What you didn’t know about tennis

What you didn’t know about tennis

There are many things to wonder about during a tennis match – especially during one of those that go on for hours. From, “who came up with hitting a ball with a racket?” to “why is it so hard to keep track of the score?” or “do they have to grunt so loud when they hit the ball?” Well, have tried to come up with the answers. And it turns out some of them are pretty striking.

Jeu de Paume

Jeu de Paume

Medieval France already saw several games of “jeu de paume” (palm game) taking place. This was like the great grandfather of tennis – a game played with bare hands or rudimentary rackets at best. But it was enough to inspire a man from Wales called Walter Clopton Wingfield to create the sphairistike (ballgame in Greek) in 1873. Pronouncing that was no easy task, as you may imagine, even for the French – who began to use the word “tenez”, which to them is a rough equivalent to the “there you go!” the players would utter upon hitting the ball. In time, the expression, modified by English-speakers, would evolve into the much more tongue-friendly “tennis”.

Other scholars, however, prefer to think the name change was prompted by much less vulgar reasons. According to them, it was Wingfield himself who changed the name, inspired by the tenisca: the tape the Romans would use to divide the field into two halves. It is not a very popular theory – mainly because people believe it was invented to hide the games’ French origins (relations between France and England were not going through their best moment).

Sextant, Clock and Cannon

Sextant, Clock and Cannon

But to be honest, there many other complex issues about tennis beyond its origins. Its score may puzzle the uninitiated – the rating system goes up from 15 to… 30 to… 40? Apparently, the system was created by looking at a sextant, which is a navigation tool shaped like a triangle which measures the location of the sun into 15, 30 or 45 degrees. But why is a scoring system based on geometry? Well, there are up to three theories about it:

1. Circle Theory: In order to achieve the most perfect of rating systems, inspiration was drawn from the most perfect of shapes: the circle. Try to imagine a scoreboard that has a round shape. Then divide it into six sections (a sextant of said circle), like you would with a pizza. Then pìck up one of those sections and divide into three further sections. The first one would describe a 15-degree angle. The second one, a 30-degree angle. And the third one – you guessed it – a 45-degree angle. Each point in the game would then correspond to those fractions.

2. Hour Theory: In this case, we have to imagine the scoreboard as a clock, which highlights the areas that indicate 15-minute lapses. Each hour would then be divided into four periods of 15 minutes: from minute 0 to minute 15; from minute 15 to minute 30; from minute 30 to 45 and from 45 back to 0. Each point would then correspond to one of those lapses. As the end of the game is reached, the one to score over 40 points is the winner.

3. Cannon Theory: Advocates of this theory believe that the tennis rating system may have very different origins – the different calibers of the cannons in the British navy, and the order in which they would salute. First, they would shoot the 15-caliber ones, located in the main deck. Then the 30-caliber ones, in the intermediate deck and, finally, the 45-caliber ones in the lower deck.

There’s a detail we’re sure you haven’t missed out on – up to now, we have been referring to the number 45 when in tennis, the score is actually 40. That actually has a pretty simple explanation: it is just faster and easier to fell “forty” and “forty five” (especially in French).

But, back at the beginning of this post, we promised we would also explain why most players grunt so loudly when they are hitting the ball. Don’t fret – we’re not going to talk about geometry, measures or ancient history now.


This is all about psychology and effort. According to University of Vancouver psychologists, the player unconsciously believes that by yelling, his adversary will loose his concentration and will fail to predict the direction the ball is going to take. So he instinctively associates grunting with scoring. It may sound stupid, but these psychologists have carried out plenty of studies which seem to indicate this is the case.

As this shows, tennis is a game of wit as much as a game of skills. And since we know you both have plenty of both, tennis is one of the star sports in our summer camps.

Read this article in Spanish here.

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