How to Play Tennis: a Beginners Guide

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An answer a lot of tennis players get when they ask non-tennis players why they don’t play tennis is because of the scoring system. And in all fairness, it’s not exactly hard to see what they mean.

Rather than simply getting 1 point for winning 1 point, you get 15. Then another 15. Then a 10… Even as we write this, it sounds ridiculous, so it’s entirely understandable that newcomers to the sport are instantly put on edge.

If it’s not the scoring system, it’s how a game is structured, the different types of swings, or even when to serve.

So before you head out the door to your first ever tennis lesson, take a seat real quick and let us guide you through some of the basic facts relating to the game we love… Pun intended!

By the time we’re finished here, you’ll hopefully have a much greater understanding of how to play tennis.

What are the Benefits of Tennis?

Nothing. There are absolutely no benefits to playing tennis. None whatsoever. Absolutely zero.

…OK, on a more serious note, there’s plenty of benefits to picking up a racket and heading to your local courts for a hit. It might surprise you to know that none of us here at Mind the Racket are certified doctors or medical professionals. That’s why we write about tennis for a living instead.

However, we’ve done some extensive research on what people who ARE medically trained say about the benefits of hitting the fuzzy yellow ball over the net, and below are the areas that we’ve found most intriguing.

1. Save yourself from disease! Alright, this may be a tad dramatic but it’s true. Tennis will help keep the cells in your body healthy and ready to fight off infection. Not to make you overthink your own health but playing tennis has a direct impact on your tolerance for cardiovascular exercise. Your body will also be better prepared to combat chances of stroke and muscle injuries.

2. Helps you get all bendy and flexi! Your body will naturally start to adapt to the strains and stretches that come with regular and consistent tennis play. One of the benefits of this is that you should also feel steadier on your feet and more capable of lifting, carrying, and pushing things in day-to-day life.

3. Keep a handle on both your stress levels and mental health! Both of these are prominent areas to check in with regularly, especially in the last year of lockdown and social isolation. As the world begins to steadily kick into gear again, tennis can be a real help in terms of focusing your mind by releasing endorphins into your body that leave you feeling more positive.

4. Accessibility! Tennis is a sport that can be played and enjoyed by all ages and is regularly seen as one of the easiest sports to pick up and try out. It’s rare to see people over the age of 70 indulging in rugby or football but it’s not at all uncommon to see more mature tennis players taking to the court. Exercise is for all and so is tennis.

Tennis Rules

Tennis Scoring Overview

Right, here we have arrived! You ready for this? Got your seatbelt on? Good.

Points

4 of these in a row and you win a game. 15, 30, 40, game. Easy.

Unfortunately, it’s rarely that straightforward, especially if you’re playing with a good standard of player. If they win points, they can take the lead or draw level with you in games. 15-15. 30-30. 40-40. If you make it to this stage, it’s a tight game and you’re at what is known as Deuce.

The aim from here is to secure two points in a row. If you get 1, you’ll be at Advantage-40. If you win the next point, you’ve got the game. If you don’t, you’re back at Deuce. Theoretically, a game of tennis COULD go on forever if neither player can get two points in a row while a Deuce…

Games

You rack up those four points that you need, you’ll get a game. Fabulous. That’s secured and on the scoreboard. 6 of these games in a row and you win a set. Easy.

Again, it’s never really that easy. You’ll take it in turns to serve each game and if you both keep holding your service games, you’ll eventually reach 6-6.

Winning sets in tennis usually requires you to win by two clear games. This means that you can’t win a set 6-5. If your opponent draws level with you at 6-6, you’ll either have to keep going until one of you breaks serve or play a tiebreak to decide it.

Sets

We’re getting serious now.

If you make it to 6 with two games removed from your opponent, you’ll take the set and will quickly move onto the next one. Win the next set and usually, you’ll normally win the match… Unless you’re playing best of 5 sets, of course!

However, if you go into a tiebreak at 6-6, you’ll need to win another 7 points to win the set. These tiebreaks need to be won by two clear points as well. So if you reach 7 with your opponent sitting on 6, you’re not yet finished.

You’ll notice a pattern throughout the scoring system in tennis. You can very rarely win anything if your opponent is staying dead even with you. You’ll need to work on finding a way of working some distance between you in the score if you want to win sets, games, and – ultimately – matches.

Head over to this article for a more in-depth break down on tennis scoring.

The Tennis Court Explained

The court is where you apply all that you know when working out how to learn tennis.

It’s where you walk on stage with your racket in hand and with confidence in your heart, all in a wild and chaotic search of victory… What can we say? We like the dramatics here at Mind the Racket!

But for real, the tennis court is massively important. For that reason, it’s key that you know what exactly you’re standing on as you dive around, trying to get the ball back in play.

tennis court dimensions

Baseline

This is that big long line right at the back of each side of the court. On a professional and typical-sized court, the baseline is 36ft in length. It’s from this line that you’ll be serving from to begin each point. You’ll likely also spend a lot of time here if you tend to enjoy indulging in lengthier rally exchanges.

Singles Sideline

See that those two lines running parallel beside each other down each side of the court? These are known as tramlines or sidelines. The inside one marks the singles court and is 78ft in length from baseline to baseline. In singles, balls must land inside the singles sidelines to remain in play.

Doubles Sideline

Similar to the above, this is the outside line running parallel alongside the singles sidelines down each side of the court. Measuring at 78ft in length, this marks the doubles court and helps add a collective 9ft in width. This means you can easily fit in another player and have more court to aim freely for!

Service Lines

Service lines are NOT to be confused for the baseline. You do not serve from this line, regardless of the name. Instead, service lines mark the boxes in which you serve into and run from one singles sideline to the other. These lines are 21ft across the court!

Centre Service Line

This line runs from the – yep, you guessed it! – center of the service line and links both service lines on the court by running under the net. This helps to complete the four equally sizes service boxes that players use to serve into. These remain the same size, regardless of singles or doubles is being played.

Net

So now that we have all the lines on the court covered, we can get started playing, right?!… Wrong!

You gotta’ make sure your net is at a reasonable height and is in good condition before any matchplay can be completed! The net should measure up at 3ft in the center where it hangs the lowest and be strung up at the sides by the poles, where the net should be 3.5ft in height.

If all is well up at the net, then – and only then! – can you look towards the baseline to begin warming up.

If you’re looking for some more in-depth analysis of court structure, check out this article.

What Gear do you Need for Tennis?

We mentioned in the introduction that the scoring system for tennis can be very confusing and has the power to put people off playing. While this is true, the amount of equipment that some might say is necessary for tennis can prove to be intimidating as well.

That’s why we’ve put together a comprehensive list of the most important things that you should grab before hitting the courts for the first time. With any luck, we’ll help you avoid any unnecessary purchases.

how to play tennis

Racket

Starting off easily here, let’s break down the key specs of a racket that you’ll want to be taking a closer look at when debating which frame is best for you.

String Pattern

This is an area often forgotten when it comes to purchasing rackets. For that reason, we’re including it first here on our list.

Control, spin and power are all dependent on string patterns. If you get the wrong combination for your game, you’re going to notice the difference in terms of increased error numbers. Let’s make sure you get what you’re best matched with.

Most rackets come with either a 16×19 or an 18×20 pattern. These numbers refer to the main and cross strings respectively. The 16×19 pattern will offer a more controlled spin and touch of the ball, allowing for a more nuanced and accurate playing style, whereas the 18×20 string pattern will provide more spring and easy power behind the swing.

If possible, we suggest trying out both types of string patterns to see what best suits you before buying in.

Grip Size

If you want to avoid annoyingly sweaty blisters or long-term cramped-up fingers and hands, paying attention to tennis racket grip sizes might well prove beneficial for you.

You’ll want to find a racket that sits comfortably within the palm of your hand and doesn’t move around when you hit the ball. It’s going to be embarrassing if you go for a big first serve, only to find your racket flying loose from your hands and cracking on the court… We’re not saying we’ve done that before but we’re also not saying we’ve NOT done that either!

To help you avoid any red-faced moments, measure your grip before heading to the checkout to part ways with your hard-earned money.

US Sizes European Sizes Sizes in Millimeters
4 Inches
0
100-103 mm
4 1/8Inches
1
103-106 mm
4 ¼ Inches
2
106-110 mm
4 3/8 Inches
3
110-113 mm
4 ½ Inches
4
113-118 mm
4 5/8 Inches
5
118-120 mm
4 ¾ Inches
6
120-123 mm

How to Measure Your Grip Size

how to measure tennis racket grip size

We’re going to assume here that you are yet to purchase a racket, and therefore don’t have one on hand. Measuring your grip size without a racket is simple, just follow these steps:

  1. Get a ruler or tape measure
  2. Open your hand in a “high five position”
  3. Measure between the top of your middle finger to around halfway down your palm, inline with your thumb
  4. Your grip size is to the nearest 1/8th of an inch

Balance

This needs to be considered as a separate measurement to weight and serves (pun intended!) as a way to make sure that your wrist and arms aren’t suffering too much when trying to swing heavier rackets.

Rackets usually come in one of three swing weight/balance categories. If most of the weight of the racket is found in the head of the frame, the racket is head heavy. If more weight is found in the handle, the racket is head-light. And if weight is distributed evenly throughout, the racket is finely balanced.

We here at Mind the Racket recommend headlight rackets. These allow you a good amount of maneuverability and comfortable control, even when using heavier racket frames. These also offer a good amount of support for your arms and wrists.

Head heavy rackets will offer a larger and more powerful swing weight but at the loss of power and cushiony easy playability. Over time, you may also notice growing muscle aches and pains from using head heavy rackets and tennis elbow is a possibility!

We don’t want to scare you away from head-heavy frames… But there’s a good reason why most professionals use headlight rackets, is all we’re saying.

Head Light Balanced Head Heavy
Maneuverability
High
Medium
Low
Control
High
Medium
Low
Power
Low
Medium
High
Weight Focus
Grip
Evenly Distributed
Head

Head Size

This is probably the area of the racket that you’ll be checking first. We know you’ll be looking at the frame size with interest and there’s a good reason for doing so.

The head size of a racket is usually measured in square inches and you’ll want to be taking note of it because this is going to tell you a lot about how the racket plays and feels as you swing. It also helps define how big the sweet spot on the racket will be and how easy it will allow you to strike those pitch-perfect groundstrokes exactly how you like.

We’ll keep it nice and straightforward for you. Oversized rackets are usually aimed at beginners looking for that bit more ease-of-use. Mid-plus is the middle of the road and lends itself well to intermediate players looking for a good all-round racket size. And finally, we have the Mid-size, a smaller frame designed for precision placement and accuracy that advanced players will look for.

To close this section on rackets, we do suggest trying out as many different types as possible before committing yourself to one specific design. When first starting out on your road to Wimbledon champion, you may well find yourself using a racket that doesn’t fit your game. When that happens, don’t get disheartened. Your perfect racket is out there, waiting to be found.

Size Inches Power Control Sweet Spot
Mid
85-97
Low
High
Small
Mid-Plus
98-104
Medium
Medium
Medium
Oversized
105+
High
Low
Large

best hard court tennis shoes

Shoes

Yep. Unless you want to be running around in a pair of high heels or sandals, you’re going to want to consider exactly what sort of footwear is going to help you play your best tennis when you step on the court. Your ankle safety might well depend on it.

It’s important to note that tennis shoes usually come tailored to a specific court surface. There are three widely used court surfaces: clay, grass, hard. All of these provide their own unique set of challenges for you to adapt to be able to win matches on them. And to win matches, you NEED good shoes.

Many shoes will advertise themselves as court-specific shoes, with some covering more than one of them. This comes down to what kind of court you most regularly play on and whether or not you often travel to other clubs to play matches on different surfaces.

If you’re a beginner, we recommend simply buying a shoe that will provide a good level of support, durability, and grip for the surface of your local club. If you’re looking for a slightly more in-depth breakdown of tennis shoes, check out our breakdowns of the top clay court shoes and the top hard court shoes.

Tennis Bag

You have all your stuff in a pile, ready for your match tomorrow morning. Your rackets, clothes, spare trainers, snacks, water bottle and lucky teddy bear. You’re feeling good and prepared to rock and roll.

Except…

You’re not looking forward to having to juggle all of these things on your walk to the courts. You’d usually cycle, except that’s not going to happen with this amount of things either. It’s not going to be an intimidating look for your opponents either, as you wobble and totter through the gates of the courts with all of this…

We’ll stop you right there. What YOU need is a good quality tennis racket bag, one that has enough space for all of your gear and separate compartments to store your smelly and sweaty shoes in at the end of the day.

You’ll also want a bag that’s durable and unlikely to tear and rip quickly. The last thing you want is to reach the courts, only to find out that your spare underwear has fallen our en route.

There are many good quality racket bags out there. These will cater to the safety of your equipment and offer a good amount of spare room for any extra bits and bobs that you decide to throw in before you run out the door to get to the courts.

Make sure to consider all of the different brands of bags to see what will most suit you. Consider what level of the game you’re at as well. If you’re a beginner with one racket, one of the rucksack backpack designs will likely suit you just fine. They’re also regularly slightly cheaper as well. If you’re a bit more experienced, one of the larger racket bag looks will fit any spare rackets you may have.

In any case, if you want to research racket bags a bit more before deciding on the best one for you, roll on over to our article here!

Over Grip

You’ve been playing tennis for a while now and things are going OK! You’re starting to see real improvement in your game!

That’s fantastic!

However…

You’ve also noticed how your tennis racket grip is steadily beginning to peel away against the palms of your hands. Ever so slowly, you’re getting the sense that when you hit the ball, you have somewhat less control and the racket is moving around a fair bit, no matter how much you tighten your grasp on the handle.

OK, don’t worry. There’s no need to throw the whole racket away. There may not EVEN be a need to re-grip the entire handle. What you may want to look into is over grips.

These are grips that you can place over the top of the regular racket grip to increase the width of the handle shaft to help it sit more comfortably in your hands. Try this out if your grip is wearing away slightly, although keep in mind that it will widen that handle slightly. If you’re looking to add a bit of extra width anyway, this is also a good solution to experiment with.

There’s no harm in trying over grips. You can apply as many or as little as you want to see what best fits for you. And if you put one on, only to discover it’s not suitable, simply unpeel it to start afresh!

The Rules

You have everything ready to go. You’re at the courts, your opponent is down the other end ready to receive serve… Now what?

You don’t know how to play tennis. This is embarrassing.

Never fear, Mind the Racket is here to give you a quickfire breakdown of how the game works. We’ll undoubtedly miss a few things here and there but don’t worry, you’ll learn a lot as you play anyway.

With that said, let’s go.

Serve

To decide who serves first, flip a coin. Whoever wins the toss gets to decide who serves first. Whoever losses gets to choose which side they wish to start from. Nice and easy to begin.

Sides

In both singles and doubles, your opposition will play the entire match on the other side of the court to you. You’ll switch sides on every odd number of games so you’ll get to experience both. If the sun is out or the wind is blowing a certain way, take note and work out which side is going to be the problematic one for you to adapt to.

Serving

You’ll take it in turns to serve for entire games. NOT an entire sets or matches. Games. So you’ll get to experience returning and serving in just about equal measure. You’ll work out fairly quickly if you prefer serving or returning. Once you know, you’ll be able to focus your energy onto improving the areas that need most work.

Winning Points

So your opponent serves, you manage to drag the ball back over the net. What happens now?

The point is live and you need to try and win it. You can do so in two main different ways.

  • Force your opponent to make an error by hitting the ball into the net or hitting it out of the court boundaries.
  • Hit a winner which means that your opponent hasn’t even been able to reach the ball at all.

Try and make sure that the ball bounces twice in all situation in order to end the point. Yes, even if your opponent bludgeons the ball out of bounds, we still suggest letting it bounce more than once. Otherwise, they may think the point is still going and try to dispute your call! You don’t want that hassle.

Losing Points

Yes, yes, yes, we know you don’t intend to do a lot of this. But you’ll want to know exactly HOW this happens so that you can avoid it in the future.

  • You hit the net if you’re running up to it to try and volley. If you do this before the ball bounces twice on your opponent’s side, you’ve lost the point.
  • You hit the ball with your racket across the top of the net and into your opponent’s side. DO. NOT. REACH. OVER. THE. NET!
  • You make an error or your opponent hits a winner. These will likely happen a fair bit, especially when you’re just starting out. We know it hurts in those early stages!

Losing points happens. Try to quickly get used to it and don’t be too disheartened. It’s not the end of the world and another point will be beginning VERY quickly so best not to dwell on mistakes or errors.

Lines

We’ve been over the lines of the court a bit already up the page. Something we wanted to mention here is that even if 99% of the ball is out with a teeny-tiny bit of it hitting a line, that counts as being INSIDE the court. Tennis is a game of honesty and if you see that your opponent’s shot has clipped the line, you should play on.

Keep in mind that if either of your feet hit the baseline as you’re serving, that counts as a foot fault. Again, it’s going to be difficult for your opponent to call you on a service foot fault so best to just work on avoiding it for your own personal peace of mind.

Serves

The last quick thing we want to mention here is that you always have a second serve in tennis. If you miss the service box or you hit a ball into the net, you always have a backup serve to help you out. Second chance shots only come when serving in tennis so use it if you need it.

We’ve almost certainly missed a few things here. Combine all of this with the scoring system we’ve mentioned up the page, however, and you should have about 99% of the information required to begin playing a match. It’ll take time to get used to but you’ll get there!

How to Hold a Tennis Racket

By the handle. Next question!

…Alright, there’s slightly more to this question than that, we know! In this section, we’ll quickly cover the three main racket grips for you to try out and experiment with.

Continental grip – This is the most basic of grips and is regularly called the chopper grip. Holding the racket frame at a perpendicular angle to the ground, you want to hold it like you would a hammer or an axe in one hand. The v shape between your thumb and index finger should be facing upwards from the top of the handle as you’re using this grip.

This allows you a good level of control and feel. You’ll likely be using this for serves and volleys.

Eastern grip – Holding the racket at that same perpendicular angle to the ground again, you want to shake hands with the handle in order to settle into a comfortable Eastern grip. Your hand will be slightly more around the side of the handle than it would be in the Continental grip.

This grip offers a decent level of all-round precision placement but doesn’t allow for a lot of spin.

Semi-Western grip – We like to call this the frying pan grip because – surprisingly enough! – it’s the same grip that you likely use to hold a frying pan. Holding your racket at a perpendicular angle to the ground, reach out to shake hands with the handle to find that Eastern grip before rotating your hand slightly further around to rest your index knuckle against the fourth bevel.

A lot of professionals use this grip, enjoying the all-round game that it’s tailor made to provide for. It’s a comfortable and relaxed grip and we’d recommend intermediate to advanced players try this out.

Other grips – Yes. There are other grips out there, many of which are much more extreme than these. But we suggest trying the above three first to see if any of them suit you. If they don’t simply rotate your hand around the handle to find a position that best suits you and allows you the easiest level of ball control.

Different Shots in Tennis

Forehand

This is will very likely be the first shot that you learn to hit due to it being the easiest and most natural of the lot. Usually swung across your body with your most dominant arm, it allows you the freedom to control where you want to place balls by imparting topspin. You’ll also be able to impart more power behind your swing by adding a bit more momentum to this shot.

Find out more about how to hit a classic forehand!

Backhand

Pretty much the opposite of the forehand, the backhand can be swung with either one or two hands. Beginning from across your body, you bring the racket around and through the ball back towards your dominant side. It’s usually a trickier shot to master than the forehand but once you figure it out, it can be much more powerful and tactical.

Find out more about how to hit a classic backhand!

Volley

Seen as somewhat of an old-school shot nowadays, the volley should not be dismissed! You’ll usually be hitting this up at the net before the ball bounces and is used as a way to end points by injecting some angles and pace into the rally. There are multiple variations of the volley though and when properly controlled, can be a lethal addition to your game!

Find out more about how to hit a classic volley!

Lob

Nothing feels better in tennis than seeing your lob go up and over your opponent’s head and land right on their baseline for a winner! Lobs are regularly struck when your opponent is up at the net as a way to surprise them. It doesn’t require the same power level as other shots but DOES require a very high level of controlled spin and placement.

Find out more about how to hit a classic lob!

Drop Shot

If anything does come close to that wonderful feeling of hitting a lob, pulling off a  successful drop shot is it! Requiring some nuanced feel and touch, a drop shot is hit to drop the ball as close to the net on your opponent’s side of the court as possible. It’s a great way to mix things up in the modern tennis world of power groundstrokes!

Find out more about how to hit a classic drop shot!

Tennis Etiquette

Everyone loves winning. Hitting that brilliant unreturnable forehand, backhand or serve will leave you feeling great. If you manage to win the entire match, you’ll be feeling on top of the world!

…Your opponent will likely not be, however. And nobody likes a sore winner.

There’s nothing wrong with celebrating and fist-pumping good shots. These are the parts of tennis that we live and breathe for. But try to keep it for the moments that matter. If your opponent is struggling and spraying errors, remember how that feels. We’ve all been there and we all hate it.

Equally, win or lose, when the match is over, always shake hands (if the Coronavirus allows for it!) and congratulate your opponent for their efforts. We’re all tennis players at the end of the day!

Lastly, playing fair matters as well. If you’re calling your own lines, be honest. We know it’s difficult if you’re losing but what’s the point of playing if you’re going to cheat? It completely ruins the point of the competition in the first place.

If you win by cheating, you haven’t won at all.

Final Thoughts

That was a lot of information to take in! We hope you haven’t been scared off from giving tennis a go.

If you’re considering learning how to play tennis for the first time, we honestly suggest just giving it a go. We love our sport and hope you will as well. However, don’t go spending money on a load of equipment if you don’t even yet know if you’re going to keep playing.

Grab a basic racket. Grab some shoes. Grab a friend. And get to the courts. If you like what you feel when playing, come back here once more for a refresher course.

Good luck and happy tennising!

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