Women’s Tennis Association CEO Steve Simon wants to shake up tennis. He says tennis has an attention problem, and he knows how to fix it. Ultimately, he wants to see matches take no longer than 60 to 90 minutes, a time frame short enough to keep attention-starved viewers sticking around for live broadcasts of matches. To get there, he would phase in changes to tennis game scoring such as no-ad play (meaning there are no “deuce” points – the first player to five points wins) at the lower levels, getting younger players used to the idea, and bringing it up through the ranks over time. This isn’t crazy. No-ad scoring is already taking root in collegiate tennis.
He’s not the only one toying with shorter matches. Two years ago Roger Federer, that steely paragon of tradition, and Lleyton Hewitt experimented during an exhibition match with a new form of the game called Fast 4 that included no-ad scoring, a tiebreaker once both players have three games and no sitting on changeovers, among other things.
All these rumblings about shifting the game’s format for the benefit of our modern “give me stimulus now” lives make one wonder just how we arrived at the modern tennis game scoring system anyway.
Medieval Times: The Origins of Tennis Game Scoring
By all accounts, the roots of tennis lie in the game of “real tennis” a medieval form of the game dating back to at least 12th century France. The name of the game, according to well-meaning historians, derives from the word “tenez”, meaning to hold or, when shouted by a server preparing to whack a ball toward an opponent, “take heed.” This ultimately led to the sport’s name.
The scoring also has medieval French roots, at least according to those prone to speculation. None of this has been definitively written down, and there are no clearly recorded timelines in ancient tennis. Still, the explanations all appear plausible enough. The use of “love” in place of zero derives from “l’oeuf,” the French word for egg. The scoring of the games is meant to, depending on who you ask, either mirror a clock face, 15-30-45-60, minutes, or derives from the fact that 60 was an important number in France, much like 100 is an important number for us today. According to theory, 45 was shortened to 40 out of verbal laziness sometime around 1800, and nobody actually refers to the winner of the game as earning 60 points. Oddly enough, the French do not use the word “love.” They say zero.
Another theory on the 40/45 controversy is that when a game reached deuce, two more points were required to win. Looking at our clock face, the points go from 30 to 40 then to 50 after the deuce point then to 60 once a player wins the game, which is far less less plausible than the idea that humans are inherently verbally lazy. Always contradictory, the French also do not use the word “deuce,” which comes from their language and refers to the two points needed to win. The French say “egalite,” meaning equality.
The scoring system handed down from real tennis was enshrined in the modern game by the Marylebone Cricket Club and the All England Club, two of the earlier pioneers of the modern tennis game. The rules published by these clubs tack very closely to the rules still in use today, with the exception of the tiebreaker, added in 1971.
Despite the varied, and often conflicting, theories about tennis game scoring, your author could find no historical explanation of why a tennis set is the best of six games or why we typically play best two of three sets. The answer to those questions are either lost to posterity or so obvious as to be not worth explaining.
Still, the origins of tennis game scoring are undoubtedly ancient. One can easily imagine French gentleman swatting an early ball across a net in the shadow of a chateau or a late-19th century English gentleman hustling about in wool pants. On the one hand, it would be a shame to deviate from these timeworn traditions. On the other, the game itself could be history if today’s attention-starved masses cannot discover the game through the tedium of three hour matches. Change is sometimes necessary.