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(CC) Photo: John Togasaki
Roger Federer, a professional tennis player, hitting a forehand against James Blake in the quarterfinals of the 2006 U.S. Open.

Tennis is a sport played between either two players ("singles") or two teams of two players ("doubles"). Players use a stringed racquet to strike a hollow rubber ball covered with felt over a net into the opponent's court. In some places tennis is still called lawn tennis to distinguish it from real tennis (also known as royal tennis or court tennis), an older form of the game that originated in France in the Middle Ages and is played indoors on a very different court. Originating in England in the late nineteenth century, lawn tennis first spread throughout the English-speaking world, particularly among the upper classes. Today tennis is an Olympic sport that is played at all levels of society, by all ages, and in many countries around the world. Except for the adoption of the tie-breaker in the 1970s, its rules have remained remarkably unchanged since the 1890s. Millions of people also follow tennis as a spectator sport, especially the four Grand Slam tournaments.

Manner of play

The court

Tennis is played on a rectangular, flat surface that can be composed of various materials. The court is 78 feet (23.77 meters) long and its width is 27 feet (8.23 m) for singles matches and 36 feet (10.97 m) for doubles matches. Additional clear space around the court is required in order for players to reach balls. A net is stretched across the full width of the court, parallel with the baselines, dividing it into two equal areas. The net is 3 feet 6 inches (1.07 m) high at the posts and 3 feet (914 mm) high in the center.

The lines

The two lines that delineate the width of the court are called the baseline. The short mark in the center of each baseline is referred to as either the hash mark or the center mark. The outermost lines that make up the length are both called the doubles sideline. These are the boundaries used when doubles is being played. The area between the doubles sideline and the lines next to them is called the doubles alley, which is considered to be "out" in singles play. These lines next to the doubles sideline are the singles sidelines, and are used as boundaries in singles play. The line that runs across the center of a player's side of the court is called the service line; despite its name this is not where a player legally stands when making a serve. The line dividing the service line in two is called the center line or center service line. The boxes that this center line creates are called the service boxes; depending on a player's position, they will have to hit the ball into one of these when serving.

The dimensions of the tennis court.

Types of court

There are four main types of court. Depending on the materials used for the court surfaces, each surface provides a difference in the speed and bounce of the ball, which in turn can affect the level of play of individual players. Some players are more successful on certain surfaces and are known as, for instance, "clay court specialists."

Clay court

Clay courts are considered relatively "slow." This means that a ball first loses speed as it hits the coarse clay surface because of increased friction and then bounces relatively high. The slowness of the court makes it more difficult for a player to hit an unreturnable shot (a "winner") because the opponent has more time to reach and return the ball. The best clay court players generally use Western grips to impart heavy topspin on the ball. Clay courts are often constructed from pulverized brick and may include other soil composites such as shale or stone. On clay courts, line calls are easily reviewable because the ball generally leaves a visible mark. Examples of clay court materials include red clay (used at the French Open), and green clay (an example of which is Har-Tru; used mainly in the U.S.)


Hardcourts are generally faster than clay courts but, depending on how a hardcourt is constructed, including the surface layers of the court, a hardcourt can be relatively slow or fast. A fast hardcourt is characterized by low bounces, where fast-serving and hard-hitting players hold an advantage. There are many different types of hardcourt. Those used at Grand Slam tournaments (Rebound Ace and DecoTurf) consist of layers of different compounds on top of an asphalt base. Other include Rebound Ace (used at the Australian Open), coated asphalt (used at the U.S. Open), and cement.

Grass court

Grass is a fast surface and was the surface used for many years at three of the Grand Slam tournaments until the Australian Open and the U.S. Open changed to hardcourts. Grass keeps the ball low and quick and generally favors players with short backswings, slice shots (which make the ball slides off the grass), and Eastern or Continental grips. Low bounces keep rallies short, which gives hard-serving and hard-hitting players an advantage. Grass courts add an additional variable with bounces depending on how healthy the grass is and how recently it has been mown. The Championship at Wimbledon uses grass courts.

Indoor court varieties

Indoor courts were usually constructed of wood until the end of the 1960s; now, cement and carpet are commonplace. For the present-day Grand Slam tournaments, four different surfaces are used. The Australian Open uses Rebound Ace, a synthetic type of hardcourt consisting of polyurethane rubber, fiberglass, and other materials on top of an asphalt base. The French Open is played on red clay. The Championships at Wimbledon are played on grass. The U.S. Open is played on DecoTurf, a hardcourt composed of layers of acrylic, rubber, silica, and other materials on top of an asphalt base.

Play of a single point

The players (or teams) start on opposite sides of the net. One player is designated the server, and the opposing player, or in doubles one of the opposing players, is the receiver. Service alternates between the two halves of the court.

For each point, the server starts behind his baseline, between the center mark and the sideline. The receiver may start anywhere on his side of the net. When the receiver is ready, the server will serve, although the receiver must play to the pace of the server.

In a legal service, the ball travels over the net (without touching it) and into the diagonally opposite service box. If the ball hits the net but lands in the service box, this is a let service, which is void, and the server gets to retake that serve. If the first service is otherwise faulty in any way – wide, long, or not over the net – the serving player has a second attempt at service. There is also a "foot fault" that occurs when a player's foot touches the baseline or an extension of the center line before the ball is hit. If the second service is also faulty, this is a double fault and the receiver wins the point. However, if the serve is "in" then it is considered a legal service. The second service can also result in a let service, in which case the server retakes that serve.

A legal service starts a rally, in which the players alternate hitting the ball across the net. A legal return consists of the player or team hitting the ball exactly once before it has bounced twice or hit any fixtures (other than the net) provided that it still falls in the server's court. It then travels back over the net and bounces in the court on the opposite side. The first player or team to fail to make a legal return loses the point.


A tennis match usually comprises one to five sets. A set consists of a number of games, and games, in turn, consist of points.

Matches consist of an odd number of sets, the match winner being the player who wins more than half of the sets. The match ends as soon as this winning condition is met. Although some matches may consist of five sets (the winner being the first to win three sets), most matches are three sets (the winner being the first to win two sets).

A set consists of a sequence of games played with service alternating between games, ending when the count of games won meets certain criteria. Typically, a player wins a set when he wins at least six games and at least two games more than his opponent. It has become common, however, to play a twelve-point tiebreak or tiebreaker when each player has won six games. A tiebreaker, played under a separate set of rules, allows one player to win one more game and thus the set, to give a final set score of 7-6

A game consists of a sequence of points played with the same player serving, and is won by the first player to have won at least four points and at least two points more than his opponent. The running score of each game is described in a manner particular to tennis: scores of zero to three points are described as "love" [the term "love" apparently derives from the figure zero (0) looking like an egg; in French, an egg is "l'oeuf" which is pronounced "leuf", sounding somewhat like "love"] or "zero," "fifteen," "thirty," and "forty" respectively. When at least three points have been scored by each side and the players have the same number of points, the score is "deuce." When at least three points have been scored by each side and a player has one more point than his opponent, the score of the game is "advantage" for the player in the lead. During informal games, "advantage" can also be called "ad in" or "ad out", depending on whether the serving player or receiving player, respectively, is ahead.

For two years before the open era, in 1955 and 1956, the United States Pro Championship in Cleveland, Ohio was played by the Van Alen Streamlined Scoring System (VASSS) rules, created by James Van Alen, who later invented the tie-breaker. The scoring was the same as that in table tennis, with sets played to 21 points and players alternating five services, with no second service. The rules were partially created in order to limit the effectiveness of the powerful service of the reigning professional champion, Pancho Gonzales. Even with the new rules, however, Gonzales beat Pancho Segura in the finals of both tournaments. Although the 1955 match went to 5 sets, with Gonzales barely holding on to win the last one 21-19, apparently it took only 47 minutes to play.[1] The fans attending the matches preferred the traditional rules, however, and in 1957 the tournament reverted to the old method of scoring.


In serious play, there is an officiating chair umpire (usually referred to as the umpire), who sits in a raised chair to one side of the court. The umpire has absolute authority to make factual determinations. The umpire may be assisted by line judges, who determine whether the ball has landed within the required part of the court and who also call foot faults. There may also be a net judge who determines whether the ball has touched the net during service. In some tournaments, certain line judges, usually those who would be calling the serve, are replaced by electronic sensors that beep when an "out" call would have been made. In some open-tournament matches, players are allowed to challenge a limited number of close calls by means of instant replay. The U.S. Open and World Team Tennis began using a "challenge" system in 2006 and the Australian Open introduced the system in 2007. This used the Hawk-Eye system and the rules were similar to those used in the National Football League, whereby a player gets a limited number of instant-replay challenges per match/set. In clay-court matches, a call may be questioned by reference to the mark left by the ball's impact on the court surface.

The referee, who is usually located off the court, is the final authority about tennis rules. When called to the court by a player or team captain, the referee may overrule the umpire's decision if the tennis rules were violated (a question of law) but may not change the umpire's decision on a question of fact. If, however, the referee is on the court during play, the referee may then overrule the umpire's decision.

Ball boys (who are usually children or adolescents) may be employed to retrieve balls, pass them to the players, and hand players their towels. They have no adjudicative role. In rare events (e.g., if they are hurt or if they have caused a hindrance), the umpire may ask them for a statement of what actually happened. The umpire may consider their statements when making a decision.

In some leagues, especially junior leagues, players make their own calls, trusting each other to be honest. This is the case for many school and university level matches. However, the referee or referee's assistant can be called on court at a player's request, and the referee or assistant may change a player's call. In unofficiated matches, a ball is "out" only if the player entitled to make the call is sure that the ball is "out".


In tennis, a junior is any player under the age of 18 who is still legally protected by a parent or guardian. Players on the main adult tour who are under 18 must have documents signed by a parent or guardian. These players, however, are still eligible to play in junior tournaments.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) conducts a junior tour that allows juniors to establish a world ranking and an Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) or Women's Tennis Association ranking. Most juniors who enter the international circuit do so by progressing through ITF, Satellite, Future, and Challenger tournaments before entering the main circuit. The latter three circuits also have adults competing in them. Some juniors, however, such as the Australian Lleyton Hewitt and the Frenchman Gael Monfils, have gone directly from the junior tour to the ATP tour by dominating the junior scene or by taking advantage of opportunities given to them to participate in professional tournaments.

Junior tournaments do not offer prize money except for the Grand Slams, which are the most prestigious junior events. Juniors may earn income from tennis by participating in the Future, Satellite, or Challenger tours. Tournaments are broken up into different tiers offering different amounts of ranking points, culminating with Grade A.

Leading juniors are also allowed to participate for their nation in the Junior Fed Cup and Davis Cup competitions as well.


A tennis match is intended to be continuous. Stamina is a relevant factor, so arbitrary delays are not permitted. In most cases, service is required to occur no more than 20 (ITF events) or 25 (ATP/WTA events) seconds after the end of the previous point. This is increased to 90 seconds when the players change ends (every two games), and a 120 second break is permitted between sets. Other than this, breaks are permitted only when forced by events beyond the players' control, such as rain, damaged footwear, a damaged racket, or the need to retrieve an errant ball. Should a player be determined to be stalling repeatedly, the chair umpire may initially give a warning followed by subsequent penalties of "point," "game," and default of the match for the player who is consistently taking longer than the allowed time limit.

Balls wear out quickly in serious play and, therefore, are changed after every nine games. The first change occurs after only seven games because the first set of balls is also used for the pre-match warm-up. Continuity of the balls' condition is considered part of the game, so if a re-warm-up is required after an extended break in play (usually due to rain), then the re-warm-up is done using a separate set of balls, and use of the match balls is resumed only when play resumes.

Wheelchair tennis can be played by able-bodied players as well as people who require a wheelchair for mobility. The use of legs or feet is then prohibited, and the player is required to remain seated in the wheelchair. There is an exception for those who are only able to propel themselves using a foot. In wheelchair tennis, in which the players move in wheelchairs instead of using legs, an extra bounce is permitted. This rule makes it possible to have mixed wheelchair and able-bodied matches. It is possible for a doubles team to consist of a wheelchair player and an able-bodied player (referred to as "one-up, one-down"), or for a wheelchair player to play against an able-bodied player. In such cases, the extra bounce is permitted for the wheelchair users only.


(GNU) Photo: Matthew Mayer
Englishman Fred Perry was one of the greatest players to use the Continental grip

The grip is the manner with which the player's hand holds the racquet during play. The most common ones are the Continental, Semi-Western, Western, Extreme Western, or Eastern grips, although their popularity has fluctuated greatly over the years. Most players today use different grips to execute different types of spin and shots. The Continental is the only one with which all shots can be hit during the course of a game without changing the grip; many great players have used it over the years, but it is seldom seen today.


A competent tennis player has eight basic shots in his or her repertoire: the serve, forehand, backhand, volley, half-volley, overhead smash, drop shot, and lob.


A serve (or, more formally, a "service") in tennis is a shot to start a point. The serve is initiated by tossing the ball into the air and hitting it (usually near the apex of its trajectory) into the diagonally opposite service box without touching the net. The serve may be hit under- or overhand but is generally hit overhand. Some servers are content to use the serve simply to initiate the point; advanced players often try to hit a winning shot with their serve. A winning serve that is not touched by the opponent is called an ace; if the receiver manages to touch it but fails to successfully return it, it is called a service winner.


(PD) Photo: Chicago Historical Society Chicago Daily News Collection
"Big Bill" Tilden, one of the game's greatest players, hitting a forehand with an Eastern grip and classic form circa 1923.
Photo courtesy of the Chicago Historical Society.

For a right-handed player, the forehand is a stroke that begins on the right side of his body, continues across his body as contact is made with the ball, and ends on the left side of his body. There are various grips for executing the forehand and their popularity has fluctuated over the years. The most important ones are the Continental, the Eastern, Semi-Western and the Western. For a number of years the small, apparently frail 1920s player Bill Johnston was considered by many to have had the best forehand of all time, a stroke that he hit shoulder-high using a Western grip. Few top players used the Western grip after the 1920s, but in the latter part of the 20th century, as shot-making techniques and equipment changed radically, the Western forehand made a strong comeback and is now used by many modern players. No matter which grip is used, most forehands are generally executed with one hand holding the racquet, but there have been fine players with two-handed forehands. In the 1940s and 50s the Ecuadorian/American player Pancho Segura used a two-handed forehand to devastating effect against larger, more powerful players, and many females and young players use two-handed grips today. At a professional event in 1951 the forehand drives of a number of players were electronically measured. Pancho Gonzales hit the fastest, 112.88 mph, followed by Jack Kramer at 107.8 and Welby Van Horn at 104.[2]


(PD) Photo: Chicago Historical Society Chicago Daily News Collection
Tilden wearing his trademark sweater and hitting a backhand circa 1924.

For right-handed players, the backhand is a stroke that begins on the left side of their body, continues across their body as contact is made with the ball, and ends on the right side of their body. It can be executed with either one hand or with both and is generally considered more difficult to master than the forehand. For most of the 20th century it was performed with one hand, using either an Eastern or a Continental grip. The first notable players to use two hands were the 1930s Australians Vivian McGrath and John Bromwich, but they were lonely exceptions. The two-handed grip finally gained popularity in the 1970s as Björn Borg, Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors, and later Mats Wilander used it to great effect, and it is now used by a large number of the world's best players, including Andre Agassi and Venus Williams. Andy Roddick uses the Extreme Western grip on his backhand to create massive amounts of topspin. Two hands give the player more power, while one hand can generate a slice shot, applying backspin on the ball to produce a low-trajectory bounce. The player long considered to have had the best backhand of all time, Don Budge, had a very powerful one-handed stroke in the 1930s and '40s that imparted topspin onto the ball. Ken Rosewall, another player particularly noted for his one-handed backhand, used a deadly accurate slice backhand with underspin through the 1950s and '60s. A small number of players today, notably Monica Seles, use two hands on both the backhand and forehand sides.

Other shots

(CC) Photo: Hayford Peirce
Classic footwork and form for hitting a forehand half-volley

A volley is made in the air before the ball bounces, generally near the net, and is usually made with a stiff-wristed punching motion to hit the ball into an open area of the opponent's court. The half-volley is made by hitting the ball on the rise just after it has bounced, once again generally in the vicinity of the net. The swinging volley is hit out of the air as the player approaches the net. It is an offensive shot used to take preparation time away from the opponent. From a poor defensive position on the baseline, the lob can be used as either an offensive or defensive weapon, hitting the ball high and deep into the opponent's court to either enable the lobber to get into better defensive position or to win the point outright by hitting it over the opponent's head. If the lob is not hit deeply enough into the other court, however, the opponent may then hit an overhead smash, a hard, serve-like shot, to try to end the point. Finally, if an opponent is deep in his court, a player may suddenly employ an unexpected drop shot, softly tapping the ball just over the net so that the opponent is unable to run in fast enough to retrieve it.


Tournaments are generally organized by gender and with a limitation on the number of players. Common tournament categories are men's singles, women's singles, doubles (where two players of the same gender play on each side), and mixed doubles (with a member of each gender per side). Tournaments may also be limited to specific age groups, with upper age limits for youth and lower age limits for senior players. There are also tournaments for players with disabilities. In the four Grand Slam tournaments, the singles draws are limited to 128 players for each gender.

Players may also be matched by their skill level. According to how well a person does in sanctioned play, a player is given a rating that is adjusted periodically to maintain competitive matches. For example, the United States Tennis Association administers the National Tennis Rating Program, which is divided into the following ratings (with higher numbers indicating more skill): 1.0, 1.5, 2.0, 2.5, 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, 4.5, 5.0, 5.5, 6.0, 6.5, and 7.0. Average club players under this system would rate 3.0-4.5 while world class players would be 7.0 on this scale.

Matches in most tournaments, for both male and female players, are generally best of three sets. In the Grand Slam tournaments the men play best-of-five set matches while the women play best of three. Very rarely, a women's tournament will feature five-set matches.


Tennis is sometimes traced as far back as the ancient Greek game of sphairistike (Greek: Σφαιριστική). In 1874, a Major Walter Clopton Wingfield borrowed the name of this Greek game for a recreation that he had just patented. Understandably, it was soon shortened to a three-syllable word rhyming with "pike" and then abbreviated either to "sticky" or the mock-French "stické". At the suggestion of future British prime minister Arthur Balfour, however, Wingfield eventually decided on "lawn tennis," a name that he had also copyrighted for the game.

The establishment of tennis as a modern sport can, however, more accurately be dated to two separate roots. In 1856, Alex Ryden, a solicitor, and his friend Joao Batista Pereira, a Portuguese merchant, both of whom lived in Birmingham, England, created and played a game they named "pelota", after a Spanish ball game. Their game was played on a lawn in Edgbaston. In 1872 both men moved to Leamington Spa, and, with two doctors from the Warneford Hospital, played "pelota" on the lawn behind the Manor House Hotel. Pereira joined with Dr. Frederick Haynes and Dr. A. Wellesley Tomkins to found the first lawn tennis club in the world, and played the game on nearby lawns. In 1874 they formed the Leamington Tennis Club, setting out the original rules of the game. The Courier of July 23, 1884, recorded one of the first tennis tournaments, held in the grounds of Shrubland Hall.

Apparently independently of them, in December 1873, Major Wingfield devised a similar game for the amusement of his guests at a garden party on his estate at Nantclwyd, Wales. He based the game on the older sport of indoor tennis or "real tennis" ("royal tennis"), which had been invented in 12th century France and was played by French aristocrats down to the time of the French Revolution.

According to most tennis historians, modern tennis terminology also derives from this period, as Wingfield borrowed both the name and much of the French vocabulary of royal tennis and applied them to his new game:

  • Tennis comes from the French tenez, the imperative form of the verb tenir, to hold. This was a cry used by the player serving in royal tennis, meaning "I am about to serve!" (rather like the cry "Fore!" in golf).
  • Racquet comes from raquette, which derives from the Arabic rakhat, meaning the palm of the hand.
  • Deuce comes from à deux le jeu, meaning "to both is the game" (that is, the two players have equal scores).
  • Love may come from l'oeuf, the egg, a reference to the egg-shaped zero symbol; however, other, quite different, explanations have also been advanced and the etymology remains in question.
  • The convention of numbering scores "15", "30" and "40" comes from quinze, trente and quarante, which to French ears makes a euphonious sequence, or possibly from the quarters of a clock (15, 30, 45) with 45 simplified to 40.

Seeing the commercial potential of the game, Wingfield patented it in 1874, but never succeeded in enforcing his patent. Tennis spread rapidly among the leisured classes in Britain and the United States. It was first played in the U.S. at the home of Mary Ewing Outerbridge on Staten Island, New York in 1874.

The proliferation of the first tennis clubs came in 1881 although the first tournaments had already been played at The Championships, Wimbledon, near London, in 1877. In 1881 the United States National Lawn Tennis Association (now the United States Tennis Association) was formed to standardize the rules and organize competitions. The comprehensive International Lawn Tennis Federation rules promulgated in 1924 have remained remarkably stable in the ensuing eighty years, the one major change being the addition of the tie-breaker system designed by James Van Alen. The U.S. National Men's Singles Championship, now the U.S. Open, was first held in 1881 at Newport, Rhode Island. The U.S. National Women's Singles Championships were first held in 1887. The Davis Cup, an annual competition between national teams, dates to 1900.

Tennis was for many years predominantly a sport of the English-speaking world, dominated by the United States, Britain, and Australia. It was also popular in France, where the French Open dates to 1891. Thus Wimbledon, the U.S. Open, the French Open, and the Australian Open (dating to 1905) became, and have remained. the most prestigious events in tennis. Together these four events are called the Grand Slam (a term borrowed from contract bridge). Winning the Grand Slam, by capturing these four titles in one calendar year, is the highest ambition of most tennis players.

In 1926 promoter C.C. ("Cash and Carry") Pyle established the first professional tennis tour with a group of American and French tennis players playing exhibition matches to paying audiences. The most notable of these early professionals were the American Vinnie Richards and the Frenchwoman Suzanne Lenglen. For 42 years professional and amateur tennis remained strictly separate. Once a player turned pro he or she could not compete in the major (amateur) tournaments, although a few noted professionals were occasionally allowed to regain their amateur status. In 1968, commercial pressures led to the abandonment of this distinction, inaugurating the Open era, in which all players could compete in all tournaments, and many top players were now able to make their living from tennis instead of a bare handful.

With the beginning of the Open era, aided by the establishment of an international professional tennis circuit, and revenues from the sale of television rights, tennis has spread all over the world and has lost its upper-class English-speaking image. Since the 1970s champions have emerged from Germany (Boris Becker and Steffi Graf), Australia (Lleyton Hewitt and Patrick Rafter), the former Czechoslovakia (Ivan Lendl, Martina Navrátilová, and Hana Mandlíková), Sweden (Björn Borg, Stefan Edberg and Mats Wilander), Brazil (Gustavo Kuerten), Argentina (Gabriela Sabatini, Guillermo Vilas and Gastón Gaudio), Russia (Yevgeny Kafelnikov, Marat Safin, Maria Sharapova, Anastasia Myskina, and Svetlana Kuznetsova), Belgium (Kim Clijsters and Justine Henin), France (Amélie Mauresmo, Yannick Noah and Mary Pierce), Spain (Juan Carlos Ferrero, Arantxa Sanchez Vicario, Carlos Moya, Conchita Martinez, and Rafael Nadal), Switzerland (Martina Hingis and Roger Federer), and from many other countries.

In the United States, the game has seen a shift from a sport that only the "country-club set" played to one that is an activity for anyone. Successes by players from across the spectrum, from the working-class Jimmy Connors to African-American stars such as Arthur Ashe and the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, have firmly established tennis as a game for all in the United States. This is perhaps best embodied in the fact that in the 1970s, when popularity of the game was at a peak, the United States Lawn Tennis Association decided to move the U.S. Open from the posh West Side Tennis Club to a public park (the USTA National Tennis Center, Flushing Meadows Park) that is accessible to anyone with the "greens fees" (currently $17). About the same time, the ruling body's name was also changed from United States Lawn Tennis Association to United States Tennis Association.

In 1954, James Van Alen founded the International Tennis Hall of Fame, a non-profit museum in Newport, Rhode Island. The building contains a large collection of tennis memorabilia as well as a hall of fame honoring prominent members and tennis players from all over the world. Each year, a grass-court tournament is hosted, as well as an induction ceremony honoring new Hall of Fame members.

Great players before the Open era

Numerous fine players played in the days before tennis's Open era began in 1968, many of whom are unknown to modern sports fans—see Famous players for a fairly inclusive catalog of the major players. Among the males, chronologically, the most prominent ones since 1920 have been:

  • "Big Bill" Tilden - winner of 21 amateur Grand Slam titles,[3] 7 consecutive Davis Cups, 3 major professional singles titles; was for 7 years the World No. 1 player
  • Jean Borotra, Henri Cochet, René Lacoste - the three best of the Four Musketeers, won 46 amateur Grand Slam titles amongst them, 6 consecutive Davis Cups, 1 major professional singles title; either Lacoste or Cochet was, for 5 consecutive years, the World No. 1 player
  • Ellsworth Vines - winner of 6 amateur Grand Slam titles, an indeterminate number of major professional singles titles and 5 major pro tours from 1934 to 1938; was for 4 years the World No. 1 or co-No.1 player
  • Fred Perry - won 13 amateur Grand Slam titles including 3 consecutive Wimbledon singles; was the first to win 4 consecutive Grand Slam titles; won 2 major professional singles titles; was for 5 years the World No. 1 or co-No.1 player
  • Don Budge - winner of 14 amateur Grand Slam titles; was the first to win 4 Grand Slam titles in a single year, won 4 major professional singles titles and 3 major pro tours; is widely viewed as having had the best backhand of all time before Ken Rosewall; was for 5 years the World No. 1 or co-No.1 player
  • Bobby Riggs - winner of 6 amateur Grand Slam titles, 3 major professional singles titles; was for 3 years the World No. 1 or co-No.1 player
(CC) Photo: William Chuang
A plaque of Jack Kramer, the first great player to consistently play a serve-and-volley game, at the United States Tennis Association Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City.
  • Jack Kramer - won 10 amateur Grand Slam titles, 2 professional Grand Slam titles and 4 major pro tours; was the first great player to play serve-volley on all serves; was for 6 years the World No. 1 or co-No.1 player
  • Pancho Segura - winner of 3 major professional singles titles, including 2 victories over Pancho Gonzales, and 7 times a finalist; was for 3 years the World No. 1 or co-No.1 player; Kramer called Segura's two-handed forehand "the single best shot ever produced in tennis."
  • Pancho Gonzales - winner of 4 amateur Grand Slam titles, 12 major professional singles titles and 6 times a finalist, and 7 major pro tours; world #1 amateur in 1949; was still world #6 or #7 player in 1969 and #9 American in 1972 at age 44; was for 7 consecutive years the World No. 1 or co-No.1 player, an unequalled 8 or 9 times overall[4]
  • Frank Sedgman - won 22 amateur Grand Slam titles, 2 major professional singles titles and 4 times a finalist; winner of 3 consecutive Davis Cups
  • Ken Rosewall - won 18 Grand Slam titles, first 11 as an amateur, then 7 in the open era, plus another 15 major professional singles titles and was 4 times a finalist; winner of 3 consecutive Davis Cups; was for 5 or 6 years the World No. 1 or co-No.1 player
  • Lew Hoad - won 11 amateur Grand Slam titles and was 7 times a finalist in the major professional singles tournaments; Gonzales said of him: "I think his game was the best game ever. Better than mine."

Other fine players of the pre-open era include Richard Sears, William Renshaw, Ernest Renshaw, Reggie Doherty, Lawrence Doherty, William Larned, Norman Brookes, Tony Wilding, Maurice McLoughlin, Karel Koželuh, "Little Bill" Johnston, Vinnie Richards, Jack Crawford, Hans Nüsslein, Gottfried von Cramm, Ted Schroeder, Vic Seixas, Tony Trabert, and Roy Emerson.

Among women, the top pre-open era players include, among others, Dorothea Douglass Chambers, Suzanne Lenglen, Helen Wills Moody, Molla Mallory, Kitty McKane Godfree, Helen Jacobs, Dorothy Round Little, Alice Marble, Pauline Betz, Margaret Osborne duPont, Louise Brough, Doris Hart, Shirley Fry, Maureen Connolly, Althea Gibson, Maria Bueno, Ann Haydon Jones, and Darlene Hard. Connolly was the first female player to win all four Grand Slam singles tournaments in a calendar year. Hart was the first player to win all 12 possible singles, doubles, and mixed doubles Grand Slam titles

Among the greatest male players of the open era, with the number of career Grand Slam singles titles in parentheses, are: Pete Sampras (14), Roger Federer (12), Rod Laver (11, but 6 in pre-Open Era), Björn Borg (11), Ken Rosewall (8, but 4 in pre-Open Era), Jimmy Connors (8), Ivan Lendl (8), Andre Agassi (8), John Newcombe (7), John McEnroe (7), Mats Wilander (7), Boris Becker (6), Stefan Edberg (6), Rafael Nadal (5), Jim Courier (4), Guillermo Vilas (4), Arthur Ashe (3), Gustavo Kuerten (3), Stan Smith (2), Ilie Năstase (2), Lleyton Hewitt (2), Yevgeny Kafelnikov (2), Patrick Rafter (2), and Marat Safin (2)

The greatest women players of the open era, again with the number of career Grand Slam singles titles in parentheses for each, are: Margaret Smith Court (24), Steffi Graf (22), Chris Evert (18), Martina Navrátilová (18), Billie Jean King (12), Monica Seles (9), Serena Williams (8), Evonne Goolagong (7), Venus Williams (5), Martina Hingis (5), Justine Henin-Hardenne (5), Hana Mandlíková (4), Arantxa Sánchez Vicario (4), Virginia Wade (3), Lindsay Davenport (3), Jennifer Capriati (3), Nancy Richey (2), Tracy Austin (2), Mary Pierce (2), Amélie Mauresmo (2), and Maria Sharapova (2)

The greatest male player of all time

(CC) Photo: William Chuang
A plaque of "Big Bill" Tilden, a candidate for the greatest player of all time, at the United States Tennis Association Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York City.

From the early 1920s until the mid-1950s, Bill Tilden was generally considered the greatest player ever, his only serious rivals for the title being Ellsworth Vines, Don Budge, and Jack Kramer. In 1950 an Associated Press poll named Tilden the greatest tennis player of the first half-century by a wider margin than that given to any athlete in any of the other sports. For much of the 1950s and 1960s, many thought Pancho Gonzales had claimed that title. Budge, for instance, reportedly believed that Gonzales was the greatest player ever.[5] During the Open era, however, first Rod Laver and then more recently Björn Borg, John McEnroe, and Pete Sampras became widely regarded by many of their contemporaries as the greatest ever. Roger Federer is now considered by many observers to have the most "complete" game in modern tennis, with the potential to challenge the achievements of these past greats. Even among experts, however, no consensus has ever existed as to who has been the greatest of all. Kramer, for instance, still believes that while Budge was the best ever on a consistent basis, Vines was the best on any single day.[6] Pancho Segura opts for Gonzales, and Gonzales himself considered Lew Hoad, at the height of his game, to be the best.

When trying to decide who is the best player of all time, tennis observers frequently over-value the worth of great players of their own time. Whenever a new player such as Tilden, Vines, Budge, Kramer, or Gonzales first came on the scene and consistently dominated the sport for several years, many contemporary observers would then declare him to be the best of all time. A clear example of this occurred in early 1986 when Inside Tennis, a magazine edited in Northern California, devoted parts of four issues to a lengthy article called "Tournament of the Century," an imaginary tournament to determine the greatest of all time. They asked 37 tennis notables such as Kramer, Budge, Fred Perry, and Bobby Riggs and observers such as Bud Collins and Allison Danzig to list the 10 greatest players in order.[7] This was probably as prestigious and knowledgeable a group of tennis experts as has ever been assembled. Nevertheless, there appears to have been a clear predilection for choosing their near-contemporaries as the best player ever. Twenty-five players in all were named by the 37 experts in their lists of the 10 best. The magazine then ranked them in descending order by total number of points assigned. The top eight players in overall points, with their number of first-place votes, were: Laver (9), McEnroe (3), Budge (4), Kramer (5), Borg (6), Gonzales (1), Tilden (6), and Hoad (1). McEnroe was still an active player, and Laver, Borg, and Gonzales had only recently retired. In the imaginary tournament, Laver defeated McEnroe in a 5-set final.

The noted tennis expert and well-known commentator Bud Collins was asked by MSNBC in 2005 to select the five greatest male players of all time. His selection was arranged chronologically: Bill Tilden; Pancho Gonzales, about whom he wrote: "If I had to choose someone to play for my life it would be Pancho Gonzalez"; Rod Laver, "in my eyes, the greatest player ever"; Björn Borg; and Pete Sampras. [8]

The difficulty of determining the greatest ever is well-illustrated by the case of Jack Kramer, a player who was unquestionably one of the best who ever lived and who still garners support as the greatest of all time. He dominated the amateur ranks just after World War II, turned professional, and then beat Bobby Riggs, the unquestioned professional champion, decisively in a long tour. But through the first 30 matches with Riggs they were even—it was only then that Kramer pulled away. But Kramer was three years younger and it was assumed by many at the time that Riggs had lost interest in playing his best during the last matches. The following years, Kramer beat Gonzales badly on a long tour, then did the same to Segura, and finally only narrowly edged the Australian Frank Sedgman. Although Kramer, a relentless self-promoter, continued to proclaim himself the world champion for a number of years afterwards, he never again beat Gonzales, Segura, or Sedgman on a regular basis: all of them subsequently had winning records against Kramer. All three had been young or relatively unused to the rigors of the professional tour at the time they were being trounced by Kramer; later, with more experience, they more than held their own against him. Kramer was, overall, almost certainly a little better than Riggs, Segura, or Sedgman. But Gonzales went on to dominate world tennis for an unequalled eight- to ten-year period, beating every challenger to his throne, year after year. On the basis of a single year in which an experienced Kramer at the top of his game badly beat a youthful Gonzales, is Kramer to be considered better than Gonzales? It is a question that is almost certainly impossible to answer.

An ambitious attempt to determine the greatest player by purely statistical analysis, however, has been made by the tennis historian Raymond Lee in a lengthy Tennis Week article of September 14, 2007.[9] Omitting from consideration such greats as Cochet, Lacoste, Riggs, Segura, Sedgman, and Hoad, he eventually determines Rod Laver to have been the best player of all time, with the numbers two through 14 being Borg and Tilden tied for second, followed by Federer, Gonzales, Rosewall, Budge, Ivan Lendl, Jimmy Connors, Sampras, McEnroe, Kramer, Vines, and Perry.

Among the women, Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills Moody vie for the distinction of greatest of all time, along with several modern players: Margaret Smith Court, Martina Navratilova, Chris Evert, Steffi Graf, Monica Seles, Billie Jean King, and Maureen Connolly.

The great doubles players

Men's doubles is no longer as important to spectator tennis as it was in the first half of the 20th century, when its attraction, particularly in Davis Cup play, was nearly equal to that of singles.

The Woodies (Todd Woodbridge and Mark Woodforde) have been the most successful male doubles team in history. They won 61 ATP tournaments (including 11 Grand Slam tournaments) and a gold medal at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics.

George Lott, who himself won 5 U.S. and 2 Wimbledon doubles titles, wrote an article in the May 1973 issue of Tennis Magazine in which he ranked the great doubles teams and the great players. The teams, in descending order, were:

  • John Newcombe and Tony Roche
  • R. Norris Williams and Vinnie Richards
  • Bill Talbert and Gardnar Mulloy
  • Frank Sedgman and Ken McGregor
  • Adrian Quist and John Bromwich
  • Roy Emerson and Rod Laver
  • Bill Tilden and Vinnie Richards
  • Jacques Brugnon and Henri Cochet
  • Wilmer Allison and John Van Ryn
  • Lew Hoad and Ken Rosewall

Other great teams would include:

  • George Lott and Les Stoefen
  • Bob Lutz and Stan Smith
  • Frew McMillan and Bob Hewitt
  • John McEnroe and Peter Fleming

Lott also wrote: "It is frequently said that a doubles team is as good as its weakest link.... I believe a really great doubles player can solidify that weak link." His list of the greatest doubles players is:

  • John Bromwich, Jack Kramer, and Don Budge, tied for 1st
  • Frank Sedgman, Adrian Quist, and Roy Emerson tied for 4th
  • Vinnie Richards
  • Jacques Brugnon
  • Marty Riessen, Bill Talbert, and Gardnar Mulloy tied for 9th

A list of the great female doubles teams would include:

  • Margaret Smith Court with Judy Tegart Dalton, Virginia Wade, or Lesley Turner Bowrey
  • Martina Navratilova and Pam Shriver
  • Billie Jean King and Rosemary Casals
  • Margaret Osborne duPont and Louise Brough
  • Doris Hart and Shirley Fry|Shirley Fry Irvin
  • Alice Marble and Sarah Palfrey Cooke
  • Suzanne Lenglen and Elizabeth Ryan
  • Venus Williams and Serena Williams
  • Gigi Fernandez and Natasha Zvereva
  • Maria Bueno and Darlene Hard
  • Virginia Ruano Pascual and Paola Suárez
  • Nancye Wynne Bolton and Thelma Coyne Long


Cited references/footnotes

  1. USTA Midwest,
  2. The History of Professional Tennis, Joe McCauley, page 57
  3. All Grand Slam titles in this list refer to that player's total of singles, doubles, and mixed doubles victories
  4. The precise number of years that such players as Vines, Riggs, Kramer, Segura, Gonzales, and Rosewall were the World No. 1 is open to question, and will always remain so, as there were no truly definitive means of making this judgment at the time they played.
  5. Will Grimsley, Tennis: Its History, People, and Events (1971)
  6. In his 1979 autobiography, Kramer considered the best ever to have been either Budge or Vines. The next four best were, chronologically, Bill Tilden, Fred Perry, Bobby Riggs, and Pancho Gonzales. Surprisingly, Kramer thought that Riggs would have beaten Gonzales on a regular basis and that on a long tour he might even have had an edge over Vines. After these six came what he calls the "second echelon" of Rod Laver, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Gottfried von Cramm, Ted Schroeder, Jack Crawford, Pancho Segura, Frank Sedgman, Tony Trabert, John Newcombe, Arthur Ashe, Stan Smith, Björn Borg, and Jimmy Connors. He felt unable to rank Henri Cochet and René Lacoste accurately but felt they were among the very best.
  7. The 37 were Vijay Amritraj, Arthur Ashe, Lennart Bergelin (Borg's coach), Nick Bollettieri, Norm Brooks, Don Budge, Nick Carter, Bud Collins, Allison Danzig, Donald Dell, Cliff Drysdale, Allen Fox|Allan Fox, John Gardiner, Dick Gould, Slew Hester, Bill Jacobsen, Alan King, Jack Kramer, Art Larsen, Rod Laver, Bob Lutz, Barry MacKay, Marty Mulligan, Yannick Noah, Manuel Orantes, Charlie Pasarell, Fred Perry, Whitney Reed, Bobby Riggs, Vic Seixas, Stan Smith, Bill Talbert, Eliot Teltscher, Ted Tinling, Tony Trabert, Dennis van der Meer, and Erik van Dillen.
  8. The entire article can be found at [[1]]
  9. "Greatest Player of All Time: A Statistical Analysis", by Raymond Lee in Tennis Week at [[2]]