Tennis Vocabulary

This page covers the vocabulary and language of tennis by looking at its background, equipment and people. Check your understanding with the vocabulary quiz and comprehension quiz.

tennisTennis is one of the world's most widely-played sports, enjoyed by players of all ages. It is also a popular spectator sport, with star players in glamorous tournaments watched on TV by millions of fans all over the world. Women's matches attract as much interest as the men's, and tennis is one of the few professional sports in which women can earn as much prize money as men. Singles matches are played between two players and doubles matches are between two teams of two players. Each player uses a racket (also spelled racquet) to hit a felt-covered ball over a net into their opponent's side of a court. A player wins a point when his or her opponent cannot return a shot, or the opponent's shot doesn't land in the court.


The modern form of tennis first appeared in the 19th century, but earlier forms of the game had been played in Europe for centuries. The most well-known was real tennis (or royal tennis), which had been popular with royal families and the rich since the thirteenth century. In 1571, French King Charles IX gave permission for the 'Corporation of Tennis Professionals', a type of 'pro tour', to be started, which shows how popular real tennis had become. The game became less popular around the time of the French Revolution, however, because of its links with royalty and the 'ruling classes' that people blamed for social injustices. In England in 1873, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield revived interest in the game by simplifying the rules and designing new courts that were easier and cheaper to build. He called his new version of the game 'lawn tennis' and kept most of the old scoring system, and many of the original French words used in real tennis, such as love and deuce.

Why does love mean zero?
Love, meaning zero (in tennis only), comes from the French expression l'oeuf, meaning the egg, and was used because of an egg's round shape, similar to zero (0).

How the Game Works

Rafael Nadal playing in the 2006 U.S. OpenTennis is played on a rectangular court, usually with a grass, clay, or hard court surface. The court is 78 feet (23.77 m) long and 27 feet (8.23 m) wide for singles matches and 36 feet (10.97 m) wide for doubles matches. The net is 3 feet 6 inches (1.07 m) high at the outer posts and 3 feet (.914 m) high in the middle. Lines divide the court into different areas, including four 'service boxes' in the centre of the court, in which serves must land. Before a match begins, one player is designated server in the first game, and play begins with this player serving the ball from one side of the back of the court into the service box diagonally opposite. If the serve is good, the receiver must hit it back into the server's side of the court. Play continues until one player cannot return a shot, or hits a shot out of the court, and loses the point. The server then serves again, and play continues until one player scores enough points to win the first game. Then the second game begins with the player who received in the first game now serving. Play continues until a player wins the first 'set' by being the first to win at least six games. Then the second set begins, and play continues until a player has won enough sets to win the match. In a 'best of three' match, the winner is the first to win two sets, and in a 'best of five' match, the winner is the first to win three sets.

Professional players learn to use many different shots, including the serve, forehand, backhand, volley, half-volley, overhead smash, drop shot, and lob. They also learn how to put spin on their shots to make them more difficult to return, and learn how to use tactics to win, such as by playing to their opponent's weaknesses.


Every year hundreds of tournaments are held for professional players. The biggest of these are the Grand Slam tournaments; the Australian Open, the French Open, The Championships at Wimbledon in England, and the US Open. The greatest challenge in tennis is to win all four Grand Slam tournaments in one year. In men's singles this has only ever been done by two players; Don Budge (1938) and Rod Laver (1962 and 1969). In women's singles it has been done by only three players; Maureen Connolly (1953), Margaret Smith Court (1970), and Steffi Graf (1988).

Famous Players

Rod Laver

Born in 1938 in Rockhampton, Australia, Rod Laver is said by many tennis historians to be the greatest player of all time. He is the only player to have won the men's singles Grand Slam two times. At 1.72 metres, Rod Laver was not as tall as many of today's players, but he had a strong arm and his shots were powerful. He was very fast around the court, and very accurate with his play. He was also a very clever player, and often won matches by outwitting his opponents tactically.

Steffi Graf

Steffi Graf was born in Mannheim, Germany in 1969, and is one of the greatest female tennis players of all time. She won 107 singles titles, including 22 Grand Slam singles titles. In 1988, Graf became the only player to have ever achieved a 'Golden Slam' by winning the Olympic gold medal in singles as well as all four Grand Slam singles titles that year. No other man or woman has ever done this. She also holds the record for the total number of weeks she was rated as the number one player in the world at 377 weeks. She is also the only player to have won all four Grand Slam singles tournaments at least four times each. Steffi married Andre Agassi, the former world number one in men's tennis.

Tennis Vocabulary List

word example sentence meaning
ace Andy won the match by serving a beautiful ace that was almost impossible to return. a winning serve which the receiver fails to touch with his or her racket
advantage With the score at deuce, Roger returned serve with a winner and the umpire announced, 'Advantage Federer'. a player who scores a point at 'deuce' has the advantage, meaning if they win the next point, they win the game
backhand If your opponent is right-handed and has a weak backhand, hit the ball to his left if you can. a stroke in which the ball is struck on the opposite side of the body to the racquet hand
When I was young I was a 'ballboy', and my son does the same job now, but he's a 'ballperson'. youngsters who collect balls from the court and give them to players as required
baseline If a player's foot touches the baseline while serving, the serve is a foot-fault. a line at each end of the court, marking the boundary of the playing area
break I got off to good start by breaking my opponent's serve in the first game of the match. to beat an opponent in a game in which the opponent is serving
break point The score is 30-40, so this point is a break point and if he wins it, he wins the game. a point which will result in a break of service if it's won by the receiver
crosscourt Rafael played a beautiful crosscourt volley to win the match. a shot in which the ball is hit diagonally across the court
deuce The word deuce was used in real tennis for hundreds of years before the modern game developed. a score of 40-40, after which a player must win two consecutive points to win the game
double fault After serving a fault I was worried about serving a double fault, so my second serve was much slower. two faults served in a row, resulting in the server losing the point
doubles In a game of doubles, the outer line down each side of the court acts as the boundary. format in which players play in teams of two
drop shot Serena played a perfect drop shot that just got over the net and landed about one foot from it. a gentle shot that just drops over the net
fault Maria tried to hit her serve too hard and it missed the court and was a fault. a missed serve, served into the net or served outside the correct service box
forehand Chris has a very strong forehand, so his opponents play to his backhand more. a shot hit from the racket-arm side of the body
game Venus won the match by two sets to one, and she won both sets by six games to four. in scoring, a game is won by winning points, a set is won by winning games, and a match is won by winning sets
game point When the score gets to game point, players often get nervous and make simple mistakes. a point that will end the game if it is won by the leading player
Grand Slam A career Grand Slam means a player has won each Grand Slam tournament at least once in their career. the four major tournaments; Wimbledon and the French, U.S. and Australian Opens
groundstroke Nadal is strong and he uses powerful groundstokes to keep his opponents on the run. a shot hit from the back court after the ball has bounced; the standard shot in tennis
let The umpire heard the serve clip the net as it went over, so she called a let. a shot that must be replayed, such as a serve that touches the net
line judge The line judge said the ball was in, but the umpire overruled him and called it out. an official who judges whether or not shots land in the court
lob Her lob flew high into the air and dropped into the back of the court, just inside the baseline. a shot that is hit in a high arc, usually over the opponent's head
love After starting his service game with a double fault, the score is love-fifteen. zero (this meaning is used in tennis only)
match point Ana had her first three match points saved, but she won the fourth. a point that will end the match if it is won by the leading player
mixed doubles Is there a competition for mixed doubles in Tennis in the Olympic Games? doubles format in which each team is made up of one female and one male player
net At the end of the match, the players jogged to the net and shook hands. the woven barrier dividing a court into halves, over which the ball must be hit
racket / racquet Rackets used to be made of wood, but now they're made of materials like carbon fibre and titanium. a stringed 'bat' that players hold and use to hit the ball
rally The longest rally in the match went on for 22 shots before a winner was hit. a long series of shots
receiver Most receivers stand behind the baseline when they're waiting for a serve. the player receiving serves
return Rafael's serve was good, but Roger's return was even better and he won the point. to hit a shot back to the opponent
serve Andy Roddick wins many points with his powerful serve. the shot that begins each point, in which the server hits the ball after tossing it into the air
set Elena won the first set, but Maria took the next two sets to win the match. in scoring, a player must win at least six
games to win a set
set point Even top players get tense or 'tight' on set points. a point that, if won by the leading player, will win him or her the game and the set
tiebreaker In a tiebreaker, the winner is the first player with at least seven points, and a two-point lead. a game format used to quickly finish a set that's tied at six games each
umpire The umpire sits in a tall chair at the side of the court, near the net. the official who is in overall charge of a match
volley Volleys can be hard to control if there's a lot of spin on the ball. a shot on which the ball is hit before it bounces
Contributor: Matt Errey. Matt is the author of several books including 1000 Phrasal Verbs in Context and Common English Idioms for learners, and Matt's ESL Games and Quizzes for teachers.