Well the good news is it’s not as complicated as it seems. And If you’re new to the game we’ve got you covered. Keep reading for our comprehensive, dummies’ guide to scoring a tennis match.
The Set Up
A tennis match is the best of three ‘sets’ – in other words the first player to win two sets wins the match.
That’s not always the case. Some of the bigger men’s tournaments such as the Grand Slams are the best of five sets but we’ll assume if you’re still reading this you’re not at that level. Yet. 😉
The winner of each set is the first to six ‘games’ BUT a set must be won by two clear games. In other words if you’re up 6-3, congratulations. You won the set. But if the score gets to 5-5 you still need two more games to win.
Should it go to 7-5 then the set is over HOWEVER…
If the score reaches 6 games all the set is decided by a tie-break. But we’ll explain more about those below…
How to score an individual game
This is where it gets interesting or – some would argue – a little confusing.
A game is won by the first player to reach four points. But they must win by two clear points and the points system itself is… unconventional.
Zero points is known as ‘love’. The first point scored by each player earns them ’15’. The second earns them ’30’, the third ’40’ and the final point is simply ‘Game’.
If each player has won three points the score would be 40-40 which is more commonly known as ‘Deuce’.
From there a player needs to win two clear points to win the game.
Whichever player wins the next point would have ‘Advantage’ meaning that if they win the following point the game is theirs.
However, if when holding advantage their opponent wins the next point the score reverts back to deuce.
If the score is being called by an umpire they would say ‘Advantage, Player A’ to indicate the score but in your own match the server would tend to call ‘My advantage’ or ‘Ad In’ if they’re up or ‘Your advantage’ or ‘Ad out’ if they’re down (in the UK it tends to be ‘Van in’ or ‘Van Out’, also a shortened version of advantage).
In certain competitions, particularly at college level, the advantage rule is ignored and it’s simply the first person to win a point at deuce who wins the game but we cover that in more detail in our piece here on no-ad scoring.
A Quick Example Game
It’s Becker vs Lendl. Becker leads 3 games to 2 in the first set and is next to serve.
Becker wins the first point. The score is 15 – Love.
Becker wins again for 30 – Love.
Lendl pulls two points back. The score is 30 All.
He wins the next one too bringing it to 30-40.
Becker hits an ace to bring up 40-40 or Deuce
He wins the following point for Ad In or Advantage Becker.
Lendl puts his next return into the net and it’s game Becker. Becker goes 4-2 up in the set.
Worth noting that at 30-40 Lendl had ‘Break Point’. Had he won that point he would have ‘broken’ Becker’s serve. As it was, Becker had ‘Game Point’ at Advantage Becker and won the game.
How to score a Tie-Break
As mentioned above, a tie-break occurs at 6 games all in the set.
A tie-break is won by the first player to reach 7 points and win by two clear points but (thankfully perhaps) the scoring system is purely consecutive.
In other words a player could win the tie-break 7-1 or 7-5 say. But if the score reaches 6-6 they would need to win 8-6 or 10-8 for example.
The winner of the tie-break takes the set 7-6.
Traditionally in Grand Slam tennis the final set is what’s known as an ‘Advantage Set’ rather than a ‘Tie-Break set’ meaning that at 6-6 the set continues until either player has a two game lead. That has led to monstrously long matches in the past, not least John Isner’s match against Nicolas Mahut at Wimbledon in 2010 which was finally won 70 games to 68 by Isner in the final set.
To avoid a repeat the major tournaments decided to do away with the Advantage Set in 2022, opting instead for an extended tie-break in the final set – the winner needing ten points for victory.
For a more in-depth look at the tie-break system and some tips on how to come out on top, take a look at our guide here.
Wait, go back a second. Love? 15, 30 then 40?? Why is tennis scored that way?
Well…no one knows for sure. The most common explanation is that originally, as the game developed in medieval France, scoring was kept on two clock faces, each point accruing a quarter turn. Hence 15, 30, 45 then 60 or back to zero. Somewhere along the way as the clock faces were dropped so 45 was truncated to 40.
Use of the word ‘love’ is thought to come from the French word ‘l’oeuf’ or ‘egg’ referring to the oval shape of the number zero.
So where does deuce come from?
Again, it’s not entirely clear but the best guess is that it’s another one that comes from the French. Deuce refers to ‘deux du jeu’ or two points from the game.
But as if that weren’t confusing enough, anyone who’s watched the French Open will know that there they don’t even say deuce, instead calling 40-40 ‘egalité’. Literally equality.
They don’t say ‘love’ either, instead far more sensibly they say ‘zéro’. Maybe they just got sick of having to explain it the whole time.
Who serves first?
In a tennis match each player alternates service games. The player to serve the first game is decided by a coin toss or, more commonly, a spin of the racket. The brand logo on the butt of the racket will either land up or down so to use a Wilson racket as an example the opponent will call either ‘W’ or ‘M’.
The winner of the spin gets to decide who serves or receives or if they prefer which end of the court to start play from. In this case the opponent gets to choose who serves.
In a tie break the player who received serve in the previous game serves the first point from the right hand or Deuce Court. Their opponent then serves the next two points and the server alternates every two points until the end of the tie break.
Who keeps score?
In a recreational game without umpires the score tends to be called by whoever’s currently serving. The server’s score is heard first so in a situation where they’ve won the first two points they would call out ‘Thirty – Love’. If they’ve lost the first two it would be ‘Love – Thirty’.
When should players switch ends?
Players switch ends after every odd numbered game so after 1, 3, 5 etc…
During a tie-break game the players switch ends every six points.
Game, Set and Match
Hopefully now you’re feeling fully up to speed with how to score a tennis match. But of course the best way to learn is to watch matches and get out there and play. If there’s anything you feel we’ve missed please get in touch. Or if you’re about to get out on court for the first time, check out our guide to finding the right racket.