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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Big Ben

On a visit to Big Ben, I was told that if you stand at the bottom of the tower with a portable radio and listen to the chimes on Radio 4 (they still transmit them live), you hear them on the radio before you hear them ‘for real’. I couldn’t believe it – but was intrigued enough to try it for myself. And you know what? It’s absolutely true. The bongs come out of the radio a fraction of a second before they reach your ears from the top of the tower. It’s something so silly, so counter-intuitive, that you have to tell people. (Well, I did.) Researching the explanation, I found that it’s because radio waves travel at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) rather than the 700 or so miles per hour at which sound waves travel. The signal travelling down the wire from the microphone to the BBC goes at the speed of light too. Hence the radio version overtaking the real one.

I realised that this would be the perfect way to teach the principle in school physics lessons. Instead of a boring teacher droning on that ‘radio waves travel at the speed of light’, illustrate it with this beautiful and quirky little fact. The kids will remember it then. I certainly would have done if my physics teacher had taken this approach. As it was I had to wait until I heard a piece of so-called ‘trivia’ in my thirties.