Jargon Watch: The Language Of Tennis

Clueless about tennis and keen not to let anyone find out? Here’s you’ll find the most common tennis terms from ace to smash.
Tennis terms represented by a man in white winding up for a serve, while standing on a bright orange tennis court.

Tennis has been growing in popularity around the world. Superstars come from countries across the globe, so there’s no wonder that more and more fans are drawn to the sport. With athletes including Serena Williams, Naomi Osaka, Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal, personalities have transcended the sport and entered our collective consciousness. When the big stars are playing, millions are glued to their screens. That’s why we’ve decided to put together a quick guide to the main tennis terms.

The terms used by tennis commentators are sometimes obscure (not to mention the points system, which deserves its own article), and that’s why we created a specialized glossary. If you happen to watch a match, you’ll avoid making the wrong impression (and you might even show just how much of an expert you are with the fuzzy green ball). Tennis terms are complex enough, and one article probably doesn’t cover it all, but let’s start with the basics, shall we?

Calling The Shots

First of all, you have to know what the different shots you make with the racquet are called. Here’s the first good news: There are only three that you really have to know.

serve — it’s the shot that starts the game and the point. When the serve scores a point directly without the opponent touching the ball, it’s called an ace. The return is the hit the opponent uses to try to intercept the serve.

forehand and backhand — the difference between forehand and backhand depends on your dominant hand. That is, the hand that holds the racquet. If you hold the racquet with your right hand, the forehand is the hit you play when the ball is to your right. Conversely, if you hit the ball to your left, it’s backhand. Backhand (but also forehand, in rare cases) can be hit with one or two hands. In the first case, it’s a one-handed backhand, and in the second it’s a two-handed backhand.

Besides these three basic shots, there are others that are useful to know.

  • volley — a shot played in the air, that is, before the ball bounces on the ground.
  • half volley — a rare shot that’s often played close to the net. This shot is played a fraction of a second after it bounces and is very difficult to control. That’s why you’ll see it done only a few times per match, not more.
  • smash — a kind of tennis dunk, is a strong, powerful shot made above the head with an outstretched arm.
  • lob — a shot that sends the ball very high so that it goes over the opponent’s head.
  • drop shot — a shot that lands close to the net, surprising the opponent at the far end of the court.

A point is made essentially in one of two ways, either with a winning shot, where the opponent doesn’t manage to return the ball, or a fault, where the opponent hits the ball but it goes out of bounds.

How Does The Point System Work?

Tennis terms are difficult enough on their own, but understanding how points are attributed is perhaps the least intuitive part. For example, the person who wins the most points isn’t necessarily the one who wins the match.

To win a match, you generally have to win two sets. To win a set, you have to win six games (or seven, if the two players win six each, in which case a tie-break decides and the one who wins seven points first wins the set). To win a game, you have to win at least four points, with at least two more than your opponent. Players take turns serving, one game at a time, which means that one player serves until the end of the game. Once the game is over, the other player serves.

Points are the smallest unit in tennis, and they’re given in a particular way, the origin of which is unclear: The first point is “15,” the second is “30,” the third is “40.” If one player scores three points and the other player scores one, then the score is 40 to 15. When a player wins the fourth point, they win the game. If, however, the two players both get three points (tied at 40), the game continues until one player wins by at least two points. In that case, it’s called a deuce when the players are tied and advantage when one player has a 1-point lead. Easy, right?

One of the tennis terms you’ll hear the most often is break, which doesn’t have anything do with a time-out (although you will sometimes hear about toilet breaks). A break is when the player who isn’t serving wins the point. It’s an important term because in professional tennis, it’s difficult to win a point on a break. The serve is generally such a powerful shot that it gives the player serving a considerable advantage. In general, the one who serves has a bigger chance to win the game. If you’re able to win a game when you’re not serving, you significantly increase your chances of winning the set.

A score of zero is called love. Wait, love? The history of this word’s use in tennis is puzzling. According to one theory, zero was originally called l’œuf (“egg” in French) because of the shape of the number. The English were tired of using French words to describe the points, so they decided to translate the word in their own way and chose “love.” There’s another tennis term you might hear: bagel. When a set ends with a score of 6-0, it’s said that the player gave his opponent a bagel. The reason why they use this term is obvious enough if you look at the shape of a bagel.

Hawk-Eyes, Lines And Cyclops

Now that we know what the shots are called and how points are given, let’s try to see how the game itself works. To understand tennis terms, there’s one crucial difference to keep in mind: cross-court shot versus down-the-line shot. The distinction is easy to make: When the ball is to a player’s right and they hit it to their opponent’s right, it’s a cross-court shot. Conversely, if the player hits the ball to the opponent’s left, it’s a down-the-line shot. Physically, it’s easier to hit a cross-court shot than a down-the-line shot. But that’s not the only thing that makes it easier: The tennis net is slightly higher on the sides as well. That’s why a down-the-line shot is generally riskier than a cross-court shot. At the same time, if it’s done well, it can be a winning shot or change the course of a game.

For a shot to count, it has to land in a specific part of the court. If it doesn’t, the line judge (the referees who stand behind the players and are only responsible for verifying if a ball goes out of bounds) calls the ball out, which awards the point. But what if the line judge is wrong? Two things can happen: The umpire, who sits on the high chair in the middle of the court, can overrule the decision and award the point or call for it to be replayed. Or the player who doesn’t agree can challenge the call. In the most important tournaments in the world, a camera system recreates the ball’s trajectory and indicates if it was in or out. The most commonly used technology is Hawk-Eye, which is why you’ll sometimes hear the bird mentioned when a challenge is called. This replaced a different technology from the 1980s called Cyclops, which was used solely to determine if a serve was in or out.

Rankings, Seeding And Lucky Losers

We won’t go too deep into how the ranking works, who can play in a tournament and who can’t, or anything else along those lines. Just know that for men and women there are four major tournaments, each lasting two weeks. Together, they’re known as the Grand Slam: the Australian Open, which takes place each January in Melbourne; Roland Garros (or the French Open) in May and June; Wimbledon, the most famous, which happens in July in London; and lastly, the US Open in September in New York City. These are the most prestigious tournaments which have the biggest prize money and award the most points for the ranking. Winning one of these four tournaments, even just once in a career, is the most ambitious goal for a tennis player.

Beyond the Grand Slam, there are other prestigious tournaments, but none of them really come close. One of them is the year-end tournament, where the eight best players of the season qualify. The women’s finals (WTA Finals) currently takes place in Shenzhen, China, while the men’s finals (ATP Finals) will take place in Turin starting in 2021.

Besides these two tournaments, which have their own formulas, tennis has one simple rule: If you win, you move on to the next match, and if you lose, you’re eliminated. The bracket always follows a direct elimination, and the way players’ positions in the bracket is decided follows certain rules based on the players’ rankings. In this context, the term to keep in mind is seeding. The highest ranked players are seeded throughout the bracket. That way the best players, at least by official ranking, don’t play against each other in the early rounds. Have you noticed that when the score for a match appears, there’s a number in parentheses beside the name of certain players? That’s the player’s seed number, and the lower it is, the better the player’s ranking.

When you see a bracket being filled — also known as a draw — you might see a Q or LL next to a player’s name. What do these terms mean? In tennis, a qualifier is a player who had to play in a qualification tournament because they weren’t qualified through ranking alone. The abbreviation LL stands for lucky loser. It’s a special type of qualification: a player who lost in the qualification tournament but was selected because a player in the main draw pulled out at the last minute.

A version of this article was originally published on the Italian edition of Babbel Magazine.

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