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Wimbledon fortnight sees Britain in the annual grip of an all-consuming tennis obsession. So this week’s blog takes a look at some of the quirkiest tennis terms and explores their etymological origins:
The first word on our list of tennis terms is borrowed from the game of real tennis and refers to a level score. It is derived from Old French deus, meaning two, but opinion is divided as to whether this refers to the two players having equal scores or to the fact that a player needs two points to win the game. Modern French prefers the term égalité and, unlike English, makes a distinction for the very first deuce in a game by using the phrase quarante à when the scores are forty-all.
Possibly even more baffling than deuce is the term love, used to indicate that a player has scored zero (points in a game, or games in a set). It is often stated that love is a corruption of the French l’oeuf (the egg), relating to the shape of the number zero. But I rather like the Oxford English Dictionary suggestion that love really does mean love, in the sense that when a player has no points, the only thing keeping them on the court is the love of the game!
Bagels and fries
Bagel is the slang used for winning or losing a set 6-0, rather tenuously derived from a bagel being shaped like a zero. It even has its own award known as the Golden Bagel, given to the male professional tennis player who has dished out the most bagels that year. In the event of a tie the winner is determined by another linguistic delight, the number of “fries” or “breadsticks”, the term used to denote a 6-1 set victory.
Let is the term used when a legally delivered service attempt strikes the net cord en route to its destination. Once again the origins may be French with the word “filet” (net) being borrowed and shortened. But another theory links let back to an Old English usage meaning “to hinder”. A residue of this can be found in the inside front cover of the modern British passport which contains the phrase “allow the bearer to pass freely without let or hindrance”.
The days of John McEnroe’s apoplectic “You cannot be serious” and “Chalk flew up” are long since over, with crucial line-call decisions now benefitting from sophisticated electronic ball tracking. I had always assumed that the Hawk-eye system owed its name entirely to its bird of prey like accuracy when tracking the ball trajectory. But this tennis term was also named in part after its inventor Paul Hawkins, a British engineer and passionate cricket fan, who designed the system originally to assist in LBW (leg before wicket) decisions.
As the name suggests, this is a very low tennis shot which skims the surface, potentially beheading any flowers missed by the ground staff and their lawnmowers. Use of the term in baseball possibly even predates tennis, with references as far back as the 1860s. Less innocently the term was also used for a particular type of bomb used in Vietnam and named for its ability to flatten a section of forest into a helicopter landing area.
We finish our eclectic survey of tennis terms with the word used for when a player hits a shot between their legs, generally when they have their back to the net after running back to recover a lob. This shot is also affectionately referred to as the Gran Willy in honour of Guillermo Vilas who some claim invented it. He in turn said he had been inspired by seeing a polo player hit a backwards shot between his horse’s hind legs! Gabriela Sabatini also had her own version which became known as the Sabatweenie.
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