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The History of Tennis Scoring System


The scoring system in tennis is unique and can be confusing for newcomers, but once you understand it, it's relatively straightforward. Tennis uses a system of points, games, and sets to determine the winner of a match. But, what is the origin of this unique scoring system?

Medieval French Origins

The roots of the tennis scoring system's iconic 15, 30, and 40 scores can be traced back to medieval France. The earliest known mention of these scores dates back to a 1435 ballad penned by Charles D'Orleans, which referred to "quarante cinq" (forty-five), a precursor to our modern 40. In 1522, a Latin sentence mentioned winning at 30 and 45. While theories about the origin of 15 were proposed in 1555 and 1579, the exact genesis of this scoring convention remains as enigmatic as a Djokovic drop shot.

Clock Face Conundrum

One popular legend suggests that clock faces were utilized to track scores on the court. Each quarter-turn of the minute hand represented scores of 15, 30, and 45, and when the hand reached 60, the game concluded. To prevent games from ending with a one-point difference, the concept of "deuce" was introduced. Consequently, 45 was modified to 40, and if both players reached 40, the first to score received ten, advancing the clock to 50. Scoring again moved it to 60, signifying the game's end. However, if a player failed to score twice consecutively, the clock reverted to 40 to establish another "deuce." While the clock-face theory has its allure, historical records show that in the 15th century, clocks only measured hours (from 1 to 12). Minute hands became commonplace only after the invention of the more accurate pendulum escapement around 1690, making it improbable that tennis scores derived from medieval clocks.


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Clocks of the Late 14th Century

By the late 14th century, advanced clocks, such as the one at Wells Cathedral in England (1386), featured minute indicators and chimed every quarter-hour. A similar clock in Rouen, France (1389), chimed every fifteen minutes. With such clocks, the concept of using a mock-up of a clock face to score and track time in quarter-hour increments by nobles in England and France by 1435 and 1522 became plausible.

The "Jeu de Paume" Connection

An alternative theory suggests that the scoring terminology originated from the French game "jeu de paume," a forerunner to tennis that initially employed hands rather than rackets. In this game, the court was 90 feet long, with the server advancing 15 feet closer after each score, then another 15 feet after the next, and a final 10 feet upon a third score.

The Enigmatic "Love"

As for the peculiar use of "love" to denote zero, one explanation is linked to the phrase "playing for love," meaning playing without stakes or wagers. Another theory associates it with the French term "l'œuf," meaning "the egg," due to the visual similarity between an egg and the number zero. This is reminiscent of cricket's use of "duck" for a batsman who fails to score a run, supposedly derived from "duck's egg." Yet another possibility stems from the Dutch expression "iets voor lof doen," signifying doing something for praise, implying no monetary stakes. Lastly, a charming theory suggests that at the beginning of a match when scores are at zero, players still harbor "love for each other."

The Convergence of Tradition and Innovation

In the world of tennis, where tradition and innovation converge, these tales of scoring's origins add a layer of mystique to a sport that continues to captivate fans worldwide. Whether you're watching the world's top-ranked players at Wimbledon or battling it out with friends at your local court, remember the intriguing history behind those iconic numbers and the charming enigma of "love" in tennis scoring.

In summary, tennis scoring involves points, games, sets, and matches, with the objective being to win enough points and games to ultimately win the match. The unique terminology and scoring system in tennis are part of what makes the sport both challenging and exciting.