Coin Toss & Time Rules

Coin Toss & Time Rules

Tennis Coin Toss & Time Rules: Starting a Game and Sticking to a Schedule

Serving first can be a huge advantage in tennis, but how do you decide who gets the privilege? Waiting on an opponent to show up to a match can be frustrating, but did you know there are rules about how late a player can be before she has to forfeit the match? Whether you’re new to tennis or just need some clarity about the less-often used time restrictions, we’re here to make sure that your match begins and proceeds by the book. 

The Coin Toss

According to ITF rules, the coin toss should take place before the warm-up begins since ideally, you want to warm up on the side on which you will start playing. In recreational tennis, many players warm up first and conduct the coin toss right before the match begins, with players often switching sides after the warm-up, but if you are playing in a tournament that adheres to ITF rules, make sure that you conduct the coin toss first. 

In an official umpired match, the umpire will conduct the coin toss and ask one player to call heads or tails. In a recreational match or tournament that does not utilize umpires, the players conduct their own coin toss. However, in a day in age when credit cards and Apple Pay rule, very few people carry coins with them, so the coin toss in tennis is often replaced by spinning a racquet. Generally, the player who spins the racquet will use the logo on the “butt cap” as the indicator of the winner of the racquet spin. Depending on the brand of racquet, some options include “M or W” for a Wilson racquet, “P or D” for a Prince racquet, “up or down” for a Head racquet, etc. 

Tennis racquet being spun for the coin toss before a match

One player offers to spin the racquet, and the opponent will choose one of the two options presented by the “butt cap.” There is no rule or even an unspoken etiquette to determine which player spins the racquet. Often, a player who has an easily discernible logo, such as Wilson’s “M or W,” offers to spin her racquet. After the racquet falls to the ground, the player who spun the racquet will pick it up and show the “butt cap” to the opponent. Whoever wins the coin toss or racquet spin has three options. 

The first option is to choose whether to serve or receive first. This is the most common choice, with most winners of the coin toss or racquet spin choosing to serve first in the hopes of holding serve throughout the set. If the winner chooses to serve or receive, the other player or team chooses which end of the court to start on. This matters most when the sun, shadows, or wind are factors. 

The winner may also choose which end of the court to start on if she believes that will make a bigger difference than whether to serve or receive first (again, likely if the weather is at play). If the coin toss or racquet spin winner chooses which end to start on, then the opponent will choose whether to serve or receive first. 

Lastly, the winner may choose to defer the choice to the opponent, and depending on whether the opponent chooses to serve or receive or which end of the court to start on, the winner will make the remaining decision. 

Time Rules

While recreational tennis players rarely set a time for the warm-up or changovers, in tournament play, time rules are strictly enforced.

Time passing on a clock


According to ITF rules, the warm-up should be a maximum of five minutes unless otherwise decided by the event organizers. The USTA Friend at Court mentions a five- to ten-minute warm-up, whereas recreational players generally don’t set a timer and agree when both sides are ready to begin. It is important to note that the warm-up is not practice, meaning that shots should be hit directly to the opponent at a moderate pace, and warm-up serves should be taken during the designated warm-up period and not after the match has begun. 

Between Points & Changeovers

The maximum time starts from the moment that one point finishes until

the first serve is served for the next point. Between points, a maximum of 25 seconds is allowed. However, the 25-second time limit does not apply if a player has to chase a stray ball (time rules are more strictly enforced when players have the luxury of utilizing ball boys and girls). The ITF rules further specify that the server should not serve until the receiver is ready. However, the receiver should play to the reasonable pace of the server and should be ready to receive within a reasonable time of the server being ready. In other words, after a point ends, the serve and receiver have 25 seconds to indicate to each other that they are ready to play the next point.

When the players change ends at the end of a game, a maximum of 90 seconds are allowed. However, after the first game of each set and during a tie-break game, players do not get a break when changing ends. At the end of each set, players get 120 seconds (two minutes) as a set break. 

Also important to note is If, for reasons outside the player’s control, clothing, footwear or necessary equipment (excluding the racquet) is broken or needs to be replaced, the player may be allowed reasonable extra time to fix the problem.

Injury Timeouts

A player suffering from a treatable medical condition may be allowed one

medical timeout of three minutes for the treatment of that medical condition. The total amount of time allowed for evaluation and treatment during a medical timeout is 15 minutes.

If a player is bleeding, she may call a bleeding timeout, which may last up to 15 minutes. If after 15 minutes are up, the player has not stopped bleeding, the player must forfeit the match. 

Woman resting on a tennis court

Time Violation Penalties

If a player violates one of the time rules, she will be given a warning after the first offense, and for each additional violation, the player will be penalized one point. For example, if a player is receiving serve at 30-15, and the player takes longer than 25 seconds to get ready to receive serve for the next point, and it is the player’s second time violation, she will lose the point, and the score will become 40-15. While this example follows the ITF and USTA’s time rules, unless a match has an umpire who starts a timer after every point, time violations are more likely to be enforced for medical timeouts and other rare occurrences. 

Penalties for Lateness

When playing in a tournament, a player may be penalized for showing up to a match late. According to USTA regulations, if a player is less than five minutes late, she will be lose the toss (which means the opponent will automatically get to decide whether or not she will serve, receive, or choose the end of the court on which she will start the match) and lose a game (which means the set will begin at 0-1 for the player who is late). If a player is more than five minutes late but less than 10 minutes late, she will lose the toss and lose two games. If a player is more than 10 minutes late but less than 15 minutes late, she will lose the toss and lose three games. If a player is more than 15 minutes late, she will default the match, and the opponent automatically wins. 

Close up of ball hopper


While most people think of serving well, hitting winners, and playing good defense as the keys to winning a tennis match, it’s also important to start the match on the right foot and proceed throughout the match in a timely manner. 

Winning or losing a coin toss won’t necessarily determine the winner of the match, but be strategic about whether you serve or receive first or which end of the court you begin the match on because it could play a role in the outcome of the match. Furthermore, don’t forget to toss the coin or spin the racquet before the warm up if you want to play according to the rules. 

When it comes to time rules, if you’re playing with friends for fun, don’t worry about setting a timer after every point or for every changeover, but make sure to keep the game moving a long. If you’re playing in a tournament, you still aren’t likely to have an official start a 25-second clock after every point, but warm-ups, medical timeouts, and late starts will likely be monitored more closely, so it’s important to know the rules and try to adhere to them as closely as possible. 

Coin toss and time rules cheat sheet

Download the cheat sheet


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