Bird's Tennis Tips: Tennis Dictionary

May 1, 2005


Mike Swanberg is a former collegiate player at Livingston University and each month he will give us a new tennis tip.

Alright, people, this week we're stepping off the court and into the classroom. I know, this sounds like work all of a sudden, but trust me. You will want to learn this stuff. We are going to talk this month about many tennis terms and what they mean, and afterwards you will be able to dazzle your friends with your vast knowledge of tennis terminology. As well, people like Mary Carillo won't confuse you anymore.

Well, at least her commentary won't.

Most advanced players already know most or all of this, but they may want to see if their ideas jibe with mine. Beginners and intermediate players will most likely see a lot of terms here that they've heard on the courts or on TV, but just don't yet know what they mean. Feel free to print this article out to use for your own reference. Just don't let your friends catch you cribbing with it.

So, without much further ado, I present you:

Stuff You May Not Know

Alternate Title: Tennis Dictionary

Another Title I Was Thinking About: Dictionary of Tennis Terms

Ad court
The left side of the court. Sometimes used to refer to the left-side service box.
In regular scoring (not no-ad), if the server wins the point when the score is deuce, the score becomes ad-in. Sometimes, the score is called "my ad" by the server, but "ad-in" is the proper term for the score.
Same as "ad-in" except that the advantage is to the receiver or receiving team. Players frequently call this score out as "your ad," but "ad-out" is the proper term for the score.
All (as in 30-all)
When the server and the receiver are tied in any score, it is called using "all" as the last word. Examples: in a game, if both players have 2 points, the score is "thirty-all." This can go for set scores and match scores, as in "we are 3-all in this set" or "sets are one-all."
American Twist, or Kick Serve
For us older players, the "kick" server used to be called the "American Twist." Don't ask me why because I don't know. I could make something up, of course, like it was first hit by an American player by the name of Donald Tilden McEnnewcome, but you, my faithful readers, are much too smart to fall for that. But the kick serve is one that is hit with some top spin and some side spin so that the ball arcs and angles and then jumps to the side in the direction of the servers racquet arm. In other words, if a right hander hits a kick serve to the ad (backhand) court, it will jump out away from the center of the court. This serve is effective as a second serve or also to pull an opponent off the court allowing for a serve-and-volley tactic.
Association of Tennis Professionals. This is the organization that handles the profesional men's tour. Visit for more information.
Player who prefers to stay back as his or her primary tactic. These players tend to be very steady, make few mistakes, and can run for hours without getting tired. They can confound serve-and-volleyers. Best tactics against baseliners include vertical movement (drop and lob) and conservative net-rushing (i.e. stay back until you get a really good opportunity to come in). Baseliners tend to hail from areas where slower court surfaces are prevalent, such as Florida and Spain.
Buster (or Breaker)
Shorthand for tie-breaker. When a set score reaches 6-all, a tie-breaker is played. The standard tie-breaker played today is the 12-point tie-breaker, where the victor is the first to reach 7 points with a minimum margin of 2 points. Back in the day (yeesh, I'm old) we had the 9-point tie-breaker where the winner would only need 5 points with a margin of 1. I recall a match when I was but a little birdling where the third set tie-breaker went to 4-all in the tie-breaker meaning that the entire match hinged on the final point. Now that's intense!
Chip and Charge
During a baseline exchange when one player gets a short ball, hits an approach shot, and follows it to the net, this is frequently called "chip and charge" because the standard approach shot has slight backspin on it. Also because "chip and charge" is fun to say. Some similar variations on this alliterative behavior are "pound and pray," "hack and hope," and "wail and wish."
Compact Swing
Players who do not take a large wind-up on their groundstrokes are said to have a "compact" swing. These players typically cannot generate a lot of power on their own (but be careful, some can hit the ball deceivingly hard) but it is difficult to force them to hit late. Many baseliners prefer a compact swing to increase their consistency. If you ever see an old tape of Borg v. McEnroe, notice Mac's compact strokes versus Borg's large looping backswings.
Continental Grip
Back in the day (there's that phrase again), instructors used to teach grips by identifying where the V of your hand (the V-shaped part of your hand formed by your thumb and index finger) was placed on the racquet's grip. Nowadays, most instructors use the "pad" of your index finger (the part of your hand just at the base of the index finger, otherwise known as the backside or inside of your knuckle) as a guide. Hold your racquet vertically (racquet face pointing level) and look at the butt cap. Imagine the 4 faces and 4 bevels of the grip as the points of a compass: N, S, E, W, NE, NW, SE, SW. If you are right handed and your index pad is on the NE bevel, this is a continental grip. Lefties will have their pad on the NW bevel. This grip is used most often for serves and occasionally for volleys (although I find it makes the wrist too flimsy to volley effectively).
When the game score is 40-all, the score is said to be "deuce." From that point on, every second point is called "deuce" until the game is over. Some players call 30-all deuce, which it effectively is, but technically is not. So it's not. End of story.
Deuce Court
The right side of the court, so named because when the score is deuce the ball is served from the right side into the opponent's right-side service box. Exception: in "no-ad" scoring, the receiver/receiving team can choose which side they want to receive on, deuce or ad. The deuce court is sometimes called the forehand side of the court, but I surmise lefties don't call it that.
When two players compete against two other players. Singles is when one person plays against one other person. Sometimes, when there are three people that want to play, they will play 2-on-1, which is called "Australian Doubles." Oh, those kookie Aussies...
Eastern Grip
When the pad of your index finger is on the East face of the grip (West for lefties), this is said to be the Eastern Forehand Grip. There is, however, a distinction between this grip and the Eastern Backhand Grip, which is when the pad of your index finger is on the North face.
Fifteen. Many players shorten the saying of "fifteen" in the game score to "five," as in "five-all" or "five-forty" instead of "fifteen-all" or "fifteen-forty."
When the ball is hit just after its bounce when it is still just a few inches off the ground, this is a "half-volley."
Heavy Ball
This is a tough one. It is very difficult to truly define a "heavy" ball. All I can say is you just know it's heavy. Typically a heavy ball is one that is hit hard, not very high, deep, and has a modicum of top spin on it. These are the balls that when one is hit your way, you feel like the ball is hitting your racquet more than vice-versa. People who hit heavy balls are generally advanced players who play a power game, but pretty much anyone can hit one from time to time.
Cheat, typically on a line call. If your opponent calls your in shots out on purpose, he or she is said to be "hooking" you. Popular phrases include, "that's a hook, Mark! You #@&%$!" and "HOOK! Did you see that hook? Man, that guy is hooking the tar out of me!"
Inside-out Backhand
When a backhand is hit from the forehand side of the court toward the opponents opposite side, it is termed inside out. The reason for this term is that the destination of the ball is the same as if the ball were hit down-the-line, but the ball is actually angling crosscourt. So, in describing the shot, neither crosscourt nor down-the-line really applies, so the inside-out term was invented. Very few players monkey around with inside-out backhands.
Inside-out Forehand
Inside-out forehand, on the other hand (get it?), are very common. Since most players are right-handed and since most players have stronger forehands than backhands, lots of players will run around their backhands to hit forehands to their opponent's backhands to gain a tactical advantage. By the way, if you are serving to my forehand in the ad court (I am right-handed) and I return to your backhand side, this is generally not called an inside-out forehand since I didn't move to that side on purpose to hit that shot; I was there to return serve. Basically, that's just a forehand return to your backhand side.
Lob (offensive lob and defensive lob)
Any shot that crosses the net high up in the air is a lob. Of course, just how high it has to be to be considered a lob is debatable. There are offensive lobs and defensive lobs. Offensive lobs are intended to go over a netplayer's head to win the point. Defensive lobs are generally used to give a player more time to get into position.
Looping Swing
Opposite of Compact Swing. When a player uses a looping motion in the backswing of their groundstrokes, it is said to be a looping backswing or just a looping swing. This can generate more power on a groundstroke but can also land you in trouble if the ball is coming so fast that you can't complete the loop in time to meet the ball properly.
Nothing. Nada. Zero. Zilch. When giving the score, a player that has zero has his score given as "love." This applies to game, set, and match scores. Examples are "30-love," "we are 4-love in the set," and "I am leading one set to love."
Mixed Doubles
When a male and a female play doubles against another male and female, this is called mixed doubles. It is also the cause of many divorces.
A player who prefers to stay back and hit non-aggressive shots is called a "moon-baller." This is because their shots tend to be high looping affairs that one would swear cross the moon before coming back down to earth. There is a big distinction between moon-ballers and baseliners. Bjorn Borg: baseliner. My old college teammate Jesse (nicknames: "Treats," "Jughead," and "Jesster the Molester"): moon-baller. Moon-ballers are also sometimes called "fluff-ballers" or "pushers." These players can confound even the most advanced players because it is difficult to establish a rhythm against them. They also tend to have wickedly accurate passing shots so if you are going to net-rush against them, make sure you hit a good approach shot. By the way, Jesse never beat me in a challenge match. Consider that ticket punched!
No-Ad Scoring
When players reach deuce, the next point wins the game in "no-ad" scoring, aptly named because there are no ad points played. When playing no-ad scoring, the receiver/receiving team can decide which side, ad or deuce, to receive from. As well, the score in the game is traditionally called using 1, 2, and 3 instead of 15, 30, and 40, but this isn't followed very often. No-ad scoring was conceived to make matches shorter so that large tournaments can be played in a weekend.
No-Man's Land
The area between the baseline and the service line is known, traditionally, as "no-man's land." I guess it would be more PC to call it "no-person's land." The reason for this name is because you don't want to get caught in this part of the court. A deep shot will land behind you making it difficult to hit back, and you are also not close enough to the net to start thinking about hitting a winning volley. Basically, it's just not a good place to be.
National Tennis Rating Program. The USTA (see USTA) developed the NTRP as a means to rate players for league and tournament play. See for more information. It is intended to match players with opponents of similar skills so that the competition is more enjoyable. Although, if your fellow players are like mine, everyone tries to lower their rating so that they win more matches. I find this deplorable and against the very fiber of everything the... what? My medication? Okay... so, I forgot the little orange pill today. I don't really need it, do I?
Open Stance
When hitting the ball, if your feet are positioned more toward facing the net than the back fence, this is said to be an "open" stance. As a general rule, it is fine to hit forehands with an open stance (most of the pros do it all of the time these days) but you want a "closed" stance for backhands.
Overhead (smash)
The answer to the lob! An overhead smash (usually called just an "overhead") is when a player hits a ball over their head with a motion similar to a service motion. The "over their head" part is key to the name. Duh.
This is one of those terms that is highly subjective. Different players have different ideas of just exactly what pace is. I like to define it as the total kinetic energy in the ball. If a ball has more velocity or spin, then it has more pace. But that's not necessarily the best way to put it. If you reduce spin and increase velocity the same amount, the pace isn't the same. So, why is this important? Well, a very common tactic is to change pace during a point or between points. You can vary spin and velocity to keep your opponent from getting a good rhythm going. You can also hit many balls flat and slow and then surprise them with a hard shot with heavy topspin.
Pro Set
The normal set in tennis is won by winning 6 games with a margin of 2 or more games with a tie-breaker played at 6-all. A "pro set" is basically the same thing but is won by getting to 8 games. Generally, it is used to shorten matches; you will play a single pro set instead of two-out-of-three regular sets. Personally, I don't like them. One service break and you're in big trouble.
The strict definition is "rotation of the wrist in an inward direction." How does this pertain to tennis? Well, back in the day (sigh), instructors used to talk about the wrist-snap on serves. In reality, and as is taught today, it is a pronation, or a rotation of the wrist, and not a wrist snap. Truth to tell, "wrist snap" just sounds painful and tennis is an injury-prone sport as it is.
See "moon-baller."
A term used to describe the lower-level players. It's not used much today, however. The etymology harkens to junior football teams where you would have the First String, the Second String, the Third String, the Fourth String, and the "Rest Of Y'all."
Semi-Western Grip
Place your index pad on the SE bevel (SW for lefties) and that is a semi-western forehand grip.
One who follows his serve to the net as his primary tactic. Typically, serve-and-volleyers are found more often in areas where faster court surfaces prevail, such as California and Texas. And Germany.
"Shuffle" refers to the motion tennis players make with their feet when trying to get into position. Basically, it is a lateral movement where you keep your facing toward the net. The reason for shuffling your feet is because if you turn and run back into position, then your opponent will soon realize that hitting behind you (see wrong-footed) is an effective tactic.
When one player competes against one opponent. In singles, the doubles alleys (the long boxes at the sides of the court) are considered out-of-bounds.
Singles Sticks
The net posts are supposed to be 6 inches outside the bounds of the court. Most tennis courts include the doubles alleys, so the net posts must be outside of them. So, singles sticks were invented and are placed 6 inches outside the singles lines on a doubles court to raise the net at those points and to make the court regulation for singles play. These are rarely used in typical amateur play, but are necessary in high-level and pro tournaments.
Generally, any ball that has heavy spin (except top spin) is said to have "slice." There are slice forehands, slice backhands, slice serves. I've even witnessed a slice volley in my lifetime, although I am sure it was on accident.
The small hopping motion made when approaching the net to get ready for the next shot. The purpose of the split-step is to square your shoulders to the net and to get your weight balanced so that you can change direction quickly if the next shot isn't hit right to you. Ideally, you want to time the split-step so that your feet hit the ground at the same time your opponent's racquet hits the ball. This gives you the most time get ready to move to the next shot while also giving you the most time to close the net as tight as you can.
Swinging Volley
I think the Williams sisters made the swinging volley as popular as it is today. Basically, it's a ground-stroke (forehand or backhand) that you hit without first letting the ball bounce. And hoo boy are they fun to hit!
Sometimes, for whatever reason, a player really doesn't want to win a match. Perhaps they were paid off. Perhaps they have another more important tournament that they need to get to. Perhaps they just thought they left the stove on and need to get home. But going in the "tank" is often used to describe a player who is purposely not putting in their best effort.
The "Dropper"
The drop-shot. Used very effectively by people who have a lot of touch and finesse in their game, the "dropper" is a shot that is intentionally hit very short in an attempt to either bring their opponent into the net or perhaps to get an outright winner. Remember, the court is two-dimensional (maybe 3-D, but I hate those funny glasses), so there is more to tactics than just choosing whether to hit to your opponent's forehand or backhand.
The "Saba-tweenie"
Made popular by the long-legged Gabriela Sabatini, the "Saba-tweenie" is when a player is at net, gets lobbed, and runs down the lob but hits the ball between their legs with their back still to the net. In college, our coach had a standing bet that any player that hits a winner off of a Saba-tweenie got a steak dinner. My doubles partner won that bet (but lost the match... steak never tasted so bitter-sweet).
The "T"
Refer to my previous articles about The Geometry of Tennis. The "T" is the intersection of the service line and the center service line, forming a T-shape.
Top Spin
A ball that is hit with an upward motion of the racquet face will have "top spin" imparted on it. Due to fluid dynamics, Bernoulli's Law, the rotation of the earth, and the phases of the moon, a ball with topspin drives itself earthward. That means down. This allows a player to hit harder and higher over the net (increasing margin of error), and still keep the ball from going long (past the baseline).
Disney movie involving the playthings of a boy with characters voiced by, among others, Tim Allen and Tom Hanks. Seriously, a "toy" is when one player exhibits a level of skill, if even briefly, that far outstrips his opponent's and then uses this to purposely humiliate the opponent. An example would be if player A is way out of position and, instead of taking the easy winner, player B hits a gentle shot that is still just out of reach of player A but yet so inviting that player A encounters a dilemma about whether to go for it or not. Man, I love when that happens... I mean to my opponents. Not to me. That sucks.
Somewhat archaic but still in good use today, the term "tree" is used to describe a player that is having a great day and is playing far outside his or her usual abilities. It can also be used to describe a bout of incredible luck. Synonym: in the "zone."
The United States Professional Tennis Association, an association of tennis instructors. For more information, visit
The United States Professional Tennis Registry, also an association of tennis instructors. For more information, visit
The United States Tennis Association, an organization devoted to promoting and developing tennis in the United States. Most nations have their own version of the USTA, which establishes leagues, sponsors tournaments, and hosts community tennis events. They also have a website:
Western Grip
If your index pad is on the South face of the grip, this is a Western forehand grip. Note, if you turn the racquet over, you have an Eastern backhand grip (although the Western Forehand grip tends to have more of a trigger-finger than the Eastern backhand grip). The Western forehand is very advanced and is used to maximize power and topspin in that shot.
When your opponent hits a shot behind you as you are scurrying to get back into position, you are said to have been "wrong-footed."
Women's Tennis Association, the women's counterpart to the ATP, which sponsors and promotes professional female tennis players and events. For more information, visit

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