How Does Tennis Scoring Work, Exactly? Here's a Primer

If you're tuning into the 2023 US Open — while sipping a homemade Honey Deuce — but feeling a little confused by what's happening on the court, don't fret. Tennis scoring can seem complicated at first, but once you get the hang of it, you'll feel like a seasoned fan.

Here's a primer on tennis scoring that you can use while watching the US Open, which runs from Aug. 28 to Sept. 10 at the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in Queens, NY.

The Basics of Tennis Scoring

  • Each tennis match is made up of two to three sets. To win a set, you must win at least six games.
  • The games are scored starting at "love" (or zero) and go up to 40, but that's actually just four points. From love, the first point is 15, then 30, then 40, then game point, which wins the game.

Starting the Game

  • To determine who serves first, you flip a coin or (more likely) spin a racket. Whoever wins the toss gets to decide one of four things: that they want to serve first, that they want to receive first, which side of the court they want to start on (in which case, the opponent chooses who serves first), or that they want to leave these choices up to her opponent.
  • Whoever starts serving continues to serve until that game is over. Then the serve moves to the other player.
  • You serve from behind the baseline, starting on the right-hand side of the court, anywhere between the singles sideline and the center mark on the court.

Scoring the Game

  • Before serving, you should announce the score, with your score first, then your opponent's. So if you have zero and your opponent has 30, say "love-30."
  • Every time you serve, you get two tries. The serve must go over the net, land in the service box opposite you, and bounce once before your opponent returns it.
  • If it doesn't land in the service box, you take a second serve. If the second serve also misses, then you lose the point.
  • If your serve grazes the net but still lands in the service box, the serve doesn't count, and you must take that serve over. This is called a "let."
  • If your serve goes in and the opponent returns it, you continue hitting back and forth until someone hits the ball into the net, hits it out of bounds, or misses a shot. If that person is you, then your opponent gets a point. If it's your opponent who hits it into the net/hits it out of bounds/misses a shot, then you get the point.
  • Whoever is serving continues serving until the score reaches 40, calling out the score before every serve.
  • If the score is tied at 40 ("40-all"), that is "deuce," which is essentially another word for tie. To break the tie, someone must win two points in a row. If you are serving at deuce and you win the next point, then you say "my ad," which means "my advantage." If your opponent wins, it goes back to deuce, and someone again must win by two points in a row.
  • Once the game is over, the other person serves. After odd-numbered games (so after game one, game three, game five) you switch sides on the court.

Scoring a Set

  • Before the first serve in each new game, whoever is serving announces the score in sets. Say your score first, then your opponent's. So if you won the first set, you would say "1-0."
  • To complete a set, someone must win six games; the first person to win six games wins the set.
  • However, as with "deuce," you must win a set by at least two games. So, if the score is 6-5, play will continue. If the score ties at 6-6, you typically play a tiebreaker. (But some tournaments have slightly different rules for how to handle a tie.)

Scoring the Match

  • The whole shebang is called a match. The match is usually determined by the best two out of three sets. So if you win two sets, you win. If you each win a set, then you play a third set to determine the winner.

US Open-Specific Rules

  • Women's singles and men's and women's doubles matches at the US Open are all played in a best-of-three-sets format; men's singles is played in a best-of-five-sets format.
  • As of 2022, all four Grand Slams — the Australian Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the US Open — use a consistent 10-point tiebreaker in the final set. What this means: when the score reaches 6-6 in the final set, the players will continue to play; the player to first win 10 points, with an advantage of two or more points, becomes the match winner.
  • In mixed doubles, matches are also played in a best-of-three format, but using a match tiebreaker instead of a full third set; the first team to win 10 points, also by a margin of at least two, wins the third set and the match.

Wimbledon-Specific Rules

  • Wimbledon also has its own set of dress codes athletes must follow. All tennis outfits worn on the court must be all white (including accessories like headbands). However, after athletes spoke out about the distraction of playing in all-white while menstruating, the tournament updated its dress code to allow players to wear dark undershorts.
  • Bathroom breaks are limited to two per match and, for doubles partners, they have to share them with each other. This rule was originally put in place to avoid players allegedly "cheating" by spending long amounts of time in the bathroom to throw off their opponents' winning streak.

— Additional reporting by Melanie Whyte and Lauren Mazzo