A scoring system you have to love Tennis: The quirky method of calling out who's ahead -- and by how many points -- is part of the game's charm.


Andre Agassi considered the question: Who invented the scoring system in tennis and why?

He cocked his bald head.

"It was invented," he said, sounding very sure, "to cause frustration to those who chose to play."

And why does he think that?

"Because, it makes no sense," said Agassi, the former World No. 1 player who is now No. 8. "Obviously, those who invented the scoring system wanted to keep it an exclusive game."



Tennis has other terms: Deuce, meaning the players are even at a certain point in a game or set. The ad, the advantage, which refers to the point after deuce. Break point, potentially the last point of a game being lost by the player serving the ball. The following are break points, with the score first: 0-40, 15-40, 30-40. If the server loses the point, game over; if not, the game continues.

As if that's not complicated enough, players are sometimes likely to shorten the 15 to 5, adding to the confusion.

It's enough to make Agassi, who remains one of the most popular players on the pro tour, and other, more low-key players and fans snarl.

All of tennis scoring is quirky. None of it is based on any reasonable explanation that anyone knows -- or can think of.

All of it will be heard over and over again when the U.S. Open, the last Grand Slam event of the year, is played in New York starting today.

Many have tried to research tennis scoring. Many have failed.

Bud Collins, the venerable tennis writer and television personality, has written "The Bud Collins' Tennis Encyclopedia." In Chapter 1, "Roots: 1874-1918," Collins explores the game's history and it's bizarre scoring.

"Love?" he writes. "How can you take seriously anything in which love means nothing? Probably it derives from the French, l'oeuf: the old goose egg. The quartered face of a clock seems the likely source of the game, and point scores -- 15, 30 -- but why 40 instead of 45? Was it a cuckoo clock? Probably modified over time. Nobody really knows."

Just in from a walk at his Massachusetts home, Collins sounded a shrug across the phone line. The source of the scoring is unknown.

"It's a mystery and I think it's fun," Collins said. "Love sounds odd to some people, but I think it is part of the charm. Every other game has changed itself, often to its detriment, while tennis remains the same.

"And even though people say the scoring system is confusing, even a child can figure it out after watching it for 30 seconds."

Jim Courier, now ranked No. 68, looked very serious when asked about the scoring in the game in which he was once No. 1.

"The French started it, and then it was mutated when it came to England," he said. "Maybe it came about because an Englishman poorly translated the French. It's all hearsay at this point."

Tennis, known in different places as real tennis, royal tennis or court tennis, is known to date to 12th century France. Today, the game is known as lawn tennis, and while the derivation of the name "tennis" is not known, researchers are sure the modern game did begin on an English lawn.

At the International Tennis Federation in London, communications manager Alun James said:

"The actual scoring is very traditional," he said. "It comes from royal tennis, real tennis. Real tennis was played indoors by King Henry VIII and, in those times, England and France were one kingdom. The aristocracy would have been French-speaking. That's the popular view."

James said deuce is very likely from the French "deux," meaning two, meaning it takes two more points to win."

As strange as the scoring is, it is surprising how rarely anyone has tried to change it.

Mike Bridges, a spokesman for the International Tennis Hall of Fame in Newport, R.I., where tennis was first played in the United States in 1881, acknowledges that Americans like to change almost everything in an effort to make it their own.

"But in the case of tennis," he said, "it is one of few sports to uphold the traditions of its origin."

Whatever it may be.

An effort was made to create a simple 1-2-3-4 scoring system in World Team Tennis, a 1974 effort to establish city tennis teams, but it never took off.

James, at the International Tennis Federation, said he can remember only one successful effort to change the scoring. That came in 1970, when the late Jimmy Van Alen -- an American (ha!) -- came up with the idea for the tiebreaker to shorten marathon matches.

Before the existence of the tiebreaker, a set tied 6-6 would continue until one player achieved a two-game winning margin. The tiebreaker shortens the overtime play, allowing the first player to reach seven points -- with a two-point margin -- to win.

The tiebreaker isn't appreciated by everyone. Some view it with the same scorn as a baseball fan might see the decision of a ninth-inning tie by a home-run-hitting contest.

The longest tiebreaker totaled 50 points -- 26-24, won by Jan Gunnarson and Michael Mortensen over John Frawley and Victor Pecci at Wimbledon in 1985. Before that, the longest match without a tiebreaker system was played in 1969. Pancho Gonzales defeated Charlie Pasarell, 22-24, 1-6, 16-14, 6-3, 11-9, in the first round of Wimbledon. It totaled 112 games and took five hours and 12 minutes.

"It would be hard to imagine another sport where there has been only one major rule change in 75 years," said Bart McGuire, the new head of the women's pro tour.

Now, the International Tennis Federation has approved a two-year program to study the impact of "no-ad" tennis. No-ad tennis means that when the score of a game is tied at deuce, 40-40, the next point wins. No longer will a player have to win by two points.

The no-ad rule will be tested in the international team competitions known as The Federation Cup (women) and Davis Cup (men), at qualifying matches and at small, second-tier tournaments.

"No-ad scoring is a great idea," said Agassi. "First, it makes understanding the game easier. Secondly, it also creates an edge for the returner and puts a little more pressure on the server. And, thirdly, I think it would also speed up the matches."

After two years, the federation hopes to have a clearer idea of whether all the things no-ad advocates expect are true. Is it more exciting tennis, or not?

"Certainly, the answer will be clearer, but it might still be a divided point," said the federation's James.

Given the murky history of the sport's scoring, a divided point is probably fitting.

As the up-and-coming Paul Gilmelstob, 21, of Livingston, N.J., who has moved up to No. 88th, said:

"I don't know where tennis scoring comes from. I remember watching a documentary on it once, though I don't remember what it said. I just accept it. Tennis has love in it and as far as I'm concerned there's nothing wrong with love -- you've got to like any game that has love in it."

Pub Date: 8/31/98

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad