Etiquette: The Missed First Serve

Tennis is a game if rules. Some are written and approved; but others are just “the code of how you play the game.” For example, we all know you don’t walk on someone else’s court when a point is going on. But here is a more subtle question that I have debated with my Naples friend Jack Lease: what is the proper tennis etiquette for the receiver to do with an obvious missed first serve?

Sure, if a serve is close, you will naturally play the return and then call it out; but what if it is obviously OUT, what do you do?

  1. Do you NOT hit it, and let it go to the back fence (and possibly rattle around back there)?
  2. Do you knock it into the net in front of you (and have it in the server’s line of sight)?
  3. Or do you hit it back across the net towards the server’s back fence (and possibly rattle around back there)?

I do not know the official code; but am a believer that the least offensive is to bunt it back into the net.

And then the parallel question: if you do any one of those three and the ball comes back on the court, forcing the server to stop play, when is “Let, play a first serve!” appropriate to call?

My personal code is: if I took options #2 or #3 and the ball I hit, caused the delay; then I offer the server a first serve. But if I do not play the missed serve and HIS ball rolls back on the court and stops play I do not.

How about you?

4 thoughts on “Etiquette: The Missed First Serve

  1. An obvious missed serve is easy; let it go by without hitting it. It sends a clear signal that you KNOW it was out as you make the call. As the server, I find loose balls at the net a big visual distraction from the ball coming back at me, and usually ask that they be cleared before I will hit another serve. Having to wait while someone chases around a ball on the court because the returner mishit a fault serve is an avoidable delay between serves, disrupting the rhythm of the server and should be allowed a let. If you have time to bunt a ball into the net, you probably had time to not bunt it and let it go by. If a fault serve goes by the returner, hits the back wall or fence and rolls back into the play area, it only takes a second to push it back out of the way. No let should be given there.

    Terry – I am a “ball bunter” myself (and probably should let more go without hitting).  — see you in June!  george

  2. I usually bunt the ball into the net as well — seems to be the least disruptive. I hate when opponents whack an obviously out ball across the net causing everyone to stand around waiting for the ball to settle before resuming play.

    Bob – Yup, the key words are “obviously out” …. george

  3. Many years ago I was admonished by a player for hitting the out serve back to him. He said that this was not in holding with tennis etiquette and demanded a first serve again. I retorted by explaining to him that today’s serves are often hit far too hard not to attempt to hit the serve even if it’s out. As long as the out call is made prior to or simultaneous to hitting it, I was not impeding the progress of the game by hitting the ball directly back to him or to the side and out of play. I think this unwritten rule was made at a time when serves where generally much slower and the human mind and body could call the serve out before striking it back to the server. I also had another incident where a player returned by out serve into the net. The ball slowly rolled back into the court and he proceeded to take his time to walk to the ball, remove it fromthe court of play, and slowly walk back to return my second serve. I argued for a first serve, but was denied. I think this is a more egregious act and not in spirit witth the etiquette fo tennis. It was an obvious ploy at gamesmanship. Therefore, I think hitting the return into the net is a bad idea, unless you are willing to offer your opponent a first serve if the ball rolls into the court.

    Mark – I agree with you in both cases!  george

  4. George,
    I agree with you.

    Normally I would also try to bunt a first serve that is out, to the net or I might possibly try to stop it and pocket it. Sometimes serves are too fast and/or too far out of reach to do anything other than have it go past to the fence. Most players know that they need to clear a ball that is on or close to the playing surface to eliminate the hazard of stepping on it or having the opponents ball strike it during a rally. Providing this can be done relatively quickly, I don’t think a let serve is in order. If it leads to a longer interruption, then the judgment of good sportsmanship come into play.

    I find that one of the most annoying patterns to face is an opponent who knocks almost every one of your out serves back into your court, even if the serves are more than a foot long. This is a big distraction and can be a ploy of gamesmanship; if this becomes a prolonged pattern then I would try to do the same to my opponent when he serves.

    If a ball is at or close to the net, whether on my side or my opponent’s side, I have never been distracted by it’s “being in my line of sight”. Some may feel differently but to me this is a non-issue.,


    Hi Dag – Yes, i used to play with a guy who would not continue until a ball was cleared off the court, no matter if it was at the net or not.  -  George

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