You’ve just hit the perfect kick serve beyond the reach of your opponent’s flailing forehand only for a line judge (or sneaky club spectator) to call a fault – or worse – a double fault.
But what exactly constitutes a foot fault? What are the official rules? And what can you do to avoid them in your game?
What counts as a foot fault in tennis?
According to the ITF’s official rulebook there are four types of foot fault:
If, as part of the service motion, a player changes their position by walking or running behind the baseline then a foot fault is called. It’s worth noting though that ‘slight movements of the feet are permitted’
If a player touches the baseline with either foot it’s also a fault. Of course moving beyond the baseline also counts.
Similarly, touching the area outside the ‘imaginary extension of the singles sideline’ (in a singles game) or the doubles sideline (in doubles) is a fault.
And finally, touching the imaginary extension of the centre mark with either foot is a fault.
To put it another way, you must serve from behind the baseline and between the centre line and the sideline (for singles) or the tramline (for doubles). Take a look at the picture below for more clarity.
Like with any other service fault, if you commit a foot fault you either have to take a second serve or you lose the point.
Why bother with foot faults?
As frustrating as they may be, the foot fault prevents players from seeking an unfair advantage by either shortening the distance to the net or serving from a more beneficial angle. And of course the restrictions on excess foot movements prevent some sort of Happy Gilmore style running serve technique.
Have foot fault rules changed over the years?
Yes. Back in 1908 a rule was added that a player must keep one foot in contact with the ground at all times. That was abolished in 1959 though and the current rules have been in place since then.
Although the rules are the same, thirty or fourty years ago it was relatively rare for them to be enforced. Certainly not as common as it is now.
Whose responsibility is it to call a foot fault?
In the professional game it’s primarily the line judge’s job to call a foot fault. The umpire can officially call it but is unlikely to either look for it or spot a call the line judge has missed.
If you’re playing recreationally it’s more of an honour system. The server is responsible for calling their own fault.
Why do foot faults cause so much controversy?
Foot faults are often greeted with outrage by players and fans. In recent years Dan Evans, John Isner, Nick Kyrgios and Serena WIlliams have all lost their rag at the line judge’s call.
It’s not entirely surprising.
As noted above, there’s nothing more frustrating than slamming down an ace only to have the point taken away from you for a minor infringement.
Not only that but there’s a view that foot faults aren’t evenly applied – sometimes given and sometimes not. Which can lead to accusations of bias. Also most players will get away with crossing the baseline as they have both feet off the floor when they strike the ball anyway.
Finally, although they’re very rarely given, is there a more nebulous and difficult rule to apply than the crossing of an ‘imaginary extension of a centre mark’?
How to avoid foot faults
The most important way to avoid a foot fault is to be conscious of the rules and aware of the position of your feet during your service action.
Before your action begins make sure that your front foot is behind the baseline and your rear foot a safe distance from the imaginary centre line.
As you toss the ball and raise your racket, check that your foot position doesn’t change. Some players unconsciously edge forward at this stage and can touch the baseline before the ball is even struck.
You may wish to practice your ball toss to make sure you don’t go chasing stray throws. As a coach I would often see young players going after the ball, dragging their feet into court.
Of course your eyes should be on the ball as soon as it leaves your hand which can make it difficult to remain aware of your foot position. If that’s the case, try practicing with a spare racket or ball in front of your feet on top of the baseline. If you find the ball or racket move during your action then your foot’s in the wrong place.
Alternatively you could get a friend or coach to watch as you practice – or better yet, take a video of your serve. It will help you to identify issues with your technique generally.
If you’re happy with your service action but you’re consistently foot faulting you might consider taking a small step back from the baseline. Players can be reluctant to do that as it takes them away from the net, but if it enables you to relax and concentrate only on your action then it can actually benefit your serve.
For more on avoiding double faults, check out our piece here.
It’s Not Your Fault
Hopefully this piece has answered any questions you might have about the foot fault. If you didn’t know the rules already, relax! You’re in good company. At Wimbledon in 2018 umpire James Keothavong had to come down from his chair to explain the rule in detail to a then 23 year old Nick Kyrgios.
Kyrgios was repeatedly getting called for foot faults as he kept dragging his back foot across the imaginary extension of the centre line. Keothavong had to draw the line for him and point out where he was going wrong. To his credit, it worked, and Kyrgios went on to win the match in straight sets.