How Do Tennis Scores Work? A Simple Guide to Scoring

11 min read

24 Jun 2024


Most sports have their own terminology. A vocabulary and language that is only applicable to them. A googly in cricket, a bogie in golf and a nutmeg in football are some good examples.

However, most sports follow some kind of standard numerical system when it comes to scoring. But not tennis. Tennis not only has its own terminology - ace, moon ball, bagel etc but it also has its own unique and convoluted scoring system too.

Even some of the most hard-core sports fans can sometimes struggle to get their head around tennis scores.

So, for anyone not sure what love means (in a tennis way, of course) or think deuce is something to do with the number two - here’s our simple guide to tennis scoring.

Tennis Scores And What They Mean

Let’s begin by looking at this in terms of a basic points system.

Tennis matches are played in sets, with each set comprising of at least six games.

To win a match, you need to win either two or three sets, depending upon whether the tournament is a best-of-three or best-of-five event.

What does all that mean, though? Let’s take a closer look.

What Are Games And Sets In Tennis?

In order to win a set, you must win at least six games while also winning two games more than your opponent. (Tennis!)

So, for example, you might have won six games but your opponent has won five. You don’t win the set until there is a two-game margin between your scores, i.e. 7-5.

You can win the set with six games if your opponent has won at least two fewer games, for example, 6-4 or 6-3. If it finishes 6-6, a tie-breaker is required to decide the set.

How many sets you need to win a match depends on the tournament you’re playing in. In most cases, it is the best of three sets, so the winner needs to win two sets, to win the match.

What Is The Basic Scoring System In Tennis?

To win a game in tennis, players must win at least four points. In a simple points structure, this would be 0-1-2-3-4.

When it comes to tennis, though, rather than a straightforward linear points system, each of these points has either a numerical value or a name instead. These can be seen below:

0 - LOVE

1 - 15

2 - 30

3 - 40

4 - GAME

In the above scenario, with one player winning every point, assuming that player was serving, the score system would look like this:

15 - LOVE (1-0)

30 - LOVE (2-0)

40 - LOVE (3-0)

GAME (End of game, not end of match)

Surprisingly, in tennis, this scenario can happen a lot, especially if you have a player who has a dominant serve. However, most games are more competitive than that.

If both players have won one point each then the score will be 15 - 15 and if they have both won two points each it will be 30 – 30.

In the most competitive games, two additional scores are introduced - Deuce and Advantage.

What Is Deuce And Advantage?

When a tennis game is very competitive and the scores are more even, it can result in Deuce and Advantage coming into play.

These can be described as a mini tie-breaker for the tightest games.

If a game reaches 40-40, then this is called Deuce. You might think that the next player to win a point would win the game, but you’d be wrong (except in some doubles events). Remember this is tennis, and it revels in the confusion.

The next player who wins a point actually has ‘Advantage’. This is marked by an ‘A’ on the scoreboard and you will hear the umpire say “Advantage” followed by the player's name.

If the player with the advantage then wins the following point directly after that, then they’ve won the game. So in effect, when it goes to Deuce, a player must win the next two straight points in order to win the game.

If the player with the advantage doesn’t win the next point, then the score returns to Deuce (40- 40) and the process starts again.

Some games can return to deuce several times, with one or both players gaining and losing the advantage over and over again before returning back to deuce. It can make for an exciting watch!

What Is Set-Point And Match-Point?

This is just tennis terminology meaning a player is one point away from winning a set or a match.

It can happen several times through a tennis match, where a player is just one point away from clinching a set or from winning the match altogether and then the opponent fights back.

Tennis commentators will also use the term Championship-Point if the player is one point away from winning the whole tournament.

Tennis great Roger Federer famously lost two Championship-points in his last Grand Slam final at Wimbledon in 2019. He had two chances to clinch what would have been his ninth Wimbledon crown and 21st career Grand Slam title and he lost both, with the title going to Novak Djokovic instead.

In tennis, they say the last point is the hardest to win.

How Does Serving Affect The Score?

Tennis is unlike a lot of other sports in that there isn’t a home player and an away player to structure the scoring system. Obviously in football the home team’s score always comes first.

In tennis, the player who is serving has their score put first. So 15-LOVE means the serving player has won the first point. And LOVE-15 means the receiving player has won the first point.

Each player takes it in turns to serve and on each serve, they have two attempts to get it into the correct section of the court, otherwise known as a legal serve.

What Is An Ace In Tennis?

An ace in tennis is basically a serve that is not touched by the receiver at all, and therefore wins the point for the server.

Usually, aces are seen on the players first serve as they can take some chances, go big and hit with maximum force. If it works well, they get an ace, if it doesn’t, they have the second serve to fall back on.

For any fact fans out there, American tennis player John Isner holds the record for the most aces in one match which was 113 in his 11-hour battle with Nicolas Mahut at the 2010 Wimbledon Championships.

What Is A Break Of Serve In Tennis?

Serving in tennis gives the player the upper hand. When you serve, you have the benefit of being able to lead each point and put your opponent on the back foot. You can also make aces, meaning you can play your opponent out of the point before it’s even really started.

Because serving is such an advantage, games are often referred to as ‘on serve’ if both players are ‘holding their serve’. In other words, players are expected to win their service games.

However, if a player fails to win a game on their serve, then it means the other player has ‘broken serve’. This would be similar to a turnover in rugby union, a steal in basketball, or a short-handed goal in ice hockey.

But with tennis it is even more significant, because you cannot win a set outright (i.e. without a tie-break) unless you break your opponent’s serve at least once.

Although most great tennis players are admired for their serving skills, being a formidable returner, like Andy Murray and Andre Agassi in their heydays, is just as important, if not more so. Most tennis players can win on their service games, but having a great return is what wins tennis matches.

What Is A Tennis Tie-Break?

If a tennis set is tied at 6-6 then a tie-breaker comes into play.

The tie-break rules have changed a little in recent years and Grand Slams now operate a Super Tie-Break on the final set. However, for the sake of simplicity (and our sanity), the basic tie-break is a simple first-to-seven-points mini-match. (So, they choose now to implement a standard numerical points system!)

After one player has an initial single serve, the players then take it in turns to have two serves each until one player makes it to seven points. Just to add a little extra complication, there still needs to be a two-point margin between scores so they will continue playing until there is. Eventually the player with at least seven points and a two-point advantage wins the set.

Meanwhile, the Super Tie-Break that I mentioned earlier is basically the same system as above but going up to ten points rather than seven. This is used in the final set at Grand Slam tournaments.

Final set tie-breaks never used to be a thing in Grand Slam tennis until that epic 11-hour first-round match I mentioned earlier at Wimbledon in 2010. It used to be thought that if a tennis match was so tight, it wouldn’t be fair to finish it off with a quick tie-break.

However, poor John Isner and Nicolas Mahut just could not be separated, and their match ran over three days with a final score of 70 - 68 games in the last set. That’s games, not points!

How Is Grand Slam Tennis Scoring Different?

The men’s tennis tour, led by the ATP, and the women’s tennis tour, led by the WTA, is a year-round schedule of tournaments.

Many casual tennis fans only really take notice of the four Grand Slams - Australian Open, French Open (Roland Garros), Wimbledon and the US Open.

However, tennis goes on all year round with various events of different levels across the world. The standard scoring system for both men and women on the tour is the best of three sets.

Grand Slam tennis is different, but only for men. In Grand Slam tournaments, men are required to play a best of five set system while women remain with the best of three.

Why Is Tennis Scored This Way?

Call it strange, call it pretentious, but whatever you think of it, tennis scoring is certainly unique.

The even weirder thing is that no one really knows why it's scored this way. There are lots of theories of course. Some believe the scoring system actually started out as 15-30-45, going up in increments of 15, but then for some reason the five got knocked off to make it 40.

Others believe it was based on a clock with the four main points set at North, South, East and West used as the scores. But that doesn’t explain 40 instead of 45 again.

It’s been proposed that the word ‘love’ being used for zero could be linked to the French word l’oeuf, meaning egg, which is the same shape as the number 0. But, again, this is just an unproven theory.

Some written text from as far back as the 1520’s had one Jan van den Berghe questioning the same as everyone else: “What was not explained was how players can win fifteen points for a single stroke. It is, after all, a little curious that they count or win more than one point for a single stroke… Why is not one point given for one stroke, and two for two strokes?”

If they have been asking the same question since the 1500s, I’m guessing we’ll never get to the bottom of it, so we might as well just embrace the madness.

Tennis Scores Glossary

In summary as mentioned earlier, tennis almost has its own language which can be incredibly confusing.

Here, you'll find the most common terms as a handy quick-reference guide:

Ace – An untouched serve.

Advantage - The next point won after deuce. Should the player at advantage win the next point, they win the game. If the opponent wins the next point, the score returns to deuce.

Bagel – A set won to love – i.e. 6-0.

Break – A game won by the non-serving player.

Break-Point – When a player is one point away from earning a break.

Championship Point – When a player is one point away from winning the tournament.

Deuce – When the scores are 40-40 and neither player has Advantage.

Fault – A serve that failed to get the ball in play. Should both the first and second serves be faults, it is a double fault and the server loses the point.

Game – A player needs to win at least four points to win a game and there are between 6 and 12 games in a set with serve alternating. Players need to win at least six games to win a set.

Love – Essentially a proxy term for zero in tennis scoring.

Match-Point – When a player is one point away from winning the match.

Set – A collection of 6-12 games. A set is won when one player has won at least six games with at least a two-game lead over their opponent – e.g. 6-4, 7-5.

Set-Point – When a player is one point away from winning a set.

Tie-Break – Played when a game is tied at 6-6. In a tie-break, players win when they have won at least seven points with at least a two-point lead over their opponent. In a Super Tie-Break, which is played in Grand Slam deciding sets, a player needs at least ten points to win it.

Updated: 4 Jul 2024

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The Author

Lynsey has been writing in the iGaming and sports betting industry for almost a decade. She has three years of experience in Matched Betting and enjoys sharing her expertise and knowledge to help others.

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