Code of Tennis
The Players' Guide for Unofficiated Matches
When your serve hits your partner stationed at the net, is it a let, fault,
or loss of point? Likewise, what is the ruling when your serve, before touching
the ground, hits an opponent who is standing back of the baseline?
The answers to these questions are obvious to anyone who knows the fundamentals
of tennis, but it is surprising the number of players who don't know these
fundamentals. All players have a responsibility to be familiar with the
basic rules and customs of tennis. Further, it can be distressing to your
opponent when he makes a decision in accordance with a rule and your protest
with the remark, "Well, I never heard of that rule before!" Ignorance of
the rules constitutes a delinquency on the part of a player and often spoils
an otherwise good match.
What is written here constitutes the essentials of The Code,
a summary of procedures and unwritten rules which custom and tradition
dictate all players should follow. No system of rules will cover every
specific problem or situation that may arise. If players of good will
follow the principles of The Code, they should always be able to
reach an agreement, while at the same time making tennis more fun and
a better game for all. The principles of The Code shall apply in
cases not specifically covered by The
Rules of Tennis and USTA Regulations.
Before reading this you might well ask yourself: Since we have a book
that contains all the rules of tennis,
why do we need a code? Isn't it sufficient to know and understand all
the rules? There are a number of things not specifically set forth in
the rules that are covered by custom and tradition only. For example,
if you have a doubt on a line call, your opponent gets the benefit of
the doubt. Can you find that in the rules? Further, custom dictates the
standard procedures that players will use in reaching decisions. These
are the reasons why we need a code.
--Col. Nick Powel
Note: This edition of The Code is an adaptation of the original,
which was written by Colonel Nicholas E. Powel.
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1. Courtesy. Tennis is a game that requires cooperation and courtesy
from all participants. Make tennis a fun game for all by praising your opponents'
good shots and by not:
- conducting loud postmortems after points;
- complaining about shots like lobs and drop shots;
- embarrassing a weak opponent by being overly gracious or condescending;
- losing your temper, using vile language, throwing your racket, or
slamming a ball in anger; or
- sulking when you are losing.
2. Counting points played in good faith. All points played in
good faith stand. For example, if after losing a point, a player discovers
that the net was four inches too high, the point stands. If a point is
played from the wrong court, there is no replay. If during a point, a
player realizes that a mistake was made at the beginning (for example,
service from the wrong court), he shall continue playing the point. Corrective
action may be taken only after a point has been completed.
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3. Warm-up is not a practice. A player should provide his opponent
a five-minute warm-up (ten minutes if there are no ball persons). If a player
refuses to warm up his opponent, he forfeits his right to a warm-up. Some
players confuse warm-up and practice. A player should make a special effort
to hit his shots directly to his opponent. (If partners want to warm each
other up while their opponents are warming up, they may do so.)
4. Warm-up serves. Take all your warm-up serves before the first
serve of the match. Courtesydictates that you not practice your service
return when your opponent practices his serve. If a player has completed
his warm-up serves, he shall return warm-up serves directly to his opponent.
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5. Player makes calls on his side of the net. A player calls
all shots landing on, or aimed at, his side of the net.
6. Opponent gets benefit of doubt. When a match is played without
officials, the players are responsible for making decisions, particularly
for line calls. There is a subtle difference between player decisions
and those of an on-court official. An official impartially resolves a
problem involving a call, whereas a player is guided by the unwritten
law that any doubt must be resolved in favor of his opponent. A player
in attempting to be scrupulously honest on line calls frequently will
find himself keeping a ball in play that might have been out or that he
discovers too late was out. Even so, the game is much better played this
7. Ball touching any part of the line is good. If any part of
the ball touches the line, the ball is good. A ball 99 percent out is
till 100 percent good.
8. Ball that cannot be called out is good. Any ball that cannot
be called out is considered to have been good. A players may not claim
a let on the basis that he did not see a ball. One of tennis' most infuriating
moments occurs after a long hard rally when a player makes a clean placement
and his opponent says: "I'm not sure if it was good or out. Let's play
a let." Remember, it is each player's responsibility to call all balls
landing on or aimed at, his side of the net. If a ball can't be called
out with certainty, it is good. When you say your opponent's shot was
really out but you offer to replay the point to give him a break, you
are deluding yourself because you must have had some doubt.
9. Calls when looking across a line or when far away. The call
of a player looking down a line is much more likely to be accurate than
that of a player looking across a line. When you are looking across a
line, don't call a ball out unless you can clearly see part of the court
between where the ball hit and the line. It is difficult for a player
who stands on one baseline to question a call on a ball that landed near
the other baseline.
10. Treat all points the same regardless of their importance.
All points in a match should be treated the same. There is no justification
for considering a match point differently than the first point.
11. Requesting opponent's help. When an opponent's opinion is
requested and he gives a positive opinion, it must accepted. If neither
player has an opinion, the ball is considered good. Aid from an opponent
is available only on a call that ends a point.
12. Out calls corrected. If a player mistakenly calls a ball
"out" and then realizes it was good, the point shall be replayed if he
returned the ball within the proper court. Nonetheless, if the player's
return of the ball results in a "weak sitter," the player should give
his opponent the point. If the player failed to make the return, his opponent
wins the point. If the mistake was made on the second serve, the server
is entitled to two serves.
13. Player calls his own shots out. With the exception of the
first serve, a player should call against himself any ball he clearly
sees out regardless of whether he is requested to do so by his opponent.
The prime objective in making calls is accuracy. All players should cooperate
to attain this objective.
14. Partners' disagreement on calls. If a player and his partner
disagree about whether their opponents' ball was out, they shall call
it good. It is more important to give your opponents the benefit of the
doubt than to avoid possibly hurting your partner's feelings by not overruling.
The tactful way to achieve the desired result is to tell your partner
quietly that he has made a mistake and then let him overrule himself.
If a call is changed from out to good, the point is replayed only if the
out ball was put back in play.
15. Audible or visible calls. No matter how obvious it is to
a player that his opponent's ball is out, the opponent is entitled to
a prompt audible or visible out call.
16. Opponent's calls questioned. A player may ask his opponent
about his call with the query: "Are you sure of your call?" If the opponent
reaffirms that the ball was out, his call shall be accepted. If the opponent
acknowledges that he is uncertain, he loses the point. There shall be
no further delay or discussion.
17. Spectators never to make calls. A player shall not enlist
the aid of a spectator in making a call. No spectator has a part in the
18. Prompt calls eliminate two chance option. A player shall
make all calls promptly after the ball has hit the court. A call shall
be made either before the player's return shot has gone out of play or
before the opponent has had the opportunity to play the return shot.
Prompt calls will quickly eliminate the "two chances to win the point"
option that some players practice. To illustrate, a player is advancing
the net for an easy put away when he sees a ball from an adjoining court
rolling toward him. He continues his advance and hits the shot, only to
have his supposed easy put away fly over the baseline. The player then
claims a let. The claim is not valid because he forfeited his right to
call a let my choosing instead to play the ball. He took his chance to
win or lose, and he is not entitled to a second chance.
19. Lets called when balls roll on the court. When a ball from
an adjacent court enters the playing area, a player shall call a let as
soon as he becomes aware of the ball. The player loses the right to call
a let if he unreasonably delays in making the call.
20. Touches, hitting ball before it crossed net, invasion of opponent's
court, double hits, and double bounces. A player shall promptly acknowledge:
21. Balls hit through the net or into the ground. A player shall
make the ruling on a ball that his opponent hits through the net and on
a ball that his opponent hits into the ground before it goes over the net.
- a ball touches him;
- he touches the net;
- he touches his opponent's court;
- he hits a ball before it crosses the net;
- he deliberately carries or double hits the ball; or
- the ball bounces more than once in his court.
22. Calling balls on clay courts. If any part of the ball mark
touches the line on a clay court, the ball shall be called good. If you
can see only part of the mark on the court, this means that the missing
part is on the line or tape. A player should take a careful second look
at any point-ending placement that is close to a line on a clay court.
Occasionally a ball will strike the tape, jump and then leave a full mark
behind the line. The player should listen for the sound of the ball striking
the tape and look for a clean spot on the tape near the mark. If these
conditions exist, the player should give the point to his opponent.
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23. Server's request for third ball. When a server requests three
balls, the receiver shall comply when the third ball is readily available.
Distant balls shall be retrieved at the end of a game.
24. Foot Faults. A player may warn his opponent that the opponent
has committed a flagrant foot fault. If the foot faulting continues, the
player may attempt to locate an official. If no official is available,
the player may call flagrant foot faults. Compliance with the foot fault
rule is very much a function of a player's personal honor system. The
plea that he should not be penalized because he only just touched the
line and did not rush the net is not acceptable. Habitual foot faulting,
whether intentional or careless, is just as surely cheating as is making
a deliberate bad line call.
25. Service calls in doubles. In doubles the receiver's partner
should call the service line, and the receiver should call the sideline
and the center service line. Nonetheless, either partner may call a ball
that he clearly sees.
26. Service calls by serving team. Neither the server nor his
partner shall make a fault call on the first service even if they think
it is out because the receiver may be giving the server the benefit of
the doubt. But the server and his partner shall call out any second serve
that either of them clearly sees out.
27. Service let calls. Any player may call a service let. The
call shall be made before the return of serve goes out of play or is hit
by the server or his partner. If the serve is an apparent or near ace,
any let shall be called promptly.
28. Obvious faults. A player shall not put into play or hit over
the net an obvious fault. To do so constitutes rudeness and may even be
a form of gamesmanship. On the other hand, if a player believes that he
cannot call a serve a fault and gives his opponent the benefit of a close
call, the serves is not entitled to replay the point.
29. Receiver readiness. The receiver shall play to the reasonable
pace of the server. The receiver should make no effort to return a serve
when he is not ready. If a player attempts to return a serve (even if
it is a "quick" serve), then he (or his team) is presumed to be ready.
30. Delays during service. When the server's second service motion
is interrupted by a ball coming onto the court, he is entitled to two
serves. When there is a delay between the first and second serves:
The time it takes to clear a ball that comes onto the court between the
first and second serves is not considered sufficient time to warrant the
server receiving two serves unless this time is so prolonged as to constitute
an interruption. The receiver is the judge of whether the delay is sufficiently
prolonged to justify giving the server two serves.
- the server gets one serve if he was the cause of the delay;
- the server gets two serves if the delay was caused by the receiver
or if there was outside interference.
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31. Server announces score. The server shall announce the game score
before the first point of the game and the point score before each subsequent
point of the game.
32. Disputes. Disputes over the score shall be resolved by using
one of the following methods, which are listed in the order of preference:
- count all points and games agreed upon by the players and replay only
the disputed points or games;
- play from a score mutually agreeable to all players;
- spin a racket or toss a coin.
33. Talking during a point. A player shall not talk while the
ball is moving toward his opponent's side of the court. If the player's
talking interferes with his opponent's ability to play the ball, the player
loses the point. Consider the situation where a player hits a weak lob
and loudly yells at his partner to get back. If the shout is loud enough
to distract his opponent, then the opponent may claim the point based
on a deliberate hindrance. If the opponent chooses to hit the lob and
misses it, the opponent loses the point because he did not make a timely
claim of hindrance.
34. Feinting with the body. A player may feint with his body
while the ball is in play. He may change position at any time, including
while the server is tossing the ball. Any movement or sound that is made
is solely to distract an opponent, including but not limited to waving
the arms or racket or stamping the feet, is not allowed.
35. Lets due to hindrance. A let is not automatically granted
because of hindrance. A let is authorized only if the player could have
made the shot had the shot not been hindered. A let is also not authorized
for a hindrance caused by something within a player's control. For example,
a request for a let because the player tripped over his own hat should
36. Grunting. A player should avoid grunting and making other
loud noises. Grunting and other loud noises may bother not only opponents,
but also players on adjacent courts. In an extreme case, an opponent or
a player on an adjacent court may seek the assistance of the referee or
a roving official. The referee or official may treat grunting and the
making of loud noises as a hindrance. Depending upon the circumstance,
this could result in a let or loss of point.
37. Injury caused by a player. When a player accidentally injures
his opponent, the opponent suffers the consequences. Consider the situation
where the server's racket accidentally strikes the receiver and incapacitates
him. The receiver is unable to resume play within the time limit. Even
though the server caused the injury, the server wins the match by retirement.
On the other hand, when a player deliberately injures his opponent and
affects the opponent's ability to play, then the opponent wins the match
by default. Hitting a ball or throwing a racket in anger is considered
a deliberate act.
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When to Contact an Official
38. Withdrawing from a match or tournament. A player shall not enter
a tournament and then withdraw when he discovers that tough opponents have
also entered. A player may withdraw from a match or tournament only because
of injury, illness, personal emergency, or another bona fide reason. If
a player cannot play a match, he shall notify the referee at once so that
his opponent may be saved a trip. A player who withdraws from a tournament
is not entitled to the return of his entry fee unless he withdrew before
the draw was made.
39. Stalling. The following actions constitute stalling:
- warming up for more than the allotted time;
- playing at about one-third a player's normal pace;
- taking more than the allotted 90 seconds on the odd-game changeover;
- taking a rest at the end of a set that contains an even number of
- starting discussion or argument in order for a player to catch his
- clearing a missed first service that doesn't need to be cleared; and
- bouncing the ball ten times before each serve.
Contact an official if you encounter a problem with stalling. It is
subject to penalty under the Point Penalty System
40. Requesting an official. While normally a player may not leave
the playing area, he may visit the referee or seek a roving official to
request assistance. Some reasons for visiting the referee include:
- chronic flagrant foot faults;
- a medical time-out
- a scoring dispute; and
- a pattern of bad calls
A player may refuse to play until an official responds.
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41. Retrieving stray balls. Each player is responsible for removing
stray balls and other objects from his end of the court. A player shall
not go behind an adjacent court to retrieve a ball, nor shall he ask for
return of a ball from players on an adjacent court until their point is
over. When a player returns a ball that comes from an adjacent court, he
shall wait until their point is over and then return it directly to one
of the players, preferably the server.
42. Catching a ball. Unless you have made a local ground rule,
if you catch a ball before it bounces, you lose the point regardless of
where you are standing.
43. New balls for a third set. When a tournament specifies new
balls for a third set, new balls shall be used unless all the players
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44. Clothing and equipment malfunction. If clothing or equipment
other than a racket becomes unusable through circumstances outside the control
of the player, play may be suspended for a reasonable period. The player
may leave the court after the point is over to correct the problem If a
racket or string is broken, the player may leave the court to get a replacement,
but he is subject to code violations under the Point Penalty System.
45. Placement of towels. Place towels on the ground outside the
net post or at the back fence. Clothing and towels should never be placed
on the net.
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