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Where Did Tennis Get Its Scoring System?

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Love? 15-30...40? What's the deal with tennis scoring? There’s no shortage of theories. Here are a few of them, along with input from sportscaster and former tennis pro Mary Carillo (pictured above with Rafael Nadal after his win in last night's U.S. Open men's final).

Love

You know how sometimes when a team in any sport comes up empty-handed on points, it’s said that there was a big ol’ goose egg on the scoreboard? Some people believe that a similar French expression is the reason zero points is called “love” in tennis. L’oeuf is French for “egg,” you see, so the thought is that over the years, we’ve slowly butchered the pronunciation into “love.”

Carillo agrees: “It’s the goose egg, exactly. Most tennis historians believe the French translation of ‘egg’ is probably the most likely theory.”

There's a less popular theory that we’ve managed to twist the Dutch or Flemish word “lof,” meaning “honor.” The idea is that the player with zero points is simply playing for honor—because he or she certainly isn’t playing for a win. But that’s not all the Dutch have up their sleeves: one more possibility stems from the lof in the phrase “iets voor lof doen,” which means to do something for praise.

The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that love really does mean “love.” The only thing keeping a scoreless player on the court is the love of the game.

A final “love” theory that doesn’t involve any kind of mistranslation or mispronunciation at all: When both players start at zero points and no one is winning or losing, they still have love for each other.

The 15-30-40 scoring

Now that “love” is as clear as mud, let’s figure out why tennis is scored in what appears to be a completely random jumble of numbers. Before there was tennis, there was a French game called jeu de paume (“palm game”) that was very similar to tennis, but players used their hands instead of a racquet. The scoring system we use for tennis today was based on jeu de paume’s system, but the reason for that 15-30-40-Game scoring is still a little shaky. There are three possibilities. First is the theory that, back in the pre-Revolution days, the 1000-plus jeu de paume courts in French were 90 feet total, 45 per side. Upon scoring, the server got to move up 15 feet. Another score meant another 15-foot scoot forward. Since a third score would put the server right at the net, 10 feet was the last bump forward.

If you’ve ever noticed the scoring system’s similarity to a clock face, you’re not alone. “That’s the theory I think is most common—that you’re just playing your way around the clock,” Carillo said. It makes even more sense when you know that in medieval numerology, the number 60 was considered a nice, round number, the way 100 is a satisfying set of digits today.

Finally, the Europeans were preoccupied with astronomy and sextant (one-sixth of a circle), which is 60 degrees, so they may have scored the game around the completion of a perfect circle. From the United States Tennis Association Official Encyclopedia of Tennis:

"In early records of the game in France, sets were played to four games. Since sixty degrees make a full circle when multiplied by six, it is thought that matches were six sets of four games each. Therefore, each point was worth fifteen degrees, or points, contributing to the whole. The game concluded when one player completed a full circle of 360 degrees."

Whichever one of these is the correct answer, it’s generally agreed that scoring used to be exactly what any logical person thinks it should be: 15, 30, 45, 60 (game). Over time, we’ve adapted 45 to 40 because it’s more clearly understood when yelled out on a court; “forty” can’t be confused with any other number.

Seinfeld's Theory

One of Carillo’s favorite scoring theories is not one you’ll find in history books. “I actually love the Seinfeld scoring system,” she told us. In typical Jerry Seinfeld fashion, he speculates that the points are awarded simply because playing tennis is just so damn hot:

Whatever the real reasons for the scoring system are, one thing's for certain: Tennis wouldn’t be tennis without the unique point tally. “I happen to love the scoring system,” Carillo said. “Because of it, you have games like the one that was won in 21 minutes [on Saturday], when Novak Djokovic won the semifinal against Stanislas Wawrinka. It was thrilling, it was absolutely thrilling. There was a standing ovation. As weird as the scoring system is, it just creates great tension and tactics in every game.”

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Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

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Big Questions
How Are Rooms Cleaned at an Ice Hotel?

Cleaning rooms at Sweden’s famous ICEHOTEL is arguably less involved than your typical hotel. The bed, for example, does not have traditional sheets. Instead, it’s essentially an air mattress topped with reindeer fur, which sits on top of a custom-made wooden palette that has a minimum of 60 centimeters of airspace below. On top of those reindeer hides is a sleeping bag, and inside that sleeping bag is a sleep sack. And while it’s always 20ºF inside the room, once guests wrap themselves up for the night, it can get cozy.

And, if they’re wearing too many layers, it can get quite sweaty, too.

“The sleep sack gets washed every day, I promise you that. I know it for a fact because I love to walk behind the laundry, because it’s so warm back there," James McClean, one of the few Americans—if not the only—who have worked at Sweden's ICEHOTEL, tells Mental Floss. (He worked on the construction and maintenance crew for several years.)

There isn’t much else to clean in most guest rooms. The bathrooms and showers are elsewhere in the hotel, and most guests only spend their sleeping hours in the space. But there is the occasional accident—like other hotels, some bodily fluids end up where they shouldn’t be. People puke or get too lazy to walk to the communal restrooms. Unlike other hotels, these bodily fluids, well, they freeze.

“You can only imagine the types of bodily fluids that get, I guess, excreted … or expelled … or purged onto the walls,” McClean says. “At least once a week there’s a yellow stain or a spilled glass of wine or cranberry juice … and it’s not what you want to see splattered everywhere.” Housekeeping fixes these unsightly splotches with an ice pick and shovel, re-patching it with fresh snow from outside.

Every room has a 4-inch vent drilled into the icy wall, which helps prevent CO2 from escalating to harmful levels. Maintenance checks the holes daily to ensure these vents are not plugged with snow. Their tool of choice for clearing the pathway is, according to McClean, “basically a toilet brush on a stick.”

When maintenance isn’t busy unstuffing snow from that vent hole, they’re busy piping snow through it. Every couple days, the floor of each room receives a new coat of fluffy snow, which is piped through the vent and leveled with a garden rake.

“It’s the equivalent of vacuuming the carpet,” McClean says.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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