The obscure tennis scoring history
Historians believe that tennis originated in 12th-century French monasteries, where monks played a game called jeu de paume or “game of the hand.” Using their palms, they hit wooden balls on opposing sides of a rope, stretched across a courtyard. A little later, they switched to leather balls and started using paddles with a wire mesh.
Even then, monks counted the score from 15, 30 to 45. This meant that each service ace or rally won gave the successful player 15 points.
Elizabeth Wilson, author of Love Game: A History of Tennis, from Victorian Pastime to Global Phenomenon, told TIME that it’s likely that the monks chose 15-point increments based on the minutes of the clock. But she also goes on to say that some people don’t buy this theory since minute hands were only introduced in the late 1500s.
Despite the complicated tennis scoring system, the sport became so popular among the nobility that by the end of the 13th century, you could find about 1800 courts in France. It later reached England, where King Henry VII and Henry VIII ordered courts to be constructed.
The 15-30-45 scoring system endured until around the 16th century when French students shortened the word “45” to “40.” It can’t be proven if this was the real origin of the strange way of counting, though it would make sense.
In 1850, Charles Goodyear discovered a way to make natural rubber more durable and suitable for heavy wear. This discovery made it possible to create rubber tennis balls that bounce on a grass lawn. Outdoor tennis renewed interest in the sport, which declined in popularity over the past century.
In the 1870s, Major Walter Clopton Wingfield published a set of game rules for lawn tennis, which included standards that deviated from that of traditional indoor tennis. For example, he prescribed an hourglass-shaped court and counted points one by one.
Wingfield’s tennis scoring rules didn’t catch on though. When the All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club organised the first tennis tournament in 1877, they chose to follow the medieval system. They played on a rectangular lawn and decided to score points 15, 30 and 40. This became the basis of the rules of tennis that people still follow today.
The tiebreaker was added in the 1970s. It was included in the tennis scoring rules by the recommendation of James Van Alen, then president of the Tennis Hall of Fame.
How does tennis scoring work?
Now that you’re familiar with tennis’ complex history, it’s time to go over the rules of the game. Before we begin, know that you should never interchange the terms “game,” “set,” or “match.” We’ll define each term as we go along.
Tennis scoring, explained
- Both players start at “love,” and compete to win four tennis points. They’re scored by counting from 15-30-40. Once a player wins four points, they get a “game”.
- If both players get tied at 40, they enter a “deuce.” One of them will need to win two points in a row to break the tie and win a game.
Winning a set
- Players need to earn six games to win a tennis set.
- How many sets you need to win a match is not uniform across all tournaments. In general, you need to win two out of three sets. But in men’s grand slam tournaments like the French Open or the Australian Open, players need to win at least three of five sets. In other tournaments, players only need to win at least two sets.
Tie break rules
- A tiebreaker happens whenever both players have each won 6 games in the same set.
- Tiebreaker scoring is more straightforward. Each point will be counted as one, and players will need to race to seven points. A player will need to win by two points to earn the set, or else the tiebreak can go on as long as it can. The highest tiebreak score was recorded at 70-68 in 2013.
- The person who will serve first is decided by a coin toss.
- Only one player will serve per game (this is called their “service game”). Their opponent will get their chance to serve in the next game.
- A server must stand behind the baseline (at the back of the court). They start at the right side of the court, between the singles’ sideline and the centre mark.
- During a serve, the ball must travel to the opposite side of the court and bounce on the opponent’s service box. If it hits the service box but touches the net, the server gets another chance to do their first serve (called a “let”).
- If a ball does not graze the net but misses the service box, the server gets a second try. Missing a second serve means getting a double-fault, and they’d have to give up the point to the opponent (the receiver).
- After a player wins a point, the server will switch to the left side of the court, and the process begins again.
- In doubles, partners play against a team of two players on the other side of the net.
- Doubles use the full court, which is between the baselines and the doubles sidelines.
- Only one player serves per game. Their partner gets their chance to serve once it’s their team’s turn to serve again.
- Grand slams, ATP Tour tournaments and WTA premier tournaments follow a single-elimination format.
- In the Davis Cup (the World Cup of Tennis), eighteen teams, each representing a country, are divided into six groups that play round robin. Winners of each group and the two best runner-ups advance to the quarterfinals. At this stage, they will play two singles matches and one doubles match (best of 3 sets each). Winning teams advance to the semis and then to the final.
- The WTA and ATP Finals are annual events for the top-ranked women and men, respectively. In these tournaments, players compete against one another in a round-robin format.
Tennis scoring could be explained, but...
Reading a guide on tennis rules is helpful, but to learn the finer points of the sport, you need to participate in or watch tennis matches regularly. So, pick up a racquet, serve the ball, and hit a few rallies.
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