Tennis is one of the most popular sports. Nearly everyone has watched a match on television, or played tournaments or fixtures themselves, or had a hit at their local courts. People would have heard the umpire or commentators call scores such as 15-all, 40-30, deuce, and advantage server. But many people may be less familiar with some of the finer points of scoring in tennis and the reasons these scores and terms are used.
Scoring in tennis is unique to that sport. A match consists of points, games and sets. The toss of a coin or a racket will decide who serves for the first game. The first point of each game is served from the right-hand side of the court and must land in the left-hand service box at the opponent’s end of the court. The second serve is served from the left-hand side into the opponent’s right-hand service box. Service keeps alternating between the two sides of the court for the rest of the game. A game is won by the first player who wins at least four points, as long as they are two points ahead of their opponent. A game can only be won when the server is serving from the left-hand side or the ad (advantage) court, not from the right-hand side or deuce court.
Points are not calculated by simply counting them up, but by using a system that is unique to tennis. The numbers used for each point won by a player are fifteen, thirty, and forty. Thus if the server wins the first point, the score is 15-0 (called 15-love), as the server’s score is always given first. If the receiving player wins the first point, the score is 0-15. If the players each win one of the first two points, the score is 15-all. After the next point, the game score will be 30-15 or 15-30, depending on who wins it. If the score gets to 40-30, the server will win the game if they win the next point. A score of 30-40 to the receiver is known as “break point”, as that player needs only one more point to break the serve of their opponent. Where a player is only one point from winning the game, the next point is often called “game point.” Similarly, “set point” and “match point” refer to what will be the last point of a set or match if the leading player wins the point.
Where the game score reaches 40-all, the term used to describe the score is “deuce”, rather than 40-all or 40-40. This is where both players have won three points. “Deuce” is from the French word “deux”, meaning two, and implies that at least two more points have to be played before the game is decided. Whoever wins the next point has the “advantage”, meaning that if this person wins the point following, they will win the game. If the opponent wins the point, the score will be “deuce” again. The score can alternate between “deuce” and “advantage” (to one player or the other) an indefinite number of times, because one player has to be ahead by two points before the game is won.
A question often asked by players and non-players alike is why the numbers 15, 30 and 40 are used rather than 1, 2 and 3. The system is thought to have originated during the French game of “jeu de paume”, literally meaning “game of the palm”, and a precursor to the game of tennis. It dates back to Medieval times and was played with the palm of the hand, although gloves, bats and then rackets were later introduced. In the early days of the game, it is thought that a clock face was sometimes used to keep score. After the first point, the hand was moved 90 degrees to the 15 minute mark. The hand was then moved to the 30 and 45 minute marks. At the end of the game, the hand was moved back to the top of the clock. If the story is true, it would have happened sometime after 1577, because the first clock with a minute hand was made by Swiss clockmaker Jost Burgi in that year. How 45 become 40 in the modern game of tennis seems to be unknown.
The origin of the word “love” to indicate a score of zero is also uncertain. It may have come from “l’oeuf”, French for egg, which is shaped like a zero. Or it could have come from another French word, “l’heure”, which means “the hour” and also sounds a bit like “love”. Or it may have come from the Dutch “lof”, meaning nothing. We talk of doing something for nothing or for the love of it.
A set is made up of a series of games. Once the winner of the first game has been decided, the players swap ends and the player who received in the first game now serves. The same scoring system is used in this and subsequent games, with the players alternating between serving and receiving, and swapping ends after each odd-numbered game. The number of games won by each player is tallied up using conventional counting. Thus a set score of 3-2 means the player currently serving has won three games, while the other player has won two games. The term “love” is used instead of zero if a player has won no games. For example, a score of 3-0 is read as three-love.
The winner of a set is the first player to win six games, as long as this player has won at least two games more than their opponent. Not infrequently, a player wins six games and their opponent has won none. This is called a “love set”. Where the score is 6-5, a further game is played. If the leading player wins this game, this person wins the set with a score of 7-5. However, if the other player wins it, the set score becomes 6-6, and at least two more games are played. If neither player establishes a two game lead, the set continues until one player is two games ahead. Sets lasting 30 or 40 games are not unknown, with a final set score of, say, 21-19.
With the increasing popularity of televised matches by the 1960s, tennis needed to come up with ways of shortening matches if these were to fit into television schedules. The tiebreak or tiebreaker was invented in 1965 by James Van Alen and became widely used by the early 1970s. Rather than playing “advantage sets”, once a set score reaches 6-6, a tiebreak would be played. A tiebreak, and the set, is won by the player who first reaches seven points, as long as they are two points ahead of their opponent. The serve changes after each odd-numbered point. Players change ends after six points. If a player is a service break up at any stage of a tiebreak, the player is said to hold a “minibreak”.
The winner of the tiebreak is awarded that “game”, and the set score becomes 7-6. If you see a set score of 7-6 (7-3), it means there was a tiebreak and it was won seven points to three. Tiebreaks are now used in all tournaments. A tiebreak is not used in the final set of matches at Wimbledon, the Australian Open and the French Open, as well as the Olympic Games and Davis Cup and Fed Cup matches. However, tiebreaks are used in final sets at the US Open.
Most tennis matches are best of three sets, which means the first player to win two sets wins the match. The only exceptions are the men’s matches at the four grand slam events – Wimbledon and the Australian, French and US opens – and any “live” Davis Cup matches. Some Masters finals used to be best of five sets. All women’s events play best of three sets.
Several scoring variations have been brought into tennis at certain competitions in recent times, mainly to try and further reduce the length of some matches. The “no ad” rule means that once a player has won three points in a game, they only have to win one point more than their opponent to win the game rather than two points more using standard scoring. Here the scores of “advantage server” and “advantage receiver” are not used, thereby quickening some matches considerably.
A “pro set” is where a match consists of a single set which is won by the first player to win eight or ten games. If the match reaches 8-all, or 10-all, a tiebreak might be played to decide the winner. Sometimes these matches are played as “no ad”, so if someone says let’s play an “eight game pro set no ad”, they mean an eight game, single set match where a player only has to be one point ahead to win each game. These rules are common in fixtures and minor tournaments as the schedule simply might not allow for long, drawn out matches.
Another variation is the “match tiebreak” which might be used when the score reaches one set all. This tiebreak effectively becomes the third set. Usually they are longer than the normal tiebreak, with a player having to get to 10 points and be two ahead before winning the tiebreak and the match. These tiebreaks are used in doubles matches on the professional tours.
With the move to shorten games with innovative and simplified scoring methods, perhaps someone in the game will suggest doing away with the use of the numbers 15, 30 and 40. But somehow, scoring a game 1-0, 1-1, 2-1 and so on just wouldn’t be tennis.