The backhands of time

How tennis got its scoring system from the clock

As you watch the games rack up at Wimbledon this week, do you ever wonder why the scoring goes 15, 30, 40, rather than 15, 30, 45? I remember watching my first ever game as a child, confused as to why a player's third winning shot was deemed less valuable than their first two. One of those things you just learn to ignore - but it turns out there's a very timely explanation ...

The backhands of time

It all goes back to the game's origins in medieval France. Computerised dot-matrix display boards being something of a rarity back then, the score was kept by moving the hands of a clock. Your first point got you to quarter past, your second to the half hour, your third to quarter to, and when you finally got back to the top of the hour you'd won the game. These first three scores, then, were given the values 15, 30 and 45.

But then the rule was introduced about having to win by two clear points. So the 45 was moved back to 40, and the new ‘advantage' point was inserted at 50 (or ten to the hour). The word ‘deuce' (40 all) comes from the French ‘a deux le jeu', meaning ‘to both the game' - in other words the scores are level.

‘Love', meanwhile, derives from ‘l'oeuf' - because a zero is egg-shaped. Very similar to the explanation for the term ‘duck' in cricket - a batsman who gets out without scoring has just earned himself a duck egg.



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Rubik's Cube

A Rubik’s cube has more combinations than light travels inches in a century. This is my favourite illustration of how a very small number of factors can produce an absurdly complicated situation. A silly little toy, with only three squares in each of its three dimensions. How can that get complicated? Well, as anyone who's ever tried to solve one just by guessing will tell you, it gets very complicated. The number of possible combinations is 43,252,003,274,489,856,000. Forget billions - that's 43 quintillion and change. (In fact the cube's manufacturers just said ‘billions' in their advertising, figuring that no one would know what a quintillion was. It's a billion billion.) The number of inches light travels in a century, meanwhile, is a mere 37,165,049,856,000,000,000. Or thereabouts.