If you’re wondering what a ‘set’ is in tennis then it’s likely you’re new to the game. With a system that can appear complicated, tennis scoring does sometimes cause confusion but its slightly quirky format originates in its long history dating back to the 12th century giving it an interesting, if a little mysterious, back story.
It’s hard to understand each tennis scoring term without putting tennis scoring into context so we’ve broken down the main elements and by the end of this article you should not only know what a tennis ‘set’ is, but also be able to understand how tennis is scored and have some knowledge of the structure of a tennis match. If you’re in a hurry, we have included some quick fire FAQs at the bottom!
Tennis scoring can be traced back to the sport’s earliest days, around the 12th century, when it was played by French monks in monastery courtyards. During this period, it was called ‘jeu de paume’, or, directly translated, ‘game of the palm’, as it was typically played without racquets. The story of how this scoring system came about is hotly contested as there is little documentation on the subject but various historians and fans of the sport have speculated over the years.
A popular theory is that it was inspired by the face of a clock, with scores of 15, 30, 45 (later simplified to 40), and 60 (now ‘game’) representing the four quarters of an hour. It’s also unclear when exactly the ‘set’ was introduced as a sequence of ‘games’, with players needing to win at least six ‘games’ to win a ‘set’ but records suggest this goes back a long way too.
Rackets were introduced in the 16th century, while in the 19th century, ‘deuce’ was added to prevent games from dragging on too long and the ‘tiebreak’ was introduced in the 1970s, revolutionizing the scoring system by ensuring that sets couldn’t continue indefinitely. However overall the scoring format remains, in some capacity, the same.
So what do all these terms mean in tennis scoring?
What is a ‘set’ in tennis?
If a player wins a ‘set‘, it means they are the first to win six ‘games’ against their opponent. In order to win a tennis match, a player will need to win the majority of the ‘sets’. In professional tennis, men’s matches are typically best-of-five ‘sets’, while women’s matches are best-of-three ‘sets’. If the ‘game’ score reaches 6-6, a ‘tiebreak’ is usually played to decide the winner of the ‘set’. More on that later!
The structure of a ‘set’ is integral to the pacing of a match, ensuring that play continues in a balanced and competitive manner.
So how is a ‘game’ in tennis scored?
A ‘game’ starts with the first player (also known as the server), serving from behind the baseline. Games are scored using a unique system that counts each point as 15, 30, and 40. If the server wins the first point, the score is 15-0 (spoken as 15-Love), if the receiver wins back, it moves to 15-15 (or 15 all) and so on. If a player reaches 40 before their opponent and goes on to win a further point, the game is theirs. If both players reach 40, this is known as ‘deuce’ and the game continues until one player wins by two points with the winner required to gain an ‘advantage’ point and then win a subsequent point.
Hang on, can you explain ‘advantage’ in a tennis context?
The term ‘advantage’ is used when the score in a ‘game’ reaches ‘deuce’. When both the server and receiver have won three points each, the score is 40-40 or ‘deuce’. The player who wins the next point after ‘deuce’ gains an ‘advantage’. If the player who has the ‘advantage’ wins the next point, they win the ‘game’. However, if they lose the next point, the score returns to ‘deuce’. This can happen several times until one player manages to win two consecutive points from ‘deuce,’ thereby winning the game.
And what about using ‘love’ instead of ‘nil’ or ‘zero’?
The term ‘love’ is thought to originate from the French word for egg which was pronounced l`oeuf. Over time, the pronunciation gradually changed to love. In tennis players almost always refer to a score of zero as ‘love’, such as 15-love meaning that one player has won fifteen points while the other has yet to score any. Consequently, a ‘game’ can be described as ‘love all’ when both players have scored zero points each.
Tell me more about the ‘tiebreak’.
A ‘tiebreak’, often referred to as a ‘breaker’, is used in tennis to settle a ‘set’ that reaches a ‘game’ score of 6-6. The objective of a ‘tiebreak’ is to be the first player to score at least seven points and lead by two points. The player who was next to serve starts by serving one point, and then the serve alternates to the other player who then serves two points (one from each side), and so on, with players alternating every two serves. The players switch ends of the court after six points and at the end of the ‘tiebreak’. The winner of the ‘tiebreak’ wins the ‘set’ 7 ‘games’ to 6, regardless of the points difference in the ‘tiebreak’. In the highly competitive world of tennis, mastering the ‘tiebreak’ can often be the difference between winning and losing a match.
What’s this about switching ends?
After every odd-numbered ‘game’ in a tennis match (i.e., the first, third, fifth game, and so on), players switch ends of the court. This rule aims to ensure that no player gains an unfair advantage due to the conditions, such as wind direction, sunlight, or any slight incline of the court. It allows the game to maintain a balanced and fair competition. Furthermore, the brief pause as players switch sides provides a moment of rest and allows players to strategize before the next ‘game’ begins.
How do I know who’s serving in tennis?
The right to serve first in tennis is typically decided by a coin toss before the match begins. The player who wins the toss can choose to serve, receive, or select a side of the court. Once the match gets underway, the serve alternates between players after each ‘game’. In other words, if Player A serves the first ‘game’, Player B would then serve the second ‘game’, and they would continue to alternate in this way throughout the match.
What does ‘breaking serve’ mean?
In the sport of tennis, the terms ‘breaking serve’ and ‘holding serve’ come up often during a match. Breaking serve refers to when the receiving player wins a ‘game’ against the server’s serve. This is typically seen as a significant achievement, as the serving player is generally considered to have an advantage. On the other hand, ‘holding serve’ refers to when the server wins the ‘game’. This is expected in a standard game of tennis, as the server has the advantage of initiating the points and can use the serve to dictate the pace and style of play.
Are there any other terms that I should really know in relation to tennis scoring?
Yes, some other terms frequently heard on the tennis court include:
Playing an ‘ace’: An ‘ace’ is when the server hits a serve that cannot be returned by the receiver. This is seen as a big win in a professional match as it requires exceptional power and accuracy. Aces are often pivotal moments in games of tennis, as they can quickly swing momentum or provide an easy win for the server.
Double fault: A player is given two attempts to serve per point. Ideally they will get their first serve in but if not, they can try again. A ‘double fault’ occurs when a player fails to get their serve into the correct service box twice in a row, resulting in the loss of a point.
Set point: This occurs when one of the players is only one point away from winning the ‘set’.
Match point: This is when a player is just one point away from winning the entire match.
Unforced error: This is a term used when a player makes a mistake in a situation where there was no apparent force or pressure from the opponent’s shot.
So there you have it, by now you should definitely know the answer to ‘what is a set in tennis?’ as well as having a good understanding of the tennis scoring system and all the related terms but if you’re hungry for more, we’ve got some fascinating facts on tennis ‘sets’ still to come…
What was the longest tennis ‘set’ ever played?
The longest ‘set’ ever played lasted 8 hours and 11 minutes. It was the fifth and final ‘set’ played in the longest tennis match in history between John Isner and Nicolas Mahut at the 2010 Wimbledon Championship. The match lasted an astonishing 11 hours and spread over three days. It’s a record that still stands today, highlighting not only the skill of these two players but also their stamina and determination.
This is a record guaranteed never to be beaten as the rules of play have now changed. Historically, at Wimbledon, the final ‘set’ would not go to a ‘tiebreak’. Instead players would continue to play ‘games’ until one opponent won by two ‘games’. So in the Isner v. Mahut match, they played 138 ‘games’ in the final ‘set’ with Isner finally winning 70-68!
What is a ‘champion set’?
A ‘champion set’ is one in which the winner of the ‘set’ wins six ‘games’, but only after dropping five. It takes great skill and concentration to come back from a 0-5 deficit in a ‘set’. This is often seen as a player showing their true strength and resilience, as they are able to turn around their fortunes from an almost impossible situation
Ever heard of a ‘bagel’ and a ‘golden set’ in tennis terms?
Well, a ‘bagel’ in tennis refers to a ‘set’ that ends with a score of 6-0? This term signifies the domination of one player over the other throughout the ‘set’, as they’ve managed to win all six ‘games’ without the opponent scoring a single ‘game’.
On the other hand, a ‘golden set’ is when a player wins a ‘set’ without losing a single point. This incredible feat is extremely rare in professional tennis. The only known instance of a ‘golden set’ in the Open Era was achieved by Yaroslava Shvedova in the 2012 Wimbledon Championships.
So there concludes our deep dive into ‘what is a ‘set’ in tennis?’ and there now shouldn’t be much you don’t know! Unlike most sports, tennis’ non-linear scoring system requires both skill and strategy and it’s a system that has stood the test of time, adding an extra layer of suspense to every tennis match so knowing how it works will not only increase the enjoyment when playing but hugely enhance the experience of watching Grand Slam matches.
QUICK FIRE FAQs
What is a ‘set’ in tennis?
A set is made up of games. The first player to win six games in a tennis match wins the set and there are varying numbers of sets in a match.
How many sets are there in a tennis match?
A men’s Grand Slam tournament matches are typically best of five sets, however, in most other tournaments and for all women’s matches, it is generally best of three sets
How many games are in a set of tennis?
There are at least six game but anything up to 12.
Can a tennis set end in a draw?
No, if the score in games is tied at 6-6, a tiebreak game is played to decide the set winner.
How is the server decided at the beginning of a new set?
The player who was set to receive in the previous set becomes the server.
Does tennis scoring differ for doubles and singles matches?
The scoring does not, however the court in which players play is extended for doubles and the team of two takes it in turns to serve. If a team is doubles team is serving, they switch from left to right with each point played.