Let & Net In Tennis: What Does It Mean?

At its core, the game of tennis is all about hitting the ball over the net in the middle, hopefully to a place where your opponent can’t return it within the rules of the game.

However, if you’ve ever watched a game where the umpire yells, “Let!” when one of the players serves, that means the player serving wasn’t able to get the ball completely over the net. Here’s everything you need to know about let/net in tennis.

What Is a Let? 

It may be confusing to hear the call, and some viewers may not be sure if they hear “let” or “net.” Although some umpires may yell “net” when indicating a fault, it is more common that umpires call out “let,” which is what we’ll focus on here.

According to the ITF, a serve is called a let when the ball touches the net, strap, or band, and then continues into the service box. Additionally, if the ball hits the opposing player or anything they’re wearing or carrying before bouncing, that would also be considered a let.

The ITF also specifies that a let should also be called if the ball is served when the receiver isn’t ready. Additionally, if there are other distractions in the field of play or from the spectators, the umpire may also call a let.

In non-professional play, in addition to the circumstances above, it is also common to call a let when there is a distraction on the court, such as a ball from another court coming into the field of play or someone wandering into the court without realizing. 

How Many Let Serves Are Allowed?

Since a let occurs on the serve, the server is allowed to serve again with no point penalty. If the let occurs on the first serve, then the entire point is replayed. If the let is called on the second serve, then the server replays only that second serve. 

Since there is no point penalty and the protocol after a let is to replay, there is no limit to the number of times a player gets called on a let.

Although there are many rules in the ITF’s rulebooks, there is no one yet on the number of lets, although there have been some experiments with removing the let call altogether and simply allowing play to continue. Thus far, that type of play has not had any real staying power, but the let rules may change in the future.

Who Can Call A Let? 

In the professional tennis world, it is the net cord judge who calls a let. This used to be done completely by visualization of the judge, but in recent years, the umpires receive assistance from technology in the form of sensors on the net.

In 2020, the US Open also decided to use technology to alert and signal a let in the majority of the matches in order to reduce the number of people on site due to the pandemic. 

In recreational tennis, the players can call a let if they see that the ball hits the net or strap and continues on into the service box. However, as with anything, there is etiquette to calling a let. As soon as you notice the ball has hit the net and continued on into the service area, call let.

Usually, the ball will change its trajectory when it hits the net. It’s important to make the call as quickly as possible to avoid any conflict with your opponent.

Obviously, call the let as soon as possible if there are any of the other distractions, as mentioned previously, and allow those to be resolved before continuing play.

Can Players Challenge?

At the pro level, players are not allowed to challenge the let-call, and play simply resumes based on the rules. However, since this call can change the momentum of the game or take away points a player feels they made, it is an incredibly important call.

Since the net cord judges are human, they can, of course, sometimes make erroneous calls. Thus, as the technology arrived, the sensors and software were meant to eliminate some of the potentials for human error. 

Of course, technology is not infallible, and there have been some fairly controversial moments in professional tennis where the sensors were triggered even though, upon replay, it was clear that the ball did not actually hit the net.

Many players, previous players, and commentators have spoken out against the technology, especially since there isn’t an ability to challenge a let call.

Even though the technology has been around for some time, the controversy is still occurring, notably in the 2021 Australian Open in a match between Nick Kyrgios and Ugo Humbert in which both players were falling victim to the sensors going off when the ball didn’t hit the net.

You can read more about the challenge system in this post.

Origin of the Word

It does seem a strange word, and the origins of it are not entirely clear. To someone unfamiliar with tennis, it would seem logical that a call of “let” would, well, let play continue, but as we have seen, it is the opposite.

It may be a shortened version of the Old Saxon word “lettian,” which can be translated to “hinder” or “prevent,” so, in that sense, the call of let is made when the net has hindered the ball. 

However, the origin of the word may also be derived from another language: French. Despite its usage in cooking, the French word “filet” can be translated to “net.” So it’s possible, as well, that the term is a shortened form of filet that was called when the ball did, in fact, hit the net. 

It Seems Like The True Etymology Has Been Lost To History

Tennis is a complex game with many terms that may seem overwhelming to a casual viewer or new player. But, the let rule is a fairly straightforward call usually made on a serve when the ball clips the top of the net and continues onto the service court.

Luckily, there’s no penalty to players at the pro or recreational level, so the serve is simply replayed.

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