Cursing the NFL for not offering a game every evening, Morty slapped his remote into warp drive and sped through the high-def channels looking for sports. He inexplicably paused on a tennis match long enough for his wife to plead, "Hold it there, dear." Morty, strictly a meat and potatoes sports fan, winced at the offering of steamed broccoli.
"This is the U.S. Open in New York," Bernice said. "Wud ja just look at the size of that crowd."
Just then, the TV announcer whispered, "Federer was down love-40, but Nadal double-faulted twice and netted a backhand drop shot, so now it's deuce."
"What the hell's this guy talking about?" groaned Morty.
Hardcore fans can cope with the major sports lingo, easily processing NFL-speak for example. "The Giants have a third and forever with only a few ticks left. They're in a shotgun with trips to the right. Could be Hail Mary time." The baseball faithful follow the national pastime's numbers-based gibberish. "Toronto's Jose Bautista's having a helluva year so far with 38 HRs, 85 RBI, .642 SP, and .453 OBP!"
Tennis, as Morty can attest, has its own strange vernacular, one drawn from the game's 800-year history. It is a patois with roots in gambling, royalty and European traditions.
Tennis grew out of a medieval handball game played by monks in cloisters during the 12th century in what is now northern France. The earliest surviving images show a player serving to another, who returns the ball. An early name for the game was jeu de la paume, reflecting the use of one's palm to hit the ball.
By the 1300s, the French aristocracy adopted the game, later playing on both indoor and outdoor courts. King Louis X died after a match on June 5, 1316. King John II, who reigned 1319-1364, enjoyed la paume and bet heavily on his matches.
The Middle Ages witnessed the emergence of a line to divide the ends of the court, and then later, a net. Paddles replaced hands, and rackets strung with sheep gut appeared in the late 1500s.
Scottish royalty picked up the game to complement their interest in golf. James I, king of Scotland from 1406 until 1437, had a court in his castle. The English King Henry VII kept records of his wagering losses in tennis during the 1490s.
The old game eventually stagnated until the modern version appeared in 1874 when British Maj. Walter C. Wingfield patented a tennis game for playing on grass. To help make his game unique enough for a British patent, he added the term "lawn" to distinguish it from indoor tennis. The older game gradually became known as "real" or "royal" tennis. In America, the indoor variety lives on as "court" tennis. Tennis associations dropped the word lawn in the 1970s.
Although the tennis family tree has both ancient and modern branches, today's game draws much of its terminology from times past. Most of the scholarly exploration of tennis terms has come from Dr. Heiner Gillmeister, now a retired professor at the University of Bonn. His book, "Tennis: A Cultural History," is one of the definitive guides to the game's history.
Gillmeister notes that while French and English nobles played at paume, common men played tenesse in England, tenes in Italy and teneys in the Netherlands. He believes that "tennis" evolved from a warning cry that the server called out to the receiver when he was ready to hit, tenez! (Hold!) The plural imperative of the French verb tenir, "to hold," was tenys. Gillmeister points to other ball games in the middle ages in which players used warning cries, with golf as a contemporary example: Fore!
The word racket grew from the French verb rachcier, which describes the return of service. That word evolved into the Dutch-Flemish raket, which meant "strike a ball back." The English called the bat used in ball games a "racket," and the French made it raquette.
In tennis, the first player to win four points wins the game. It's a mystery to every beginning tennis player, though, why you have to count in increments of 15. Also, why not say zip or nil instead of "love," and what's all this stuff about "deuce" and "advantage?"
Early betting customs in tennis created the scoring system. "Generally speaking, betting was common, if not the rule, in all sorts of medieval games," Gillmeister told me in 2006. "Tennis players have always competed for money." Men of all classes bet, although royalty kept more survivable records.
Gillmeister supports his conclusion by pointing to a common French coin of the time, the gros denier tournois, the Great Penny of Tours. At the start of the 14th century, the coin equaled 15 deniers or pence. Players bet one coin per point -- 15, 30, 45 (contracted then and now to 40) and 60.
Social pressures on betting during this time limited such casual wagers to 60 deniers, Gillmeister explains. Four times 15 equals 60. Game over.
A player must win by two points, so if two players were tied 40-all, each was two points from game. According to Gillmeister, the French would say they were at deuce, "A deux!" The English changed that to "I have a deuce," and then simply, "Deuce."
"Advantage" was a handmaiden to deuce in the late 1500s, referring to French players who had won the first of the two points needed to win a game after "A deux." The French called it "avantage;" the English changed it to advantage.
An oft-repeated tale holds that "Love" (zero points) comes from the French word for egg, l'uf, because of the shape of the number zero. Gillmeister likes another explanation. Many people used the phrase "neither for love nor money" in the Middle Ages. The words could have easily applied to a game played for either money or the love of the game. If a player had zero points, he must be hanging on solely because of his passion for the game. In Belgium and the Netherlands, through which both golf and tennis traveled to Britain, the Dutch equivalent of honor is lof, and omme lof spelen means "to play for the honor." (The Low Countries also gave the British the words cricket, golf, putt, and luck.)
"Wasn't that interesting," sighed Bernice. "Morty, are you awake?"
ABOUT THE WRITER
Michael K. Bohn is the author of "Money Golf," a history of the gentlemanly wager on the golf course, and more recently, "Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports."
Bohn also wrote "The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism" (2004), and "Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room" (2003). He served as director of the White House Situation Room, the president's alert center and crisis management facility, during Ronald Reagan's second term. Bohn was a U.S. naval intelligence officer from 1968 to 1988.