Who Serves First in Tennis?

If you’ve watched a professional tennis match from the start, you’ve probably seen the coin toss to decide who serves first. So you can be forgiven for thinking this is a straight forward answer. However, what you might not know is that the player who wins the toss doesn’t necessarily serve first, but they get a choice of three options.

So who serves first in tennis? The player who wins the coin toss has three choices. They can decide who serves first, which end they would like to start (in which case the opponent decides who serves first), or they can defer the decision to their opponent.

In this guide, we’ll take a look at how the coin toss works and what options the players have (and why they might choose each option). We’ll then look at how you can replicate a coin toss with your tennis racket for recreational matches. We’ll also answer who serves first after a tiebreak and the rules regarding who serves first in doubles.

How The Coin Toss Works

At the start of the match, a coin toss is used to determine which player serves first and which ends of the court they will start the match.

Whoever wins the coin toss doesn’t necessarily serve first (although they do often choose this option). They get one of the following choices.

  • Serve or recieve first: The player who wins the toss can choose to serve first, but they can choose to recieve first too. The thought behind recieving first is that the opponent might not be fully warmed up or may be feeling a little nervous so it’s a good opportunity to break their serve in the first game.
  • Which end the players start: If it’s particularly windy or sunny, instead of choosing who serves first, they may wish to choose which end they start the match from.
  • Defer the decision: The final option, which doesn’t get used particularly often, is to defer the decision to the opponent. I’ll talk about why a player may choose this option in just a second.

After the player who wins the toss makes their decision, their opponent decides the option that they didn’t pick. So if the player chooses to recieve first, their opponent will get to choose ends. Or if the toss winner chooses a particular end to start the match, their opponent get’s to choose who serves first.

The reason a player may choose to defer their decision is because it will give them the final say. Let’s say they want their first service game to be from a particular end, defering is the only way to guarantee it. For example, if they defer the decision to their opponent who chooses to serve first, they can then choose to start on the side they don’t want to serve first, so when they change ends after the first game, they will be serving from the side they want to serve first.

From what I can tell in professional matches, usually a player will choose to either serve or return first. Occasionally you will see them choose which end to start if it’s particualry windy or sunny, and it’s quite rare to see them defer their decision.

How To Do a Coin Toss Without a Coin

If you’re playing a social or friendly match, you may not have a coin on hand to do the toss. In this case, there are a few way you can replicate the coin toss with your racket.

Rough or Smooth

Each tennis racket will have either two or four knots where the stringer ties off the end of the string. The knots usually all face in the same direction. You can spin the racket and ask your opponent to call “rough” or “smooth”. If the knot is facing up (like in the photo below), it is rough, and if it is facing down it is smooth. This is because it will feel either rough or smooth if you run your finger along the edge.

One thing you have to watch out for is that it is hard to see the knots as they are quite small, so it is easy to cheat if you find yourself playing with someone who hasn’t quite grasped the concept of sportsmanship!

End of the Racket

Another option is to use the logo at the end of the racket. If you have a Head racket, you can spin the racket and call “up” or “down”, as you can see in the photo below where the logo is facing up.

A Wilson racket is easy too. You can simply call “M” or “W”. You might find you have to get creative with other brands of racket though!

Who Serves First After a Tiebreak?

Whoever didn’t serve first in the tiebreak serves first in the next set. You can kind of think of the tiebreak as it’s own game and the alternation carries on as normal into the next set.

I’m not entirely sure if this is the reason it was decided to be this way but it does make it fair in the sense that both players will get to play a set where they serve first and have the psychological advantage of keeping ahead when the set stays on serve.

What About Doubles?

The rules are almost the same in doubles. The team who win the toss get the same three choice (serve/recieve, choose ends, defer decision).

The serve then alternates between each team and each player. For example, if you have a blue team and a red team with players A and B on each team, the order might go: blue team(A) – red team(A) – blue team(B) – red team(B). Then the rotation would start over. Each team must alternate their servers.

A slight addition to the rules with doubles is that the teams can decide who they want to serve first at the start of each set. So if you’re best server served last in the previous set, they are allowed to serve first at the start of the next set. The normal rotation then resumes.

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