Fostering curiosity in kids (and their parents) since 2011

“Why is tennis scoring so weird?”

Illustration shows two men playing a version of tennis that doesn't use a net.

Medieval game of jeu du palme. (Illustration via W.U Hstry)

The other day while driving past a neighborhood tennis court, the subject of scoring naturally came up.

Everyone in the car agreed that the standard Love-15-30-40 scoring system used in tennis was pretty bizarre. Oddly specific, too, in that way that hints at an interesting story.

So I looked it up.

According to Straight Sets, the New York Times tennis blog, the Love-15-30-40 scoring pattern most likely dates back to 12th century France. Back then, tennis was called jeu de paume (the palm game) instead of tennis because players used their hands instead of racquets. But the scoring was more or less the same.

Why is a tennis game won with 60 points? Why not 100, like in a game of Hearts? 

Back in the 12th century, the number 60 was considered a nice round number — literally.

Circles, which contained 360 degrees, and sextants, which encompass 60 of the degrees within a circle, were pretty important in medieval Europe, in large part because astronomy was pretty important in medieval Europe. Back then, the prevailing opinion was that Aristotle was right — the sun, moon, and stars in the known universe all orbited around the Earth, which was fixed in its position in the sky.

Medieval Europeans believed that these heavenly bodies were linked to the organs of the human body, making astrological predictions a critical component of medieval medical practice.

If your health depended upon the planets and other fixed stars successfully progressing through the 360 degrees of their orbit around the Earth, you might find 60 to be an important marker of progress too.

According to the United States Tennis Association Official Encyclopedia of Tennis, each point within a 12th C tennis game was worth fifteen degrees. The first player to win 60 degrees won that game. The match continued until one player had won enough games to complete a full circle of 360 degrees. A typical match consisted of six sets of four games each.

Pencil sketch of an indoor tennis court. It looks like a giant barn adapted to play tennis. It's got very tall walls with wooden beams at the roof, and large open windows just below the roofline to let in light.

By Henry VIII’s day, tennis players had discovered the merits of playing with racquets. This 16th C illustration by Johann Christoph Neyffer and Ludwig Ditzinger shows a game of what was by then called “real tennis” being played at Tübingen University in Germany. (Source: BibliOdyssey)

But if getting to 60 is the goal, and you achieve that goal in four steps, why not score tennis in four equal increments of 15? 

Again, this gets back to how the game was played in 12th Century France. Naturally, there is some uncertainty about how medieval tennis players actually kept score in those long-ago tennis bouts.  Some think that tennis courts were relatively huge — 90 feet long, with 45 feet on each side. Players literally advanced in the game each time they scored, moving 15 feet closer to the net. This gave them a huge advantage as the game went on. But it also meant that on the final score, the winning player would be standing on top of the net. Which is why some people think the final score before winning was shifted to 40, instead of 45. Setting the final step at 40 kept the players five feet back from the net.

Of course, not everyone agrees.

Billie Jean King, who has undoubtedly spent much more time thinking about this than I ever will, doesn’t subscribe to this theory. Since most tennis games in 12th C France were played indoors, she believes that players may have used a clock hanging over the tennis courts to keep score, and that the shift to 40 happened to allow scorekeepers to account for deuce situations.

Deuce is called when both players are tied at 40. To win tennis, players have to be two steps ahead of their opponent in scoring. Today, when deuce is called, the player who wins the next point is said to have an advantage.  To win the game, the player must win the next volley as well. If the player with the advantage doesn’t win the volley, the score returns to deuce and the game continues until one player wins two volleys in a row.

To fit those extra steps after deuce on our hypothetical medieval clock face the simplest thing to do would have been to start counting by 10s. Going from 30 to 40 instead of 45 creates the potential for creating an interim score of 50 to track the progress in deuce situations.

Outdoor tennis court with folks dressed in period clothing (including full dresses for the women). The grass court is surrounded by trees.

Major Walter Clopton Wingfield was one of at least three different sets of people to design an outdoor version of tennis in the 1870s. This 1874 drawing shows Wingfield’s design for a Sphairistikè or lawn tennis court. Wingfield borrowed many terms for his lawn tennis game from the original French game, which by then was widely called real tennis. (Illustration: Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, 1874.)

The Nine-Year-Old: “But if that’s true, why does my teacher score tennis 0-1-2-3?”

Just because things have always been done one way doesn’t mean that that’s how they should always be done. King believes more people would play tennis if the scoring were more clear-cut. Her World Tennis League eliminates the Love-15-30-40 business entirely, replacing it with the much simpler 0-1-2-3.

No doubt The Nine-Year-Old’s coach is a Billie Jean King fan.

Billie Jean King after winning (Photo: Peter Clarke via Wikipedia)

Billie Jean King at the Irish Open in Fitzwilliam LTC in Dublin in the 1960s. (Photo: Peter Clarke via Wikipedia)

The Nine-year-Old, curiously:  “So what is love, Mommyo?”

Mommyo, poetically: “Love is a smoke raised with the fume of sighs.”

The Nine-Year-Old, impatiently: “In tennis, Mommyo.”

Ah. It’s the weird word English-speakers use for zero when announcing tennis scores. No one really knows why, so you can pick your favorite theory.

It could be because zero looks like a goose egg. The French word for egg is “l’oeuf” which can be easily mispronounced as love. (This theory is complicated by the fact that the French don’t say “Love” or “l’oeuf” at all. They say zero.)

The theories get progressively worse from here. One posits that zero is announced as love because if you finish a game of tennis without ever scoring a point, clearly you have played for nothing more than the love of the game. Another claims that it’s because when the score is zero-all (Love-all), the players are filled with love for one another. I could go on, but no one here really wants me to, right?

The Nine-Year-Old, decisively: “Let’s go with the goose egg one, Mommyo.”

Yes, let’s.

****Updated a couple of hours after publication to reflect the fact that a circle contains 360 degrees, not 60. Thanks to all the alert readers who wrote in to remind me of that fact.*****
Mommyo, red-faced: “Darn it! I used to know that!”
The Nine-Year-Old, kindly: “That’s ok, Mommyo. If I hadn’t read Penrose, I wouldn’t have remembered it either.”
This going back to work thing is hard.

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6 Responses to ““Why is tennis scoring so weird?””

  1. Paul

    A circle is 360 degrees! (Six times 60.) The linked article connected this with having six sets of four games in a match, but this explanation didn’t quite make sense to me. Winning six games to win a set would mean a full circle, however.


    • Shala Howell

      Yeah, the Nine-Year-Old pointed that out immediately while we were walking home from school. I can’t believe I missed that. Couldn’t do a darn thing about it while we were walking either. Longest walk ever. Clearly, I’m going to have to start having her read these things before I hit publish.


    • Shala Howell

      I glossed over the four games bit in my explanation because it didn’t make sense to me either at first glance. Even I know that 4 x 60 is only 240.

      But glossing over medieval scoring tidbits is how I got into this mess in the first place, so I did a little digging about the meaning of the number 4 in medieval times.

      Turns out that in medieval times the number 4 represented the 4 corners of the Earth (among other things, if this source is to be believed —

      So if we carry our astronomical reasoning for the original scoring system of tennis a bit further, perhaps the six sets of four games each were designed to represent the orbits of the heavenly bodies around the four corners of the Earth. Winning 6 sets of 4 games each would have meant you’d successfully completed your 360 orbit around the 4 corners of the Earth.

      That’s got to be at least as plausible as the rest of it, right? 😉



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