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Doubles, by TennisTom

▌ © C. Tom Harton 1991-2011 ▐

There are lots of good reasons to play tennis and almost none not to play tennis (barring physical limitations of course). The best way to learn how to play is to learn from a good instructor, either privately or in a group. Recreation departments usually provide seasonal classes but sometimes their teachers are not up to grade. Depending on your pocket book, group lessons by an independent instructor or group lessons at a private facility may be your best choice.

Tennis is an inexpensive sport. You need is a serviceable racket, a pair of tennis shoes with good lateral support, some shorts with pockets to hold tennis balls, a water bottle, some sun screen, tennis balls, and maybe a cap or sun visor.

A doubles tennis court, with boundary lines, looks like this. Singles can be played on it but you do not use the two alleys.


Remember the names of the boundary lines because you will be using them while learning and for the rest of your tennis days. As a beginner you will be primarily concerned with the baseline and the service line. The service lines are the boundary lines demarking the four service courts found next to the net. The baselines are the boundary lines at the base of each end of the court. Study the diagram until you know exactly where the service lines and the baselines are located.

A ball in play is considered OUT if it goes outside the boundary lines; it is considered IN if it goes inside the boundary lines or touches any part of the lines. A ball is IN if only one percent of the ball touches the line. The opponents receiving the ball make the IN or OUT call. If either opponent is not sure of a call, doubt is established, and the decision always goes to the benefit of the opposing team. There is no such thing as an “I don’t know” call. The point always goes to the opponent when there is doubt. Tennis is a game of honor.

In doubles, two partners compete against two other partners. Every game is started by one of the partners serving the ball in the air (before it bounces) to the diagonally opposing service court. If the serve is IN, the point continues until the ball goes out of play. A ball going out of play is defined as any of the four following point losing conditions…

  • You are unable to return the ball before it bounces twice

  • You hit the ball and it lands outside the boundary lines

  • You hit the ball and it falls on your side of the net

  • When serving, you “double fault,” i.e. twice fail to get the ball into the service box

The same server starts off every point during a game. The server switches sides with his partner throughout a game, i.e. the server and the server’s partner switch sides after each point. The receivers do not switch sides but take turns receiving the serve. When the server successfully gets the ball over the net and into the proper service box, it is considered good. If the serve is good, the returner must return the ball anywhere inside the opposite boundary lines or his team loses the point.

Basically the task at hand is to keeping hitting the ball IN the court until the point is lost by one team or the other. Early learners often seem to have a compulsion to hit the ball too hard to control it. Your challenge then is to be able to consistently control the ball as much as possible. Consistency wins. You will hear me repeat that many times.


The scoring of tennis is so ridiculous that I have put its description into another section at the end of this instructional. All you have to remember for now is 1) a point ends each time a fair ball goes out of play; 2) a game consists of a number of points; and 3) a set consists of a number of games. Sometimes a number of sets are played to determine who wins the match.



A rally is any number of balls hit back and forth over the net, There are two contexts. In a game, a rally is any number of balls hit back and forth during a single point. When a lot of balls are hit during a game, players often say that it was a good rally. When not playing a game, some players like to rally just for the fun of it and no score is kept. As beginners, players will rally with each other in order to learn the basics of hitting.


A volley is any ball which you hit in the air before it bounces. Volleys are usually hit by whichever partner is near the net. However in high level doubles all four players may end up at the net with everyone volleying until the point is concluded. When you are at the net, you have about half as much time to hit a volley as you have to hit a groundstroke.

Stance. The manner in which you align you body to hit the ball is called your stance.

Ready position. The ready position is used by the server’s partner, and by the two opponents before each point starts. Once a good serve has been made and a point is in progress, all players should use the ready position. The ready position is a momentary stance and is returned to between shots as long as the ball is in play. In the ready position your feet are approximately parallel with the net. [See more details concerning this position in the instructional “ .”]

Serving stance. [See the elements involved in the serve in the companion instructional.]

Hitting stances. There are three types of stances which you use when you hit the ball on groundstrokes: Closed stance, open stance, and semi-open stance. A groundstroke is used on any ball after it has bounced on the court once. I will only describe the closed stance here because it is the preferred stance for beginners. It is important to note that a hitting stance is a momentary posture in preparation for hitting the ball. As soon as you contact the ball, you should run to an appropriate place on the court (which I will explain later) and assume a momentary ready position.

Closed stance. In a closed stance, you feet are aligned perpendicular – at right angles – with the net. Your torso and your shoulders are also approximately at right angles with the net. A closed stance is a preparatory phase which you use just before and as you swing at the ball. It is achieved by rotating your body from the ready position. As you turn your body to hit a ball coming on your right hand side (right handers), you will pivot on the ball of your right foot and step forward and across with your left foot. (Left handers will need to reverse these instructions.) When you do this body rotation, you are in a closed stance.

Racket swing paths. Your swing path determines the trajectory of the ball you hit. There are three swing paths: low-to-high, flat (level), and high-to-low.

A low-to-high swing path has an pronounced upward arc. It starts a foot or so below the ball contact point and travels upward through the contact point, and finishes high. The low-to-high swing path is used for Topspin (overspin).

A high-to-low swing path has a downward arc. It starts high near your shoulder, travels downward through the contact point, and finishes low. Many good players end their follow through with a gradual rise at the end of this stroke, but it is optional. The high-to-low swing path is used for Slice (underspin).

A flat swing path has little arc, but it usually has a slightly upward trajectory in order for the ball to clear the net. Untrained players often use a flat swing path, but I do NOT recommend it. Hitting flat is inferior to hitting topspin. [See the instruction “ ,” which describes in detail why hitting topspin is better to use than hitting flat (no spin).]

SCORING IN TENNIS – Designed by Idiots or Worse

For Those Who Can Keep the Ball in Play But Haven’t Learned How to Score

Beginners, do not freak out when you try to understand this section.

It is infinitely easier to comprehend when described in person on court.



A set is a series of games where one team or the other must win 6 games, however the winning team must win by 2 games. (Example = six games to four games would be set score of 6-4.) The first of the two numbers in a set score is always announced as the server’s number of games first, which in the preceding example is 6.

In recreational play, usually only one set is played. If there is time for another set, players often switch partners and one more set is played.


If teams reach a score of 6-6 in games, it is called a tie. In order to save time, a tiebreaker can be played. (A synonym for tiebreaker is tiebreak.) If time is not a factor, you can play it out.


When teams are tied at 6-6, the score after the next game is played would either be 7-6 or 6-7. However, when playing it out, the team which is one game ahead does not beat the set until it wins a second game in a row, called “by a margin of two.” If the team with one game ahead wins a second game in a row, that team wins the set and the score would be 8-6 for the serving team.


If you decided to play a tiebreaker, an entirely different order of serving is used. Arrrgh. I sometimes think that the person who devised the tiebreaker scoring was one piece of bread short of a sandwich.  The procedure is explained below. (Note: some tiebreakers are played to 7 points, and some are played to 10 points. And yet even another tiebreaker scoring scheme, called a Coman Tiebreaker, is being used at times in USTA leagues.) Whether you play it out or play a tiebreaker at 6-6 games is often decided at the moment in recreational tennis.


To complicate things, as if you needed more complication, the above tiebreaker set designation in league play, and in print, would be 8-6 if the Home team won, or 6-8 if the Visiting team won. In leagues there is always a home team and a visitor team designated by the organization which is coordinating the league. Home team results go first.


In a local league, best two out of three sets are usually played in a match. If the Home team wins the first two sets it wins the match. The score might be, for example, 6-3, 6-4. If the Home team wins the first set, loses the second set, and wins the third set, the score might be, for example, 6-3, 4-6, 7-5.


Tiebreakers may be used for any set according to the rules published by the sponsoring body. Using the set example immediately above, if the Home team wins the first set, loses the second set in a second set tiebreaker, and wins the third set, then the score might be 6-3, 6-7, 7-5. In league play, when a set is lost by tiebreaker, the score is always annotated 7-6 or 6-7, depending on which team is the Home team. To obfuscate things even more, the exact tiebreaker score is sometimes inserted in parentheses. In the same example the score might be alternately rendered 6-3, 6-7 (13-11), 7-5.


  • At a set score of 6-6 in games, a “7 Point Tiebreaker” game is played

  • Whichever team wins 7 points with a 2-point advantage wins the tiebreaker

  • The first point is served by whoever’s turn it is to serve in normal rotation

  • The first point is always served from the right court (the deuce court)

  • Except for the first point, each player serves 2 consecutive points

  • Players rotate service in normal rotation after the first point is played

  • The first of the 2 consecutive points always starts in the left court (ad court)

  • Every 6 points, the teams switch ends of the court

  • Confusingly, at a total of 6 points, one server is in the middle of his 2 serves, so he continues his 2nd consecutive serve from the deuce court on the other side of the court. Hey, I didn’t created this mess, so don’t shoot the messenger.

Why the 15, 30, and 40 Point Designations Are Used. Back in primordial tennis history, the scoring was based on the hands of the clock. Thus, the “15-30-45” point scorings were logically used. Over time, 45 was shortened to 40 because it’s easier to say. Also, vocal on-court slang shortened 15 to 5, but the official designation is still 15.

An interesting quirk in the tennis scoring scheme. The score at any given point does not necessarily reflect what actually has transpired on court; rather, it only indicates who won the important points. You can play 90-plus percent as good as your opponent and you can still lose a set by a score of 6–0. !!! How can this be possible? Here is a pertinent example. Your opponent is serving, so the server’s score is called out first. Let’s say that in the first game you and your opponent hit 20 strokes that were all IN except for the last shot which you missed. The game score is then 15–0 (15–love). You played virtually as good as your opponent but lost the point. Similarly, in a game, if you played competitively throughout the game but lost the last point in the game, the score would be 1–0 in favor of your opponent. Likewise, if you lose every game point in a set, then the score would be 6–0 as you would have lost every game in the set. Maddeningly, this could theoretically happen for two sets, and you would have been “bageled,” which means that you have gotten crushed, and even though you played excellently, you have ended up with a “bagel” (“0”) for your efforts. Fortunately this almost never happens, but the scoring system allows it to happen, and you should be aware that the final score does not necessarily reveal how well you actually played. This phenomenon also highlights the fact that how you play the most important pointsthe game pointsis crucial. The moral of the story, as they say, is that you should play all game points using “smart tennis” tactics. [See the instructional “PLAYING SMART by TennisTom.”]

Why in (censored epithet) the idiots who devised tennis scoring did so is a wonderful and sterling example of man’s craziness against himself. The perpetrators of the scoring system ought to be condemned to play an infinite series of losing tennis games in tennis purgatory. Just kidding, sort-of.

[7A– How the Game of Tennis Works Including Scoring] [Rev 6-28-11]

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