The weird and wonderful language of tennis
I’m not generally much of a sports fan, and the less said about my sporting ability – or lack thereof – the better… but I do love a good tennis match. I’m a regular supporter of the British Davis Cup team (which is a lot more fun since they started winning; our humiliating weekend in Lithuania back in 2010 is, thankfully, a distant memory). I’m going to the US Open for the first time this autumn (squeal), and don’t even try booking me for any social engagements during Wimbledon fortnight – if anyone needs me then, I’ll be in front of the TV drinking Pimm’s, eating strawberries and cream and biting my nails every time Andy Murray’s on court.
Like any sport, tennis has its own unique language and growing up watching it on TV, I had to get fluent at an early age. Besides a frankly baffling scoring system (15, 30, 40, advantage… it makes no sense at all) the game features a good few terms that may not mean a lot to newcomers, and take a while to get used to. So as the French Open comes to a close and we look ahead to the grass court season, here’s a quick guide to Tennis-ese for the uninitiated:
Love: ironically this is not something you want in a tennis match, because ‘love’ means a score of zero points in a game (or games in a set). It’s generally assumed that this comes from the French word l’oeuf, which means ‘egg’ – the same shape as a zero.
Deuce: when the score reaches 40-40 in tennis (3 points each), one player must score two consecutive points in order to seal the game. If they only manage one, the score returns to deuce, and keeps doing so until someone wins the game. ‘Deuce’ could derive from deus, Old French for two, or from à deux de jeu (‘two points from the end of the game’)… and yet, ironically, in France 40-40 is referred to as quarante à the first time, then egalité after that.
Let: when a player serves, the ball must pass over the net and bounce in the service box diagonally opposite. If it goes into the net, or misses the service box, this is a fault; do two faults in a row and you forfeit the point. But if the ball touches the net and still lands in the correct service box, this is called ‘let’. Nobody seems quite sure why, although one possibility is that it’s a shortened version of the French word for ‘net’, filet. Or it could just be because if this happens when you serve, the umpire lets you try again as many times as you need to 😉
Bagel: depending which side of the net you’re on, this is either something to celebrate or a very, very Bad Thing. A bagel occurs when one player wins a set 6-0. If this happens twice in a match it’s a double bagel. I’ve also heard a set that’s been won 6-1 referred to as a breadstick. Who knew so many tennis terms were named for the shape of food?
And finally, a couple of tennis terms with less interesting linguistic origins:
Break and Hold: the players in a tennis match take it in turns to serve. If a player wins a game on their own serve, this is called ‘holding serve’ or just ‘a hold’. On the other hand, if they manage to win a game when their opponent’s serving, this is called a ‘break’, or ‘breaking their serve’. To win a set, a player must be ahead by at least two games, so a break often proves crucial. During a tiebreak, you can also get a ‘mini-break’, which is not, as one might suppose, a short holiday but just means you’ve won a point on your opponent’s serve.
Ace: a serve that goes in but is untouched by the opponent’s racquet, automatically winning the point for the server. John Isner currently holds the record for the most aces in a match, at 115, but then again, that was also the longest singles match ever played – 11 hours, 5 minutes – at Wimbledon 2010, so perhaps it’s not so surprising.
These are just a few examples of the weird and wonderful language of tennis. What’s your favourite tennis term? And – far more importantly – who will you be cheering for at Wimbledon this year?