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How to Play Tennis Pronto (Literally)

Updated on May 11, 2015

Tennis ain't hard. No, really

I'm not saying I'm a pro at tennis or anything, but I can play decently, which is what I assume you want to be able to do. My family, on the other hand, loved tennis and played a lot. My sister was #1 varsity for her high school and even played in CIF (some kind of of USTA regional championships sort of deal). My cousin, who I'm working with on a tennis instruction website, was #1 varsity for his high school. I was the unfortunate one, however, who was blessed with absolutely no motivation to compete, which is probably why I prefer writing and skateboarding. But case in point, I know a little about tennis, so that gives me a little cred to talk about it.

There are only a couple of things you need to know in order to play tennis:

a). Hit the ball

b). Make sure it goes over the net and within the respective lines

c). Rinse and repeat

Sound hard? No, it really doesn't, right? Tennis isn't rocket science, and if you're in the game to have fun, then it makes it that much easier. Sure, you could "follow the rules" and train and practice tirelessly 24/7 in the hopes of beating experienced players like Serena Williams and Federer, but most people aren't after that. After all, it's supposed to be a recreational sport, right? That means rules and regulations do not have to be strictly followed, unless you're playing professionally of course. Maybe if you looked at it as one of the other recreational sports, it might not seem so daunting to learn. Sports like:

  • Swimming
  • Soccer
  • Baseball
  • Bowling
  • Football
  • Golf
  • Ultimate frisbee

Catch my drift? Some of these sports have rules, sure, but you don't have to follow them to actually play and have fun. And, some of these sports can be learned without any formal knowledge of the sport. Want to swim? Jump in a pool and flap your arms and legs. Want to play soccer? Kick a ball. Baseball? Bat away. Bowling? You literally roll a ball down a lane to knock over pins. The same goes with tennis, you just have to go with it. The biggest task in tennis is hitting the ball over the net and within the lines; improving at this is just a matter of playing more.

You can say that Roger Federer has "played more", especially more than the average player.
You can say that Roger Federer has "played more", especially more than the average player.

Starting Off

So, before you get on the court, you'll want to get yourself:

  • A good tennis racquet
  • Some high-quality tennis balls
  • Some sturdy tennis shoes
  • Some comfortable exercise clothes
  • A partner to play with (not sold in stores)

But now you're probably asking, "But how do I hit the ball"? That's kind of an unnecessary question in my opinion. If you want me to go through the fundamentals of physics and motion, I will, but since I don't have much time, I won't.

You just hit the ball to be honest. When you throw a dog into a pool, most of them can swim on their own. If I were to throw you onto a court and have a tennis ball sent your way, what would you do? Just hitting the ball on instinct would be your best bet, and you can correct course along the way. That's why when I say we're literally learning how to play tennis pronto, you can bet your bottom I mean it.

The ball might fly out of the court when just beginning, but that's just something that will resolve itself the more you practice. Just focus on hitting the ball, not too hard but not too soft either that it doesn't clear the net. If you want, practice on a wall first, trying to imagine where the net would stand, and this can be a good exercise for practicing consistency.

You can learn things like tennis grips and tennis footwork later, which are the different ways to hold a tennis racquet and how you are able to move around the court, respectively. The way in which you hold your racquet can determine everything from the direction to the power to the spin, but at the moment, just hit with whatever you feel comfortable with to get a general feel of your racquet. As for footwork, all you really need to know is to always stay on your toes, move laterally (side to side with your front to the net) instead of straight toward the ball, and that the best ready position is behind the baseline in the center.

The Different Types of Tennis Shots

There are different types of tennis shots you can use on the court, which basically boils down into four categories. Forehands, backhands, serves, and volleys are all you'll need to know to cover all the different situations possible in tennis.

Type of Shot:
What Is It?
Any shot that's hit with the palm of your dominant hand facing the ball is a forehand. If you're right-handed, any ball that is hit from your right side is a forehand, and vice versa.
Just hit the ball from your foreside. One hand or two, it doesn't matter, as long as you're comfortable with it. The general concesus is that a basic forehand is hit with a full swing from low to high, where the racquet starts off around waist-level and ends above your shoulder. Once your skills improve enough, you'll be able to add spin to the ball, such as topspin, backspin, sidespin, or a combination of the spins.
Any shot that's hit with the back of your dominant hand facing the ball is a backhand. If you're right-handed, any ball that is hit from your left side is a backhand, and vice versa.
Again, just hit the ball, but this time from your backside. It'll probably be easier to learn a two-handed backhand first though, since you'll have another hand to guide you through the proper motions. And just like with forehands, you'll want to hit from low to high for your basic backhand, while spins can be learned later as you improve.
A shot that is hit overhead diagonally into your opponent's service box to start off any point in a game. You get two chances to serve for every point, serving for the entire game, and switching servers every new game.,
See that center mark on the court? Stand on either side (although when starting a game, you first start on the right side). Your goal will be to hit the ball into the opposing diagonal service box. So, bounce the ball a couple times, toss the ball above you, bring your racquet back, and hit the ball with an overhead motion with your arm fully extended.
Any shot that is hit within the vicinity of the net (usually within the service line) before the ball has had the chance to bounce.
Stand by the net, preferably within the service boxes. When the ball comes, hit it before it's had the chance to bounce. That's pretty much it. You can use a forehand or backhand for your volley.

But What Do the Lines Mean?

No, those lines aren't there as some kind minimal decoration. After all, they are just lines. But each line has its own purpose, which I'll explain. If you literally just want to play tennis right now, then reading this stuff won't be necessary right now. Just head to a court and start hitting the ball and you'll be playing tennis!

The baseline: Located on either end of the court, the baseline determines the boundary of play concerning length.

The singles sideline: Used when playing singles. This line determines the boundary of play for the width of the court, while also marking the width of the service boxes.

The doubles sideline: When playing doubles, the doubles sideline is used, which is basically the entire width of the tennis court.

The center mark: The little line that juts out in the middle of the baseline. It basically helps with telling you which side you're serving on, and is generally a good position to be in while preparing for your opponent's shots.

The service line: The line in the middle of the court that separates the forecourt from the backcourt. This line also determines the length of the service boxes.

The center service line: The line that separates the service boxes into a left and right one. When serving, the ball has to land within the diagonal opposing service box to count.

Your Average Tennis Court

How to Play Tennis (A Brief Synopsis)

  1. Stand on the court. Standing behind the baseline is ideal for beginning players. You'll want to avoid standing in the middle of the court since that's where most balls bounce first.
  2. See that ball coming your way? It's not going to stop unless a force acts upon it. In this case, you are the force. You might be too afraid to swing at the ball the first few times, but that's a common mistake most people make when they first realize that they are the force. This isn't some epic Star Wars movie though, and you don't have metaphysical powers that can make the ball change directions simply by concentrating on it. Sadly, that is not how it works. You're going to need to use your racquet.
  3. Start by preparing your racquet before the ball reaches you, keeping it at waist level with the racquet face down. The ball is only permitted to bounce once in a real match, but if you are just rallying, it doesn't really matter. It's probably best to get used to one bounce max, however, if you are planning to play real games later on.
  4. If you are right handed and the ball heads toward your right side, you'll be using a forehand to hit the ball. If you are right handed and the ball heads toward your left side, you'll be using a backhand to hit the ball. Swing your racquet from low to high in a gentle curve, making sure to follow through with a full swing, in a way that the racquet ends above your shoulder at the end of the swing.
  5. Your only goal is to get the ball over the net and within the boundaries of play. You can work on how hard you hit and the direction of the ball later once you've improved. Remember, if playing against another player, your ball must land within the singles sidelines. If playing doubles, anything within the entire width of the court counts.
  6. When the opposing player returns your ball, all you have to do is repeat the process. Do this a few hundred times and you'll gradually notice the improvement.

Learn How to Play Tennis By Watching Others

Playing a Real Tennis Match

Well, you know, this is supposed to be a really brief article on how to play tennis, but since I'm at it, I might as well include the formal rules of tennis just in case you're wondering. To play a real tennis match, you'll need to know the following ground rules (scoring, guidelines, etc.)


  • Any ball that lands outside the boundaries of play is considered out, resulting in a loss of the point for the player who hit the ball
  • Any ball that lands in the net is considered out
  • Players cannot touch the net or hit balls that haven't passed the net yet
  • The ball can only bounce once. Hitting the ball when it has bounced more than once results in the loss of the point for the player
  • Any ball that lands on the lines that determine the boundaries of play are considered good
  • Each point starts with a serve, which must land in the diagonal opposing service box for play to continue
  • Each games starts with a serve made from the right side of the center mark
  • After each point, the server and receiver switch sides of the court
  • The server serves for the entirety of the game
  • Once a new game begins, the player who just received will serve for the entirety of the game, and this cycle is repeated for each new game
  • For each odd-numbered game, players switch places


The point is your most basic score tracking method. Points start at love (or 0 if you love numbers that much) and increase to 15-30-40-game. You might be wondering why the second to last point is 40 instead of 45, but there are too many myths floating around and to be perfectly frank, no one really knows why. But a point is won when a player when their opponent makes an unforced error (hitting the ball out, into the net, can't reach the ball). A point starts with a serve, advances to the rally, and eventually ends when someone makes a mistake.

A game consists of 4 points total, but the leading player must have at least a 2 point advantage. If the score is tied at 40-40 (known as deuce), a player must win 2 points consecutively in order to win the game. The term used for players who have a 1 point advantage is known as ad-in, while a player who has a 1 point disadvantage has a score of ad-out. If a player has a 1 point advantage but loses the next point, the score returns to 40-40.

A set consists of 6 games, and the leading player must have at least a two game advantage in order to win the set. If the game score reaches 6-6, a tie-break game is played in order to determine who wins the set.

A match is won by winning the majority of sets, usually a best out of 3 or best out of 5 format. Whoever wins the match claims victory over their opponent, which results in the opponent forfeiting all of their material possessions and their firstborn child.

How to Score Tennis


Question Time!

So, was learning tennis really that hard?

See results

Wrapping Up

By no means is this a definitive guide on learning tennis, but it's certainly a start. The only way you can improve on your performance is by practicing, and that applies to almost everything with a learning curve.

What are your thoughts on it though? Any tips you'd like to give to beginning players? Suggestions? Best practices? Anything I left out? Leave a comment below if you have any valuable advice under your sleeve you'd like to share.


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