, Gustavo Kuerten, Nicolas Lapentti, Lleyton Hewitt, the Williams sisters and Jennifer Capriati.

Major Lawn Tennis Tournaments

The major tennis tournaments are held once every year. They are called Grand Slams events. A player can get a 'grand slam', which is not the tournament, but a victory that is better than just winning one. To win a grand slam, a player had to win each Grand Slam event at least once. Only six players have ever done this: Don Budge (1938), Maureen Catherine Connolly (1953), Rod Laver (in 1962 and 1969), Margaret Court Smith (1970), Martina Navratilova (1984) and Steffi Graf (in 1988 and 1994).

Here is a list of the principal lawn tennis Grand Slam events:

List of Lawn Tennis Grand Slam Events
Name of EventPlace HeldSurfaceFirst Year of Play
http://www.wimbledon.comBritish Open6Wimbledon, LondonGrass1877
http://www.usopen.orgUS OpenFlushing Meadows, New YorkAcrylic hard court1881
http://www.rolandgarros.orgFrench OpenRoland Garros, ParisClay1891
http://www.australianopen.comAustralian OpenMelbourne Park, MelbourneACE Rebound1905

The Davis Cup is a international men's tennis tournament played between countries around the world. It was first played in 1900, in which the victorious country wins a silver cup - the Davis Cup. Many countries participate for this prestigious tournament. The Federation Cup is the female equivalent of this.

The Tennis Masters Cup is the final major tournament of the year on the men's circuit. Through a carefully planned points system called the ATP Champion's Race, points won from tournaments and Grand Slams around the year tell which eight players can compete in this. It is usually this tournament which shows who becomes the World Number One of that year.

The WTA Championships is the final major tournament of the year on the women's circuit. It is this tournament when most players end their tennis year, and take a break for the rest of the year. The points system is different to the ATP circuit.

Lawn tennis also became a medal sport in the Olympic Games in 1988.

The Associations

The main tennis association is the International Tennis Federation, in which everything is controlled. The main tennis circuit, however, is controlled by two main associations - the Association of Tennis Professionals for the mens's circuit and the Women's Tennis Association for the women's circuit. In Britain, they run their own mini circuit, headed by the Lawn Tennis Association.

Game, Set, and Match?

Lawn tennis is an increasingly popular sport with all ages, because of its versatility and enjoyable play. Lawn tennis is a sport for everyone, and new changes are being made all the time.

1Men first competed at Wimbledon in 1877, and women began competing in 1884.2Recently, the International Tennis Federation have allowed bigger balls to be introduced to slow down the fast serves.3Love is the Anglicised version of the French word for egg - l'oeuf. An egg is the shape of a zero and is related directly to the number.4A shot that the opponent is unable to return or touch, therefore 'winning' the point.5Any part of the server's body enters the court before the ball has been struck.6This is better known as Wimbledon as it is the oldest and most prestigious lawn tennis and grass court tournament on the circuit.

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