Tennis Handicaps Overview


In the second half of the 19th Century it became possible to play a number of individual sports at a consistent and high level on grass with the invention of the cylinder lawn mower. With this also came the need to allow for a system whereby players of different standards could play each other. Horse racing had had a form of handicapping in existence for many years but as this was weight-based it was felt that this was neither practical nor desirable.

Tennis, Golf and Croquet all took on the idea of a “bisque”, the derivation of which is unknown but was probably invented by Croquet which used a number of other quasi-French words. A bisque in croquet allows you an additional shot and a half bisque allows you an additional shot off which you cannot score. A bisque in Golf was a shot or shots that you could claim from your better opponent on any hole. This died out in Golf as courses were rated or “indexed” in the 1890s whereby the individual holes were given a standard of difficulty and the individuals received a “handicap” as it is now known.

The bisque in Tennis allowed you to claim a point or points at any stage of a match without warning. This was replaced also in the 1890s as it must have been difficult to operate especially if a number of bisques were claimed when there was a large disparity in standard. (It has been revived in recent years as part of the International Tennis Number (ITN) to enable players of a roughly equal standard compete with only a slight handicap.)

Tennis moved initially to a 4-game system, using .1 to .3 but this was quickly replaced by the 6-game system, using .1 to .5 that we still use now. While the bisque was only used to give points to the weaker player, as still generally pertains in golf, the 6-game system allowed for the stronger player to be penalised by way of a minus handicap.

Handicap Overview

Nowadays we use handicaps from “-40” (which means that you have to work your way back to “scratch” by winning 3 points before you can score a “positive” point to bring you to 15) to “+40” (which means that you need to win a minimum of one point to win the game).

If you have a handicap that is a whole number with no decimal it means that you either receive that total in every game or owe that total in every game. (There is an exception to this called “boiling” handicaps which we will deal with later so please read on!)

Handicaps of Plus or Minus .1, .2, .3, .4 and .5 are an additional point or points taken or owed according to the table alongside this. There is a clear methodology behind what appears to be an impenetrable system.

If someone playing off +.3 plays someone off -.3 this means the players are reckoned to receive or owe one point in 3 games out of 6 from or to a “scratch” player off zero. Thus to ensure that the difference does not swing from +15 and - 15 in one game to no difference in the next game, the plus and minus handicaps are taken in even games versus uneven games and ascending versus descending games thus

    • Plus Handicaps are taken in even games starting at game 2, then game 4 and then game 6 and then moving to uneven games starting at game 1 and then game 3.
    • Minus Handicaps are taken in uneven games starting at game 5 and then game 3 and then game 1 and then moving to even games starting at game 6 and then game 4.

In our example the player on +.3 receives points in the 2nd, 4th and 6th games and the player on -15 owes points in the 5th, 3rd and 1st games. Thus the handicap is never more than +15 or -15 in any one game.

The chart shows that you take your handicap in groups of 6 games in each set. The player on +.3 would receive points not just in the 2nd, 4th and 6th games but also in the 8th, 10th, 12th, 14th, 16th, 18th games etc. This is necessary as you never play tie breaks in handicaps but only full sets.

Quirks and Exceptions

There is obviously a quirk in the scoring system in Tennis and that is if a game reaches deuce there is no longer any handicap applicable. Thus if the Minus player gets the game to deuce they should have a clear advantage as the better player. It is in the interest of the Plus player therefore to win every game before it reaches deuce.

There is another quirk that you need to be aware of. Let us assume your serve is a strong part of your game and that you are playing off -.3 against a scratch player.  If you win the spin you may decide to serve so that you absorb the handicap on your serve in the 1st, 3rd and 5th games.

At the beginning of each set the handicap is reset and the first game of that set counts as the 1st game in the handicapping system. If the set just finished was either 6-1 or 6-3, this means that the player who served first in the earlier set is now serving second and your advantage may be upset. It could be that you might deliberately lose a game to ensure that the advantage of absorbing the handicap on your serve is maintained. You might want to ensure that this is not obvious as “failure to make best efforts” i.e. to win every point, is a serious charge under the Code of Conduct! The movement of the Handicap may have an even greater effect in Doubles and especially Mixed Doubles.

Finally, if you are not totally confused, there are different tables to decide what happens when one Plus Handicapper meets another Plus Handicapper and a Minus meets a Minus. These work in totally opposite ways and are known as “boiling”.

When a Plus meets a Plus the handicap boils either to the difference if neither player is higher than +15.3 or to give an additional advantage to the weaker player. For instance, a +15.4 playing a +.5 would by subtracting the two handicaps end up with +.5. In fact they get +15. A +40 playing a +15 actually gets +30.3.

When a Minus meets a Minus, boiling works in the opposite direction. You either have a simple subtraction if neither player has a handicap of less than -15.3 or the stronger player is given an advantage by boiling. When -15.2 meets -30.5 this should be a difference of -15.3 but in fact the handicap boils to -15.1.

We may only play handicaps officially once a year but there is obviously no reason why you should not use then informally when playing socially as well.

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