Where Does the Tennis Scoring System Come From?

Tennis Scoring

Love, 15, 30, 40?

The Tennis scoring system is weird. From the moment a game begins, nothing really makes sense. Love to Love? Why hate on the classic zero to zero? It doesn’t stop there; as a match progresses things get even stranger. 15, 30, 40? What?

Throw in a deuce and now we’re completely lost.

Whether you are a casual fan, a novice player, or Billie Jean King herself, tennis scoring can be confusing. What does it all mean? We were curious to know the answer and did a little research. It turns out, no one really knows.

That doesn’t mean there aren’t theories though. Here a few possible explanations for how tennis got its scoring system.

Where is the Love?

The first tennis scoring mystery comes at the start of a game. When a player has no points, we typically say their score is ‘love’ as opposed to ‘zero.’

While there is no consensus, one theory suggests origins in the French word, l’oeuf, which means ‘egg.’ An egg looks like a zero, and some historians believe ‘love’ simply comes from an English mispronunciation of that word.  

Another possible explanation, one that also stems from an English mispronunciation, is that ‘love’ comes from the Dutch word lof, which means ‘honor.’ Adherents of this theory suggest that a player with zero points is playing for honor, and not necessarily for a win.

Finally, some think ‘love’ in tennis derives from a more literal sense. With a score of zero, perhaps the only thing keeping a player on the court is the love of the game. Or maybe, when the score is zero to zero, players on the court still have love for each other?

All these sound like totally reasonable explanations to us. It’s also worth noting that not everyone in tennis uses ‘love.’ The French, for example, user regular ‘ol ‘zero.’ And here we thought Paris was the City of Love.

Other Tennis Scoring Explanations

Now that ‘love’ is out of the way, what about the main scoring of tennis – 15, 30, 40?

One possible explanation for the 15, 30, 40 scoring system seems to derive from clocks. It was possible that in the past, clock faces were used on courts to keep track of the score, with the minute hand moving a quarter to indicate a score of 15, 30, and 45, with 60 meaning the game was over.

However, to ensure that a game was not won by a one-point difference, the idea of ‘deuce’ was introduced. When the score is ‘deuce’, or tied at 40-40, a player needs two consecutive points to win. A player who has won one point after deuce is said to have the ‘advantage.’ In order to ensure that a score would stay within the 60 ticks on a clock face, 45 might have been changed to 40, so that 50 could be used when a player had the ‘advantage.’

Another theory comes from a French game called jeu de paume, or ‘palm game.’ This game was very similar to tennis, but players used their hands instead of a racket. Courts for this game were 90 feet long, and 45 per side. Upon scoring, the server got to move up 15 feet. Another score and the player could move forward another 15 feet. Since a third score would put the server right at the net, 10 feet was the last move forward.

Many historians believe tennis evolved from jeu de paume. It makes sense then that the scoring from this medieval game could have also been borrowed.

Finally, another idea is that ‘forty’ is simply quicker and easier to say than the much more long-winded, ‘forty-five’ (people are so lazy sometimes)Whatever the origins, tennis scoring is certainly unique.

What About Deuce?

We mentioned ‘deuce’ earlier. This term also seems to come from a word borrowed from the French. Deux, in French, means ‘two.’ Remember that ‘deuce’ is called out when a player needs two more consecutive points to win.

Deuce is another one of those terms that the French don’t actually use. They use the much cooler sounding égalité, which means ‘equality.’

Game, Set, Match

Tennis is not exclusive in having it’s own special scoring system. Many other sports have their own unique scoring and terminology. This uniqueness is part of what makes sports fun. We think tennis’ weird scoring system can create many exciting, drama-filled matches.

Hopefully we’ve cleared up at least some of the confusion around tennis scoring. The next time you watch a tennis match with your friends, feel free to cause a racket by dropping all this newfound tennis knowledge.

Mark Heald

Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.

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Mark Heald
About Mark Heald 146 Articles
Mark Heald is an Associate Product Manager and Sporcle Admin. He enjoys spending time with his family, traveling, and bemoaning the fact the Sonics left Seattle.