Tuesday, September 6, 2005

Apple #105: Tennis

I've been watching a lot of the US Open the past few days, and someone watching with me asked, "Why is tennis scored like that?" I used to play tennis -- badly -- back in my school days, and I've always taken the scoring for granted. It just is weird. Never thought to ask why. Until today.
  • Tennis originated not in England, which is what I'd always assumed, I guess because of Wimbledon and all that flat green grass. It's true that tennis as we know it today did come from England, but the English devised it from a game the French played, called "royal tennis" or "court tennis." English people like to say it started with them, in the 19th century, but the French were playing as early as the 12th or 11th century. Rumor has it that French monks were the first people to play it.
  • Most folks speculate that the name of the game comes from the French way of saying "Tenez!" which basically means, "Hang on, I'm about to serve!" or "Take that!"
  • There are lots of explanations for why the games are scored as they are. Here are a few:
    • Back in the long ago day, more people were superstitious about numbers -- or at least, more people were comfortable admitting their superstitions. The number 60 was considered to be a "good" number, so the scoring is based on numbers that divide 60 evenly into four parts: 15, 30, 45, and game. Except, wait, it's not 45 anymore, now it's 40. That's because people abbreviated it from 45 to 40. Makes perfect sense, oui?
    • Or it could be that the scoring is based on a clock face, where each point represents 15 minutes. This explanation comes from the Lawn Tennis Association in the UK, and they also say that tennis originated in England. They also offer no explanation for how 45 turned into 40.
    • Another possibility is that the numbers in French, quinze, trente, quarante, just sound good in succession. It is French, but this explanation sounds like hogwash to me.
    • I'm liking the numerology explanation best. It seems to fit best with the time period in which the game first appeared. And it's illogical enough an explanation to fit with the illogic of the numbers.
  • Zero is called "love" for an interesting reason. Lots of people say it's because the word "love" is similar to the French word l'oeuf or "egg," referring to a goose-egg, or zero. But actually, it's a way of saying that if your score is zero, you must be playing for love of the game. So love in tennis is not a nice and happy thing, it's a way of talking smack to the loser!
  • Initially, the game was played like handball, by hitting the ball with the palm of the hand. As the game caught on with the royalty, they made special gloves to wear, then bats made of cork wrapped in string, cloth, and later, leather. By 1500, a wood frame racquet strung with sheep's gut strings was commonly used.
  • This transformation is neatly summed up in etymology: the word "racquet" comes from the Arabic word rahat which means "palm of the hand."
Here's another pretty stunning transformation:

Andre Agassi, 1989 (photo from BBC Sport)

Andre Agassi, 2005 (photo from Tennis Much)

The Straight Dope, Why is tennis scoring so weird?
Lawn Tennis Association (UK), Origins of Scoring
Wikipedia, Tennis
BBC Sport Academy, The history of tennis

1 comment:

  1. Yep, that Agassi used to sport one mean mullet.


    Suddenly I feel like buying a Canon Rebel camera.


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