I recently got a tennis rules question from Stephania D. She said, “I have a rule question for you that I am not able to resolve using the USTA rules. We had a situation in a match yesterday: Our opponents served out of order, and we did not notice until the game score was 15-15. We agreed to start the game over with the correct server, but I’d like to know what the rule is for future.”
This is a great question because I know I have played numerous matches where, at some point, the players can’t figure out what the score is. Or who’s turn it is to serve. Or even what just happened. This is especially true in a doubles match where four players may come up with four different versions of what’s happening on court.
So, in Stephania’s situation, what’s the rule when a doubles partner serves out of order? The ITF Rules of Tennis, followed by the USTA, actually address this situation. Rule 27, “Correcting Errors,” states:
As a principle, when an error in respect of the Rules of Tennis is discovered, all points previously played shall stand. Errors so discovered shall be corrected as follows: . . .
c. If a player serves out of turn during a standard game, the player who was originally due to serve shall serve as soon as the error is discovered. However, if a game is completed before the error is discovered the order of service shall remain as altered. . . .
The comments to Rule 27 explain why the rule works like this:
USTA Comment 27.1: Errors as to Ends, Sides, Rotation and Service Order, Etc. The general guiding philosophy regarding any mistakes made by players in failing to change ends, serving from wrong ends, serving to the wrong court, receiving from the wrong court, etc., is this: Any such error shall be rectified as soon as discovered but not while the ball is in play, and any points completed under the erroneous condition shall be counted.
(By the way – it’s worth noting that there are a few exceptions and they are set forth in Rule 27 and the comments.)
In Stephania’s match, the players did the right thing by immediately correcting the service order error and switching to the proper server. Where they messed up, however, was in starting the game over. They should have continued to play with the score at 15-15. This way, they would not have wasted any time re-playing points that were played in good faith.
Do you have a rules question that you can’t seem to find the answer to or have always been curious about? Let me know by e-mailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org (link in sidebar) or by contacting me on Twitter (@TennisFixation) or on the Tennis Fixation Facebook page. I love looking into this kind of stuff!