June 26


One Love

Corporate tickets in the blazer pocket? Bowl of strawberries in one hand, chilled glass of Pimm’s in the other? It must be time for the uniquely English garden party that is Wimbledon.

If you’re a tennis fan, you’ll have no trouble bantering with the Centre Court crowd:

‘What an ace!’
‘Break-point now… was that into the tramlines?’
‘No, a straight down-the-line winner.’

But for those who don’t know their backhand from their baseline, here’s a beginner’s guide to the language of tennis.

Tennis, originally real or royal tennis, was a courtly game, originating in France in the 1500s, so it’s laden with all kinds of unique words and terms with obscure origins.

First of all, there’s the bizarre scoring system. Every game is played to four points, but they’re not 1-2-3-4, no. In tennis, it’s: ‘15-30-40-game’, and if you score ‘null points’, that’s ‘love’ – not a cynical reflection on the human emotion, but a derivation of the French ‘l’oeuf’, for ‘egg’, which is oval, just like a zero.

The scoring system evolved, apparently, because the French courtiers measured their game by the quarter hours on the clock face: 15 minutes, 30, and the 45 was shortened to 40.


All the fundamental tennis words remain French: serve, return, volley, receive, racquet. There was once also a ‘bisque’, not a soup but a kind of handicap point, abolished back in 1890 – some 30 years before women were allowed to play Wimbledon without their corsets, by the way.

The French loved tennis, and something of a pro touring circuit took off in the 1570s. But because of its associations with the aristocracy, the game fell right out of popularity during the French Revolution. Players were probably burying those wooden and ‘cat’gut (short for ‘cattle’) racquets in the garden to avoid a swift trip to the guillotine. Maybe that’s why, across the Channel, the ‘deuce’ score is known as ‘egalité’. Vive la revolution!

Deuce, if you were wondering, follows a twisty etymological path from the Latin word for two, ‘duos’, indicating the two players have the same score, perhaps; or, from that moment in the game, have to gain two points in a row to win.

Lawn tennis, the sport as we know it, was invented in England by Major Clopton Wingfield, who simplified the courts, the rules and made it all a little more British, although there are still some ‘real tennis’ aficionados dotted across the word. This real tennis court in Jesmond, Newcastle, gives a sense of just how ‘royal’ the game once was.


For one, it looks like a church, not a tennis court. Hitting the roof rafters is all part of a player’s scoring strategy, and the markers on the walls are topped with painted crowns.

Modern tennis is still loaded with royal touches. What is the second serve but a chance to let His Majesty have another go? The whole deuce, advantage business must have been a way of ensuring one didn’t beat one’s overlord by accident. Which other sport has up to 11 judges and 8 ball, towel, and drink-carrying minions for every pair of players?

But there’s no denying the game has been dragged into the modern era. With the modern game come modern metaphors and a touch of US-ification: ‘jamming’ (when the ball slams into the opponent’s body), the ‘knock-up’ before a match, the ‘wild card’ player, a ‘tweener’ hit between the legs and, hmmm, a ‘do-over’ instead of a let.

So that’s the tennis language 101. Now for some basic spectator rules:

  • Don’t shout out, ‘Go, Roger!’ when the Swiss legend is serving. That will make him and – even worse – his legion of fans in ‘RF’ logo hats very cross.
  • Don’t try to catch a glimpse of Serena’s stylish underpants. She might hit you a cross-court winner with her mighty arm, and you’ll never get up again.
  • Do shout, ‘C’mon, Big Man!’ when Scottish Andy starts having one of his wobbles.
  • Do slow clap while waiting for the hawk-eye action replay and utter an ‘Oooooooooh’ at the result.
  • Don’t complain about the rain. This isn’t the Australian Open, you know – it’s Wimbledon. It’s usually somewhere between damp and a downpour, and we 15-love it that way.

Carmen Reid