While the scoring in most sports is pretty standard and easy to understand, this is not quite the case in tennis. There is no counting with consecutive numbers like 1, 2, and 3, and then there are games and sets. But what is a set in tennis?
The scoring in tennis consists of points, games, and sets. A set is the next unit of tennis scoring above a game. A set can be won by winning six and, in some cases, seven games or by winning the tie-break. If a player wins two sets (best-of-three) or wins three sets (best-of-five), they win the match.
As you have been able to read, the scoring in tennis is quite complicated. In this article, I will explain exactly what sets are in tennis and what rules you need to take into account.
Tennis is a sport that doesn’t have a time limit. Instead, it keeps going until one player has won a certain amount of sets (usually two).
A set is a unit of tennis scoring, along with points and games. If you win four points before your opponent, you win a game. Then the points reset, and you need to win four points again to win another game.
Once you have won six games, then you win a set. Once you have won two sets, then you have won the match.
That is the general way the score is counted in tennis, although there are variations that we will get into later.
How long does a set take in tennis?
A set in professional tennis will usually last between thirty minutes for a short set and a bit more than an hour for a long set. A set in amateur tennis will last approximately the same amount of time.
A vast majority of tennis matches are best of three sets. This means that the match is won by the player who wins two sets first.
A final set is played if a player wins the first set and loses the second. If a player wins two sets in a row, the match ends.
By how many games a set is won does not have any impact on the rest of the match; only winning the set counts.
For example, if you play a match and win 6-4 in the first set, lose 0-6 in the second set, and win 6-4 again in the third set (more explanation on scores later), you have won the match even though you lost 14 games and your opponent only lost 12.
Therefore, the number of games won only matters in the set in which they were won, since the number of games won determines who wins the set.
The end of a match is ultimately about how many sets a player won, not the number of games.
Firstly, if you are unsure what a game is, you can first read our explanation of what a game is in tennis.
You win a set in tennis by winning 6 games before your opponent and leading by at least two games.
This means that there is a minimum of 6 games in a tennis set and a maximum of 13 games. If you win six games in a row, you win the set 6-0.
This is quite embarrassing in tennis, although it often happens at an amateur or a professional level.
When this happens, it is called a bagel. Why? Because the 0 looks like a bagel, of course!
You can also win a set 6-1, 6-2, 6-3, or 6-4.
However, you cannot win it 6-5, meaning that there can never be 11 games in a set of tennis.
If you get to 6-5 in the set, you play another game. If the score goes to 7-5, the set is over. If the score goes to 6-6, the set goes to a tie-break.
A tie-break is an exciting way to end a tennis set.
Instead of being counted as 15, 30, and 40, a tie-break counts the number of points (if you win a point, you’re winning 1-0).
The first player to get to 7 points wins the tie-break.
However, if the score becomes 6-6 in the tie-break, it does not stop at 7: the player must win by two points difference. This can lead to very long tie-breaks, with scores like 12-10.
In juniors matches, sets are often first to 4, with a tie-break at 3-3.
Generally speaking, tennis matches are best of three sets, meaning that there will be either two or three sets.
This is the case for all professional women’s matches, professional double’s matches, and almost all amateur matches (some amateur tournaments may have different rules).
It is also the case for most men’s professional tennis matches. There are four notable exceptions, however: Grand Slams.
The Grand Slams are the most prestigious tournaments in tennis and are very famous even outside the sport.
There are four Grand Slams: the Australian Open, US Open, Roland-Garros (the French Open), and Wimbledon.
At these tournaments, matches are best of five sets, meaning that it’s the first player to win 3 sets.
This leads to much longer matches and more drama, but it can be exhausting for the players who have to play seven matches in two weeks.
Matches are often over two days because of scheduling, so it can be very physically demanding.
However, the best of five format is used for men's singles only. For all other matches, the regular best of three format will apply.
So the women will play only three sets, instead of five, as the men do.
(Click here to find out why females only play three sets)
At Grand Slams, the final set used to be an advantage set, meaning that it would have to be won with two games in a row, rather than in a tie-break, meaning that matches could go on forever.
Nowadays, this rule is no longer in place, and the match I’m about to describe might have something to do with that.
In 2010, Frenchman Nicolas Mahut faced off against American John Isner.
The two opponents were very well matched, and after almost three hours of tennis, they were heading to a final set. A set that was going to smash all records, go down in history, and will never be repeated.
After 11 hours and 5 minutes of tennis, John Isner finally emerged victorious, with an incredible score of 70-68.
The set alone took 8 hours and 11 minutes, which would have comfortably made it the longest match as well.
The match had to be played over three days and will forever be legendary in the world of tennis.
A golden set in tennis is a type of bagel (6-0) in which the opponent does not win a single point. This means the winner would have won 24 points in a row.
This has only happened a few times in the entire history of tennis, with the latest happening in 2012 at Wimbledon.
Yaroslava Shvedova managed to absolutely dominate Sara Errani for the length of an entire set.
As is often the case in tennis, there is yet another set type. This one is called the super tie-break and is most often used in the final set of doubles matches, although it is sometimes used elsewhere.
Rather than playing a final set, the players compete in a super tie-break.
This is exactly the same as a normal tie-break, except it is first to ten points rather than seven. The same rule of winning by at least two points also applies, so these can also be endless.
The ATP is considering implementing this super-tie break at Grand Slams in the final set.
This would either be done when the score is 6-6 or 12-12, and it remains to be seen whether it becomes a permanent fixture in tennis.
So, as we have seen, sets are a unit for keeping score in tennis, and they can seem quite complicated.
However, once you get your head around them, you will find them very straightforward.
You win a set by winning six games before your opponent, although you need to keep a two-game lead. If the match goes to 6-6, you play a tie-break, and the winner wins the set with 7-6.
You have won the match once you have won two sets (except if you play a best of five format).
I hope that by explaining the tennis rules around sets, your tennis knowledge has improved a bit.