Summer Olympics: All About Tennis

All About Tennis

Tennis was part of the first seven Olympic games. Then a dispute between organizations led to it being dropped for ten of the next eleven Olympics. In the time it was missing, all of the sport’s Victorian notions of it being a gentle person’s sport were flushed from the game. These days it’s a fiercely competitive professional sport.

How Does Tennis Work?

“The most complicated aspect of tennis is its scoring system that has its own language and nests inside itself like a Russian doll. Let’s run through this from biggest to smallest. Tennis is played in matches. A match can be won by winning two of three (or three of five) sets. A set consists of individual games. Winning a set means being the first player to win six games, although you have to win by two. If a set is tied 6-6, it gets decided by what is called a tie break. This is like a single extended game where the first player to win 7 points (again though, you have to win by two) wins the set. The only exception to this is if the final set is tied — if this happens, normal games are played infinitely until one player has a two game lead. Games themselves have their own confusing rules and vocabulary. A game is made up of points. Points are the smallest level of tennis. A point begins with a serve and ends when one player either cannot return a ball hit into their side of the court or hits the ball directly out of bounds. Games are played to four points with, of course, a few wrinkles. The first is that, like sets, winning a game requires a two point lead. The second is strictly a matter of how the scores are talked about. Instead of counting up from zero by one (1-0, 1-1, 2-1, etc.) the scores go 0 (also called love,) 15, 30, 40. If the score is tied 40-40, it’s called deuce, and one player will have to win two points in a row to win the game. After the first of those two points, the score is called Advantage Player A. If Player B wins the next point, the score returns to deuce or 40-40.

Got it? Good!”

Why do People Like Tennis

Olympic tennis is special because players are not just playing for themselves, they’re playing for their country. This is true in lots of sports, but it’s special in tennis, because it is, in my opinion, the most intensely psychological sport. What effect does this mind shift have? Does it help some players and hurt others? What does that tell us about them? For example, the favorite on the men’s side, Novak Djokovic, is known to be an overtly patriotic Serb. He hasn’t broken through at the Olympics but I’m sure he wants to. He’ll surely be playing with an edge but will that edge help him or hurt him?

Check out some highlights from the 2012 Olympics:

What are the different events?

Tennis has a men’s singles event, a women’s singles event, a women’s doubles event, a men’s doubles event, and a mixed doubles event with teams consisting of one woman and one man.

How Dangerous is Tennis?

Tennis is not dangerous as much as it is damaging. The sport was developed to be played on grass and for the sake of its players knees and ankles, perhaps it should have stayed that way. Tennis also has one of the longest seasons of all sports, so tennis players basically never get a break from the constant pounding of sprinting on asphalt.

What’s the State of Gender Equality in Tennis?

In many tennis events, and all of the four major tournaments, there’s a glaring difference between men and women in tennis. Men play best-three-out-of-five set matches and women play best-two-out-of-three set matches. The Olympics almost fixes this issue. Everyone will play best-two-out-of-three set matches… except for in the men’s finals which will be a best-three-out-of-five set match. Gah! So close!


Bookmark the full Olympics schedule from NBC. Tennis is from Saturday, August 6 to Sunday, August 14.

Read more about tennis on the official Rio Olympics site.

Why are some tournaments called opens?

Dear Sports Fan,

I’m excited that the U.S. Open tennis tournament is starting this week. I have a question which you might be able to answer though: why are some tournaments called opens? Who are they open to?


Dear Becky,

In today’s sports language, the word “open” is almost a synonym for the word “tournament”. If you ask a tennis fan what she’s watching in the next couple weeks, she’ll say, “the U.S. Open” not “the U.S. Open tournament”. In a more technical sense, the term does make a distinction between one type of tournament and another. In a non-open (sometimes called an “invitational”) tournament, all of the places in the tournament will be filled by professional tennis players based on a current ranking that is maintained by the Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP). An open tournament doles out most of its places to players based on the same rankings but it reserves a small number of spots (16 for men, 8 to 16 for women) for people who qualify by winning or doing well in a qualifying tournament. (Side note — players who don’t win their qualifying tournament but who make it into an Open field anyway are wonderfully called Lucky Losers.) These qualifying tournaments are open to professional and amateur players. Amateur qualifiers have rarely made an impact in recent years. In men’s tennis, a qualifier named Vladimir Voltchkov made it to the semifinals in the 2000 Wimbledon and during the 2015 British Open (of golf), an amateur qualifier named Paul Dunne was tied for the lead after the third of four rounds. Nonetheless, the inclusive nature of open tournaments adds to their romance. Like an open cup in European soccer, the fact that an unknown could win is enough to justify their inclusion.

Given current use of the “open” moniker, you’d be forgiven for thinking that tournaments have historically been the province of professional players and the opening of open tournaments has always been to allow amateurs to join in. Historically, at least in tennis, it’s actually exactly the opposite. Before 1968 the major tennis tournaments each year were open only to amateurs. In 1968, they all began to allow professionals to compete. This change was reflected in the name of two of the tournaments. The U.S. National Championships became the U.S. Open and the Australian Championships became the Australian Open. In today’s money fueled sports world, it seems crazy to think that professionals were excluded and amateurs preferred, but that’s how things were in tennis before 1968.

Enjoy the U.S. Open! Here are two printable brackets that you can use to track the action. The 16 qualifiers are labeled with a “(Q)” in the men’s draw and the women’s draw as well.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Showing emotion in tennis – a chicken or egg dilemma

If you watched the Wimbledon men’s semifinal today between Roger Federer and Andy Murray, you would have noticed a striking difference in behavior between the two men. Murray was emotional throughout the match, screaming, talking to himself, and banging his racket against the ground or his insteps. Federer barely uttered a word, except a few classic tennis “come ons!” His face registered neither fear nor excitement nor exertion. Federer showed no emotion, Murray showed lots. Murray lost.

Although Federer is an extreme example — he is one of the greatest winners in tennis history and he’s known for his monk-like disposition — the question of how outward displays of emotion effect a player’s chances in tennis is a real one. It’s particularly interesting to consider whether showing emotion is something that a player does when he or she is going to lose or whether it’s something that helps bring about the player’s demise. In other words, does the losing cause the emotional outburst or does the outburst cause the losing? It’s not just Federer. Some of the greatest winners in tennis are reticent. Rafael Nadal is the opposite of Federer when it comes to showing how hard he’s working during a tennis match, but they are similar in their ability to maintain emotional peace or an incredible facsimile of it. Nadal seems sure that he will be able to beat his opponent simply by working harder than them and he never seems to doubt that he can work harder. Take Novak Djokovic, the new reigning number one men’s player in the world. Early in his career, he was prone to losing matches that he seemed to be in control of. How did this happen? Something bad would happen and he’d lose his temper. He’d break rackets and curse at himself in Serbian. He’d hit himself in the head with his racket. Once he got his emotion under control, he started winning tournaments. Or, wait… was it the other way around?

My money is on the emotion being the egg and the winning being the chicken. Tennis is a uniquely psychological game. It’s intensely isolating for its players, who are not allowed to even talk to their coaches during major tournaments. It’s very intimate — when you’re at a tennis match live, even from the very last seat in the biggest tennis stadium (I know, I’ve sat there) you feel as though you can speak directly to the players. Showing yourself to be unflappable through all the ups and downs inherent in a tennis match has to unnerve your opponent. My guess is that players who learn to control their emotions and who develop great poker faces (maybe we should start calling them “Federer faces”) are able to win more than players with equal or similar skill levels.

Serena Williams, who will play in the 2015 Wimbledon finals with a chance to win her fourth straight major tournament in a row and her 21st major singles tournament overall, may be an exception to this rule. She is openly emotional on the court. She does show when she’s angry at herself and when she’s excited. It’s possible that she’s able to win despite giving up the advantage of unflappability because she and her opponents are women and they and our culture in general expect different behavior from women emotionally. It’s also possible that her skill level is so much higher than everyone else’s that she doesn’t need to sweat small advantages like this. A third possibility is that part of her tennis brilliance has come from taking a different path through the emotional forest. Maybe she unnerves people and strengthens herself by doing just the opposite of what works for everyone else.

Understand the odds – how betting on tennis works

When Americans think about betting on sports, our first thoughts usually turn to football and horse racing. Over in England and Europe, the sports to bet on are soccer and tennis. To explain how betting works in tennis, I called on Luke Rees, a British sports fan and writer. Here’s what he wrote:

When placing a bet on a tennis match, it can often be quite confusing to interpret the various odds available. There are numerous markets to pick from, and also many different options for those looking to boost their profits, meaning punters often decide to stay clear of the tennis game.

This article will outline the basics of reading the odds, and provide advice for tennis spectators who want to make the game a little bit more interesting.

Betting On the Money Line

Money line bets are the most basic and popular market in tennis (and the majority of sports for that matter, including horse racing). Essentially, the bookies provide the odds on the outright winner of a match, and you simply pick your favorite for the win. The favorite in a match is given a negative (-) money line, and the underdog is indicated with positive (+) money line.

Here’s an example:

  • Andy Murray -190 (favorite)
  • Vasek Pospisil +300 (underdog)
  • Negative money line: this indicates the amount of money needed to bet in order to win $100 in profit. So, in the example above, it would require a $190 wager on Andy Murray to win $100 in profit, for a total pay-out of $290.
  • Positive money line: this indicates the amount of money that would be won from a $100 wager. In the example above, a $100 bet on Vasek Pospisil would result in a $300 profit if he wins the match, for a total pay-out of $400.

The first step to take when making a bet is to look at the money line and decide if it is worth taking out a bet. For instance, you may decide that betting on Pospisil is not worth it at 4/1 odds ($400 return for $100 bet) because Murray is currently the strong favorite. But say the money line on Pospisil was 8/1 or +800: you might have a different opinion if you stood to make a $900 return.

The money line is used not only for individual games, but also for betting on a player to win the tournament outright. This is commonly referred to as Outright Winner betting: you can see some Wimbledon outright winner predictions at Bookmakers, for example.

Betting ‘Each Way’ means you place two bets, one on the player to win the tournament and one on them to finish in the top 2 places (i.e. to reach the final).

The Handicap Market

The handicap (or HCAP) market is another popular market. This is because rather than predicting the outright winner, you are instead betting on how a certain player performs. A handicap market simply means that one of the players is given an advantage at the beginning – usually by adding a certain amount of games to their overall score.

Let’s take the same tennis example. This is how it might look:

Andy Murray -7.5 -190 vs. Pospisil +7.5 -190

The money line is even on this bet, what has changes is the handicap. In both cases, a wager of $190 would bring back a $100 win if the right player is chosen. The pay-out is even, because the spread has balanced out the competition between the two players.

Imagine that this is the result from the match: 6-3 6-4 6-4

Totals Games Won – Murray 18 vs. Pospisil 11

As you can see, despite losing the match in straight sets, a bet on Pospisil would have actually been the winner in this case. The handicap of +7.5 games for Pospisil gets added to his 11 games won to give him 18.5 total. That is a half-game ahead of Murray in this case, and so a bet on Pospisil would be paid out.

Betting on Accumulators

One final interesting way to bet – if you’re feeling especially confident and want to boost your profits throughout a tournament – is to place multiple bets on a series of matches. These are known as Doubles, Trebles, and Accumulators. For the bet to come through, you have to get each result correct, otherwise there is no pay-out.

Imagine a $30 single bet on Novak Djokovic to beat Andy Murray at odds of -250 (or 2/5) returns just a $10 profit. This may not be particularly appealing, so to make it more worthwhile you could put down a treble on three different games. If all of them pay out around -250, your $25 stake will make you $50 profit. After each correctly predicted match outcome, your profits go up exponentially.

With the tennis season well underway, and the U.S Open just around the corner, now’s the time to get down to the bookies with your new betting know-how. But always remember, never bet what you can’t afford!

Luke Rees is a sports writer and enthusiast from London, UK, who likes to cover tennis, cycling, and football (or soccer to y’all). His most memorable sports experience was watching Federer and Roddick in the Wimbledon final in 2009 – he was rooting for Roddick, but Federer absolutely smashed it!

Why do people like tennis?

Dear Sports Fan,

Why do people like tennis?



Dear Heidi,

Tennis is a great sport to play and watch but its charms are not always immediately obvious. To the uninitiated, tennis can seem like watching a game of Pong but with horrible grunting and screaming instead of charming, robotic “bong bong” noises. Tennis is a relatively easy sport to learn and I think it’s worth picking up. Here are some of the reasons why I like tennis.

  1. Long, stable rivalries: Tennis players these days have long careers and at least in the men’s game, the best players stay at the top of the game for a long time. This leads to wonderful rivalries that last for a decade or more. It’s rare and rewarding to see two or three great players battle each other for years on end.
  2. Personality shines through: More than any other sport, as a viewer of tennis, you get to know the players you’re watching. You learn their nervous tics, you see them get mad at themselves, you witness their struggles with fatigue and injury, and if you and they are lucky, you get to see them celebrate the pinnacle of their professional lives.
  3. Psychologically challenging: Tennis is the most psychologically challenging sport. More than any other sport I have seen, tennis players are alone when they compete. In major tournaments they are actually prohibited from having any communication with their coaches. The way the sport is constructed, there are almost always lots of ups and downs in any match and the margin between success and failure is literally inches. You’ll often hear people say that great quarterbacks or baseball hitters need to have “short memories” so they can approach each pass or hit with a blankly optimistic mind. Quarterbacks throw thirty passes in a game. Baseball players get four or five attempts at the plate. Tennis players have to blank their minds this way hundreds of times in every match.
  4. Matches last as long as they are good: The way tennis works, uneven matches are over pretty quickly — an hour for a three set match or two for a five set match — but great matches stretch out in enjoyable luxury. A close, hard-fought match can last three hours for a three set match or more than five hours for a five set match. It’s like there’s a built-in mechanism in the sport to make the better viewing experiences last longer and the worse ones end quickly. Compare that to timed sports like soccer, basketball, and hockey, where the great games fly by and the bad ones feel like they are going to last forever…
  5. Has its own vocabulary: Tennis has great words and phrases that only exist in the context of the sport. They’re easy to learn and once you know them, you feel like an insider!
  6. Stylish players: Dressing to play sports is not usually the time you choose to make a fashion statement. There are so many sports fashion choices that are about function over style: bike shorts, squash goggles, over-sized hockey jerseys — but tennis has always prioritized function and style. Even at Wimbledon, where the players are required to wear only white, tennis players exhibit their own styles. Rafael Nadal and Rodger Federer are known for capris and gold accented clothing as much as they are known for winning titles.
  7. Varying surfaces make for different styles: Most sports are only played on one surface. Professional basketball is played on wood, baseball on grass and dirt, football on grass and fake grass. Ice hockey is played on ice and swimming is done in water. Only tennis is played on grass and clay and asphalt where each surface is meant to influence how the game is played. On grass, big serves rule the day. Clay is slower, encouraging defensive tactical play. Hard court falls in between. As a viewer, you develop a preference for watching one surface or another (I love clay) or you just appreciate each of them for their peculiarities.
  8. Wimbledon: Alone among the major sporting events, Wimbledon retains an air of gentility while being a thrilling, top-level competitive event. Let football have it’s Tostitos Fiesta Bowl and hot dogs, tennis fans are happy with Wimbledon and strawberries and cream.

Enjoy the tennis,
Ezra Fischer

Cue Cards 9-9-14

Cue Cards is a series designed to assist with the common small talk about high-profile recent sporting events that is so omnipresent in the workplace, the bar, and other social settings.

clapperboardYesterday —  Sunday, September 7

  1. Ray Rice Released — released video of NFL player Ray Rice assaulting his then fiancee in an elevator. The emotional (and PR) power of the video led to Rice being immediately released by his team and suspended indefinitely by the league. A full summary and my take on this can be found here.
    Line: Ray Rice was unequivocally in the wrong since the minute he struck his fiancee but the law and the NFL didn’t have to be. Their inappropriate response now puts them at the center of this story.
  2. U.S. Open Winner — Marin Cilic defeated Kei Nishikori in the men’s finals of the U.S. Open. The U.S. Open is the last of the four major tournaments of the year, so, although tennis season officially continues, casual coverage of it basically stops until next Spring. As pointed out by Kyle Jurczak on Fancred, Cilic won in three straight sets, all six games to three, which was the same score Serena Williams won her straight set final in. Weird! Also from Kyle, this means that 2014 saw eight different people win the eight (four men’s, four women’s) available major tournaments. Weird!
    Line: Did you know [insert one of Kyle’s cool stats here.]
  3. The last two NFL games (until Thursday) — I’m not sure why but for some reason the NFL always starts with two Monday night football games on the first weekend of the professional football season. Maybe it’s shock treatment to get used to having football back in our lives? The earlier game between the Giants and the Lions was a yawn, as predicted by it being featured in our Do Not Watch This Game column, but the second game was a close one that came down to the last few minutes. The Arizona Cardinals just squeaked by the San Diego Chargers, 18 to 17.
    Line: It’s too soon to make any real conclusions from week one. The Cardinals and Chargers might both be really good or both be pretty mediocre. The Lions could be great or the Giants could be so terrible that they made them look great.

Cue Cards 9-5-2014

clapperboardCue Cards is a series designed to assist with the common small talk about high-profile recent sporting events that is so omnipresent in the workplace, the bar, and other social settings.

Yesterday —  September 4

I wrote a post yesterday about the two most exciting sports games on TV that night called “I don’t always watch sports, but when I do, I prefer contrasts“. Here’s what happened in those two events.

  1. Cool outlasts Hot — Last night Roger Federer beat Gael Monfils in a five set U.S. Open quarterfinal tennis match. I wrote about the two that Federer “doesn’t get ruffled.” He had to use all his anti-ruffling skills after losing the first two sets. About Monfils on the other hand, I wrote that he, “spends a lot of time self-destructing on tennis courts.” That’s exactly what happened. After losing by just a little in the third and fourth set to a determined Federer, Monfils got into his own head and lost the fifth set six games to two. They both played to type.
    Line: “Federer’s gonna Federer and Monfils is gonna Monfils.” Or, less obtuse, “That’s why Federer is a champion and Monfils isn’t — mental toughness.”
  2. Defense flusters offense — The Seattle Seahawks beat up, confused, and eventually just beat the Green Bay Packers during their 36 to 16 victory last night. The defense sacked Green Bay Quarterback Aaron Rodgers three times, forced one fumble, one safety, and one interception. Meanwhile, that “frankly bad” defense of the Packers fairly wilted under the pressure of Seattle’s offense which did “pound their opponent into the ground with powerful running attacks” as predicted. The Seahawks ran for 191 yards, averaging a massive 6.8 yards per carry.
    Line: “The most physical team wins most football games and last night that team was the Seahawks.” 

I don't always watch sports, but when I do, I prefer contrasts

Vamping on the great Dos Equis commercials that feature the “Most Interesting Man in the World” claiming, “I don’t always drink beer, but when I do, I prefer Dos Equis,” I don’t always watch sports, but when I do, I prefer contrasts. I think many sports fans are like this. I’d rather watch a great defense play against a great offense than watch two great offenses score mounds of points on each other or two great defenses circle each other cautiously. In boxing, I’d rather watch a hot-headed slugger face off against a tactically sound boxer. In baseball, I want to see if a great pitcher can throw his way through a murderer’s row of hitters or whether they tire him down. Even in individual sports like downhill skiing or golf, it’s more compelling if you can watch people approach the puzzle of winning in different ways. There are two sporting events tonight that promise big contrasts in style and I am looking forward to catching at least part of both of them. I’ll lay out the contrasts in this post, tell me if you watch and if so, whether you see and enjoy the contrasts I describe.

Cool vs. Hot at the U.S. Open

Tennis is perhaps the most psychologically difficult sport because its players are alone on the court for up to five hours. In major tournaments like the U.S. Open, they aren’t even allowed to speak to their coaches. To win a tennis match, men (women play only three sets) need to win three sets out of five. To win a set, they need to be the first to win six by two games or win in a tie-break. Games require them to get to four points but they have to win by two. In matches between players of relatively equal skill, temperament or injury almost always mean the difference between winning and losing.

Roger Federer’s name is all over the record books but perhaps his most impressive record is that he was ranked number one in the world for 237 weeks in a row. This record expresses his nature. He is cool. He doesn’t get ruffled. His movements are smooth, graceful, and efficient. He never looks like he’s trying that hard or, frankly, that he’s physically strong enough to keep up with his opponent. All of this explains, in part, how Federer can still be playing at such a high level at 33, an age at which most tennis players’ physical skills have degraded to the point that they cannot keep up anymore.

Gael Monfils looks like the member of a tennis playing species
Gael Monfils looks like the member of a tennis playing species

Federer’s opponent is the exact opposite. Gael Monfils is a physical freak. Federer looks like a robot programmed to play tennis. Monfils looks like a species genetically designed to play tennis. He’s tall, incredibly muscular, and flexible. His springs around the court like a modern dancer — never quite centered but never out of balance either. If it weren’t for his temperament, he’d probably be completely unbeatable. As it is, he spends a lot of time self-destructing on tennis courts. He screams at himself, gives up, tries again, gives up again. He can’t seem to help being a showman. The more important the moment is, the less he seems to be able to help leaping into shots or trying to hit the ball between his legs. The most dominant he’s ever looked on a tennis court was a rain delay dance competition at the French Open:

At least until this U.S. Open, in which Monfils, playing without a coach, hasn’t lost a single set. Monfils remains as compelling as he is confusing.

I have to admit, I kind of love both these players. I can’t help but root for old-age and treachery to win out over youth and vigor, so I want Federer to win. Meanwhile, Monfils’ unpredictability and pathos make me love him, and he just looks like he’s having more fun when he’s having fun out there than anyone else.  We’ll see what happens tonight around 8 p.m. on ESPN.

Defense vs. Offense to Start the NFL Season

The first NFL game is a celebration and would be must watch TV for sports fans no matter who was playing. That said, tonight’s game between the Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers provides a great contrast in everything but color. The Seahawks have the best defense in the league, with big, fast, and brash defenders flying all over the place, hitting anything that moves. The Packers offense has been in the top third of the league in scoring for the last five years. The Packers have a well established star at quarterback who leads an offense based on quick throws and immaculate timing. The Seahawks specialize in messing up offensive timing by hitting receivers (legally or illegally) at the line of scrimmage. The Seahawks offense tries to pound their opponents into the ground with powerful running attacks. The Packers defense was, well, frankly bad last year.

The only similarities between these teams is that they are both good, they both think they have a chance to win the Super Bowl this year, and they both wear green. See what happens at 8:30 p.m. ET on NBC.

Cue Cards 9-4-2014

clapperboardCue Cards is a series designed to assist with the common small talk about high-profile recent sporting events that is so omnipresent in the workplace, the bar, and other social settings.

Yesterday —  September 3

  1. Djokovic beats Murray — The most highly anticipated men’s tennis match yesterday was the nightcap of the U.S. Open between Andy Murray and Novak Djokovic. With a start time right around 10 p.m., there was the possibility of it lasting until 3 a.m. if it had gone into a fifth set competitively. Instead, after two very close sets which both went into tie-breaks, Murray seemed to fade because of hip and back pain and Djokovic won the final two sets by a wide margin. The two players have been playing each other since they were 13!

    Line: “What a shame that Murray lost it physically because the first two sets were so close. I’m not sure anyone left can beat Djokovic.”

  2. The two faces of baseball — Yesterday’s slate of baseball games had two great games on either side of the baseball spectrum. Both were competitive and close. One was a low-scoring “pitcher’s duel” and the other was a big-hitting “slugfest.” The Seattle Mariners beat the Oakland Athletics 2-1 in a matchup between great pitchers Felix Hernandez (Seattle) and Jon Lester (Oakland). The Washington Nationals beat the Los Angeles Dodgers in a game that needed extra innings over the normal nine because it was tied after nine. The game ended in the fourteenth inning after the Nationals scored three runs in that inning.

    Line: “People love those high scoring baseball games but I really appreciate a well played defensive game like the one between Oakland and Seattle.

  3. Here comes football — actual sporting events aside, the thing on most sports fans’ minds today is going to be the National Football Leagues season which starts tonight with a game between the defending champions, the Seattle Seahawks, and the Green Bay Packers. Seattle is expected to again have the best defense in the league while Green Bay is expected to have one of the best offenses. The NFL is the least predictable of the major sports leagues but this seems like it will be an exciting game.

    Line: “Remember last year when the defending champion Baltimore Ravens got beat by the Denver Broncos 49 to 27? It could happen again… but I doubt it because Seattle’s defense is too good.”

How do serves work in tennis?

Dear Sports Fan,

How do serves work in tennis? I’ve been watching the U.S. Open and the commentators seem to make a big deal over them. Why is that?


Rafael Nadal
Best in the world at returning serves, Rafael Nadal is not so shabby at serving either.

— — —

Dear Titus,

Great question — you’re absolutely right that tennis announcers make a big deal about serving but they don’t always explain how it works. I’ll take you quickly through how serves work in tennis, in particular, what the rules are and why they’re important to the game.

Visualize a tennis court. It’s split into two halves by the net. On each half there are three rectangles created by white lines. One big rectangle covers the half of the half farthest from the net. The area closest to the net is divided into two narrower rectangles. When a player serves the tennis ball, she has to stand outside of the boxed in area on either the right side of the court or the left. Serves from the right hand side have to cross the net in the air and bounce in the left hand small rectangle. Serves from the left hand side must do the opposite and land on the right side rectangle closest to the net on the opponents side of the court. Got it? It’s just like ping pong.

Although pros make serving look easy, it’s actually very difficult and lots of things can happen to a serve to make it illegal. This is so common that it’s not truly penalized like a foul, it’s called a fault. If a tennis player faults on his or her serve, they get a second chance. If they use their second chance to serve legally, the point goes on normally. If they fault again on the second attempt, they lose the point. The important terms here are first serve which is a player’s first attempt to start a point, second serve which is any serve preceded by a fault, and double fault which is when a serving player’s opponent gets a point because the server faulted two times in a single service attempt.

A fault can come for many reasons. The most common is that the serve fails to land in the correct opposite rectangle either because it gets stopped by the net or because it lands outside of the box. The only other reason I knew of off the top of my head was a “foot fault” which happens when a serving player steps on or over the baseline when they are serving. According to Wikipedia there are some other ways to fault on a serve but they don’t happen very often. One exception to the fault rule that does happen pretty often is when the ball hits the net but goes over and lands in the proper serving box. When this happens, it’s called a let and the serving player just gets a do-over. If they are on their first serve, they’re still on their first serve. If they are on their second, they are still on their second. If you’ve watched enough tennis, you’ve seen a player win a point because, in the normal course of play, they hit the net and the ball skips over and falls into their opponent’s side of the court. The player who won the point usually holds up their hands in a universal “I’m sorry, that was luck” gesture. It’s good sportsmanship but I think it may stem from this rule that establishes the idea that hitting the net shouldn’t be good for either player.

Serves are important because they carry a significant advantage to the player serving the ball. According to the ATP World Tennis Tour’s stats page the best player in the world at winning points when he makes his first serve legally is Ivo Karlovic and he wins 80% of those points. Why is that? Well, Karlovic has one of the fastest serves in the world. His fastest serve ever went 156 mph. Here’s a great video of him serving in slow motion:

The best men’s player in the world at winning points when he is not serving is Rafael Nadal who wins 35% of points even when his opponent’s first serve is legal. On second serves, players usually take a very safe approach to serving. They don’t serve as hard and they aim a little closer to the center of the service box than they do on their first attempt when they try to hit the lines. This reduces the impact of the serve. For example, the man who wins the highest percentage of his second serve points is Roger Federer at 58%. The player who wins the highest percentage of points returning a second serve is Rafael Nadal at 57%. Federer and Nadal are not coincidentally the best players in the world. Basically, a second serve means that the best player is likely to win the point. A first serve is a strong enough weapon that it can override a big skill difference.

This is why tennis matches are so often won when a player wins a game that they are not serving. Because the serve is such an important advantage, players expect to win games they serve. Winning a game when a player doesn’t have the serve is called a break. Without any breaks, a tennis match could theoretically go on forever. American giant (6’10”) tennis player, John Isner, is the closest person to making this a reality. He’s almost unbeatable when he serves — he wins 93% of those games — but can barely ever (9%) seem to break his opponent. It’s no coincidence that he once played in the longest match ever against Nicolas Mahut at 2010 Wimbledon. The match lasted over 11 hours although it did stretch across three days because of rain and darkness.

There you go — probably more about the serve than you bargained for. Hope you enjoyed it,
Ezra Fischer