Tennis Terms You should know | A to Z

Ace: A serve delivered with such force, spin, and precision that the ball is not only unreturnable but untouchable with the receiving player’s racquet. 

Advantage:  It is when one player wins the point at deuce or 40-40. The player is 1 point away from either winning a single game.

Ad Out: It is when the returning player wins the point after being tied with an opponent at deuce or 40-40.

Ad In: It is when the serving player wins the point after being tied with an opponent at deuce or 40-40.

Alley: The area between the single line and the doubles line. In match play, it’s only used in doubles, not in singles.

ATP: Founded in 1972, it is an abbreviation of the Association of Tennis Professionals, the main governing body of men’s professional tennis. The organization, which is headquartered in London, manages the ATP Tour, the ATP Challenger Tour, and the ATP Champions Tour. Recently, there’s a group of players led by Vasek Pospisil and Novak Djokovic who are demanding higher pay for lower-ranked players. They are forming a rival association called the PTPA, Professional Tennis Professionals Association, demanding more autonomy for players and a more transparent decision-making process from the tournaments and executives at the head of the sport.

ATP Cup: A new international team tournament similar to the Davis Cup. Each country selects two players to represent itself.

Australian Open: The first Grand Slam of the year. Known as the “Grand Slam of Asia Pacific”, as well as the “Happy Slam,” because of its sunny weather and lighthearted spectators, it’s a hard court tournament that takes place in Melbourne, Australia, every year in January. Novak Djokovic has the most men’s singles titles, with nine, and Serena Williams has the most women’s singles titles, with seven.

Backhand: It is a tennis groundstroke that is the opposite of a forehand, being struck on the non-dominant side of the body. Typically players will have one of two styles: a one-handed backhand or a two-handed backhand. Most players play with a two-handed backhand for its reliability and control. Novak Djokovic,  Rafael Nadal, and Andy Murray all have two-handed backhands. While a less popular stroke, one-handed backhands have the potential to generate more power and are used by Roger Federer, Stefanos Tsitstipas, Dominic Thiem, and Stan Wawrinka.

Backhand Overhead: Simply an overhead shot hit when the ball is traveling over the non-dominant side of the body. It is one of the most difficult shots in tennis to hit well. Patrick Rafter and Roger Federer are the two players most known for their incredible backhand overheads. 

Bagel: It’s when a player or doubles team fails to win a single game with a score of zero, a number resembling the shape of the round, donut-like bread with origins in New York City. 

Bevel: It’s one of the eight sides of a tennis racquet handle. Players use the bevels to know where their hands are, and what kind of grip they are using.

Continental Grip: A grip type usually used for volleys, serves, overheads, and two-handed backhands today. However, it was used by Billie Jean King and Arthur Ash for every shot.

Counterpuncher: It is one of the playstyles tennis players use. A counterpuncher like Andy Murray uses incredible footspeed, consistency, and their opponent’s pace to win points by drawing errors or using tactical patterns.

Cross Court: A ball that travels from one deuce-side to the other deuce-side, or one ad-side to the other ad-side.

Davis Cup: An international team tennis tournament for men. It started in 1900 as a team match between the United States and Great Britain, but it now has over 135 participating nations. The teams consist of professional male players representing their respective countries with the United States winning the most titles at 32. It was traditionally played throughout the year but has recently been condensed to a single week. 

Deuce: Deuce is the score when two players are tied at 40-40. Whoever wins the next point has the “advantage,” and can win the game by winning one more consecutive point. However, if the other player wins the next point, the score will return to deuce. Therefore, a “deuce game” could theoretically go on forever. There is an alternate scoring system, called “No-Ad” scoring, according to which a sudden-death point is played when the score reaches deuce. In No-Ad scoring, whoever wins the point at deuce wins the game.

Double Fault: It occurs when a player hits two serves, with each serves considered a fault.

Down the line: A ball hit from either corner that travels parallel to the sideline.

Drop Shot: A shot that lands close to the net to draw the opponent up. Players will use this shot to force the opponent into a bad position, or sometimes for an outright winner.

Drop Volley: A drop shot hit by a player at the net is called a drop volley.

Eastern Grip: It was pioneered by Bill Tilden, but most famously used by Bjorn Borg, Pete Sampras, and Roger Federer, who uses a modified version. It allows the player to easily generate flat, hard shots, yet flexible enough to accommodate topspin shots.

Fault: It occurs when a player hits a serve out,  into the net, or a footfault.

Feel The ability of a player to hit soft, accurate shots, which are called “touch shots.” They are often volleys. 

Fed Cup:  It’s widely regarded as the Davis Cup for women. It is the largest international female team tennis competition where countries compete against each other every year. The tournament began in 1965 as the Federation Cup, later renamed the Fed cup, and in September 2020, it was renamed the Billie Jean Cup in honor of the iconic tennis champion and women’s rights activist. The United States has the most championships at 18.

Footfault: When a player’s foot hits the baseline before making contact while serving. It can occur on a first serve and a second serve. If it occurs on a second serve it is considered a double fault. 

Forehand: A groundstroke that’s opposite of the backhand, being hit on the dominant side of the body. Typically, players hold the racket with one hand to hit the stroke.  There have been, however, a few players to hold the racket with two hands—for example, Monica Seles, who won 8 Grand Slams, and Fabrice Santoro. There are several grips one can use to hit it. 

Flat Serve: A serve hit with little or no spin, typically hit very hard and used as a “first serve.”

French Open or Roland Garros: The second Grand Slam of the year, it takes place on the terre bateau, or red clay, during springtime in Paris. The tournament was named “Roland Garros” after a famous WWI fighter pilot. Rafael Nadal has the most men’s singles titles, with thirteen, and Chris Evert has the most women’s singles titles, with seven.

Forced error: It is a groundstroke a player hits either out or in the net after receiving a very aggressive shot from an opponent. It is considered a forced error compared to an unforced error because it is difficult to defend. 

Game Point: It is a high pressure moment when a player is one point away from winning a game. 

Grand Slams: Also called the Majors, they are the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open— the four most important tennis tournaments on the calendar. They offer the most prize money and typically they attract the best tennis players in the world. They are played over the course of two weeks and use a 128-player draw (not including the qualifying rounds, which occur beforehand). They are the only tournaments that still play matches to best-of-five sets. They are also each run by separate autonomous organizations that cooperate with but are not beholden to the ATP and WTA.

Grip: It is how a player holds the racket handle to hit a shot. There are 4 main grip types used by players: Continental, Eastern, Western, and Semi-Western.

Gut: The original tennis string, gut (or “catgut”) is made from pig intestines. Valued for its superior feel and softness, it is still used by some players today despite the advent of newer, more powerful strings. The gut is the most expensive string, and the quickest to break.

Half-Volley: A half-volley is a shot hit when the ball has just bounced and is just beginning to rise, a very difficult and impressive shot. Roger Federer is known for his half-volleys.

Handle:  The part of a racket that the player grips to hit a shot. Handles usually have an octagonal shape. Racket handles come in five sizes—4¼ inches, 4 ⅜, 4½, and 4⅝.

Hawkeye: A sophisticated camera replay system used when professional tennis players challenge calls made by lines people or the umpire.

In: It is when the ball lands inside or on the sidelines or baseline of a tennis court during a rally.  On the serve, the ball is considered “in” when it lands inside or on the lines of the service box.

Junior: A junior is a tournament player under the age of eighteen. Juniors may compete in local, national, and international tournaments of various kinds. Serious tennis players and pro prospects tend to start their training in earnest during the teenage years, and future pros will typically compete in the ITF junior circuit all around the world. Each of the Grand Slams has a junior version of the tournament that goes on concurrently with the men’s and women’s draws.

Kick Serve: A serve hit with inside-out topsin, such that it “kicks” out to the side when it lands. Tricky to return and easy for the server to hit consistently, the kick serve is often used as a high-percentage “second serve.”

Line: The dimensions of the court are shown by white lines. A ball touching the line at all counts as “in.”

Love: It refers to the score of zero before a player in singles (or a team in doubles) wins a point, a game, or a set. There are several competing theories why it’s called love. The first is that the number zero resembles an egg, which in French is called “l’oeuf.” And, it’s not farfetched that evolved to love in English. In Flemish and Dutch, “lof” means honor. A player is playing for honor in attempting to score a point, a game, or a set. 

Lob: It’s traditionally a defensive shot that sometimes is a winner because the ball is hit with heavy spin with such towering height over a player’s head that it lands deep, close to the baseline. 

Match Point: When a player is one point from winning the match. Typically, a winning player is on the verge of winning two sets in three-set match, or three sets in a five-set match.

Movement: Tennis movement is more lateral than most sports. Tennis players have to learn very specific footwork patterns in order to cover the court effectively.

Multifilament (string): A modern string that is a good mix of power, spin, and control. It doesn’t allow for as much spin as poly, so it is never or rarely used by pros, but recreational players who need a softer string to prevent injury may find it a useful alternative to natural gut, as it is less expensive.

Nylon Strings: Tennis strings used sometimes to be made from nylon, but this has mostly been replaced by other types. 

Open Era: Tennis used to be divided between professional and amateur events. Many famous tournaments, such as Wimbledon, were played for prestige rather than for money—those players who “turned pro” were consequently banned from the amateur circuit. In 1968, the four major tournaments (or Grand Slams) began allowing professionals to compete alongside amateurs.

Polyester strings: Polyester strings (often referred to as “poly” strings), have revolutionized the sport. Stiffer and grippier than any other string, they allow modern players to hit the ball with massive amounts of spin, creating shots that were never possible before. The extra spin allows players to hit the ball extremely hard but still with control. 

Racquet: An instrument used to hit the tennis ball. It consists of 4 main parts: the head, the strings, the throat, and the grip. 

Rally: Any point that lasts more than two shots (i.e. the serve and the return) becomes a rally.

RPM: Stands for rotations per minute. This is the unit used to measure the amount of spin on the ball after it is hit. Nadal is known for putting upwards of 4000 RPM on some forehands.

Score: The tennis scoring system is unusual. Players must win six games to win a set, and four points to win a game. Matches are usually played with the goal of winning two sets. Within each game, the score of the points is recorded as 15 for one point, 30 for two points, 40 for three points. A typical score would look like 15-30, or 30-40, with the server’s score always called first. If both players reach three points, the game goes to deuce (see entry.)

Semi Western Grip: The modern forehand grip used by most players like Serena Willaims, Novak Djokovic, and Rafael Nadal, who has modified it to almost be considered a Western. It generates heavy topspin and allows players to handle the high bouncing balls of today’s game.

Serve: The serve starts the point. It must land inside the service box to be considered “in.” Players may hit a second serve if the first serve goes out. If the second serve goes out, the serving player loses the point. This is called a “double-fault.”

Set: In matches, a player’s goal is to win a series of points so they can win enough games to win a set. The goal is to win 6 games with a margin of two games. But when the game is tied at 6-6, a tiebreak is played to decide who wins the set. But when two players are tied at 6-6 on the last set of the match, some tournaments let the players play it out until they win with a margin of two games. 

Set Point: It is a crucial moment during a match when a player is one point away from winning a set.

Serve-and-Volley: An aggressive tactic that, as the name suggests, consists of hitting the serve and then immediately running up to the net to try to volley. Typically players will use this strategy hoping to hit a good serve and capitalize on a weak return. In the era of wooden rackets, this was the dominant strategy, but due to modern racket and string technology, it has become mostly obsolete in the professional game except as a surprise tactic.

Smash: It is also called the overhead smash, or simply the overhead. A player will use an overhead to hit a ball floating high in the air. Beginners may struggle with the smash, but at high levels of tennis, it is typically a consistent, powerful, point-ending shot. 

Squash Shot: A last-ditch effort when you are on the defensive, moving towards your forehand side. Made famous by Roger Federer, who notably used to play squash on his days off from tennis.

Synthetic Gut Strings: A modern string that presumably was intended to imitate the natural gut. However, it doesn’t really play similarly and is considered the most basic tennis string—a good low-budget option.

Tiebreak: When the game score is tied at 6-6, players have to break the tie to decide who wins that set. It is typically a game to 7 points with a margin of two but can go over 7-7 until one player has two points.

Trickshot: There are many kinds of trick shots. They all tend not to be particularly useful in a real match, as a standard shot will almost always be more consistently effective, but there have been some notable instances of players using a trick shot to win the point. For example, Federer once hit a “tweener,” which is a shot hit with the racket between the legs, to win an important point against Djokovic in the US Open. There are a few players who have a tendency to go for trick shots with some frequency, such as Nick Kyrgios and Benoit Paire. Mansour Bahrami is also famous for his trick shots.

Tweener: A type of trick shot when a player hits to return a ball in between the legs. When players hit it, they are usually running from the net to the baseline chasing a lob, which they then return by hitting in between their legs with their back facing against the net. A player can also hit it while facing the net.

Types of players: Tennis is an individual sport and there are many types of players who employ different types of playstyles.  The most common are counterpuncher, serve-and-volleyer, grinder, and aggressive baseliner.  A counterpuncher, such as Andy Murray, is known for using the opponent’s pace to redirect the ball, a serve-and-volleyer, like Pete Sampras, uses the serve as a way to get to the net and finish off the point; a grinder, such as Novak Djokovic, relies on defense to wear the opponent down and force an error; and an aggressive baseliner,  like Stan Wawrinka, will use powerful groundstrokes to control the point from the back of the court.

Unforced error: When a player hits an easy ball either out or in the net. It is considered an unforced error compared to a forced error because it is not particularly difficult for a player to return to an opponent. Seventy percent of points played end up with an unforced error so it is best for players to limit unforced errors if they want to win matches.

Underhand Serve: It is technically legal to hit the serve out of the hand at hip-height rather than tossing the ball in the air. Players have used this when an injury prevents them from hitting a traditional serve. Most notably, when Michael Chang won the 1989 French Open, he used the underarm serve to get across the finish line in the fourth round against world no. 1 Ivan Lendl. Chang was suffering from cramps and, near the end of the match, became unable to hit his normal serve. Modern players have begun using the underhand serve sparingly, as a surprise tactic, to counter returners who stand very far behind the baseline.

US Open: The last Grand Slam of the year. It takes place in New York City at the end of the summer. The record for most men’s singles titles is five, held by Jimmy Connors, Pete Sampras, and Roger Federer. The record for women’s titles is six held by Chris Evert and Serena Williams.

Upset: It occurs when a higher-ranked or a favored-to-win player loses to a lower-ranked player early in a tournament.

UTR: The abbreviation of the Universal Tennis Rating. The UTR system is designed to make it easier to find level-appropriate opponents and practice partners by placing anyone who plays tennis tournaments on the same algorithm-based ranking system that rates each player from 1.0 to 16.00. Currently, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal are tied for the highest rating: 16.14. The system is also used as a way for high-performance players to demonstrate their level—for example, juniors will send their UTR to prospective colleges, and certain types of tournaments have a requisite UTR for entry.

Volley: A volley is a stroke typically hit when you are close to the net. Unlike groundstrokes that require a backswing on shots, the follow uses a continental grip on both the backhand and the forehand. The motion is to block the ball. The best volleyers are known for their “touch,” and “feel.” Volleys were a crucial element of the game in the days of wooden rackets, but their importance has lessened somewhat in recent years as new racket and string technology allow for ever more powerful and spin-laden groundstrokes.

Western Forehand: A shot using an extreme grip that can generate a massive amount of topspin that causes the ball to bounce very high, a height that’s difficult to return. It is used by players like Karen Kachanov and Jack Sock.

Wimbledon: Officially named The Championships, Wimbledon, but commonly known as Wimbledon, is the third Grand Slam of the year. It is the oldest tournament in the world (played since 1877), and takes place in early July on the grass courts of the All England Tennis Club in London. It’s famous for a staunch adherence to a century-and-a-half of tradition, particularly the rule restricting players to all-white attire. Federer has the most men’s singles titles, with eight, and Martina Navratilova has the most women’s singles titles, with nine.

Winner: A shot that lands in but that the opponent is completely unable to reach before it bounces twice.

WTA: Founded by Billie Jean King in 1973, it is the main governing body of professional female tennis players. It began representing only 9 players, but today, the organization, which is headquartered in three cities St. Petersburg, Florida, London, England, and Beijing, China, now oversees 2500 players. Since its inception, the WTA has been fighting for equal rights particularly for equal prize money in the four Grand Slams, which was achieved in 2007.