Saturday, August 4, 2012

When We've Match'd our Rackets to these Balls: The Game of Tennis

Tomorrow Roger Federer, the world's top tennis player and champion of Wimbledon 2012, will play the same opponent that he beat at Wimbledon just four weeks ago, Andy Murray, for the Olympic gold medal in men's singles tennis. Murray is playing great tennis, but can Federer pull off another victory and thus obtain his first Olympic gold medal? Federer has already won 7 Wimbledon titles, and 17 total grand-slam titles, but an Olympic gold would be a welcome addition to his already impressive trophy collection.

The Olympic championship will be an exciting match. But whoever comes off victorious one thing is certain, tennis has come a long way since it's inception in 12th century France.  Historians surmise that one of the earliest ancestors of the game of tennis was the "jeu de paume" or "palm game", which has the oldest ongoing annual world championship in sports, having first been established over 250 yrs. ago. This game was played indoors using just the palm of the hand. Louix X was one of the earliest and most adept players and advocates of the game, which later evolved to include gloves, paddles, and eventually, rackets.

Not until the 16th century did the game begin to be called "tennis", from the French "tenez", meaning "hold!", "receive!" or "take!" The person serving the ball would call out "tenez!" to alert his opponent to the oncoming ball.  The game was exported to England, where King Henry VIII became one of it's biggest fans, and where racket sports began to take shape.

Wimbledon is the world's oldest tennis tournament, dating back to 1877, and owing much of its inspiration to Major Walter Clopton Wingfield, who designed and patented a game that he called "sphairistike", from the Ancient Greek, meaning "skill at playing at ball".  The game soon spread to America as it continued to grow in popularity in places such as England, France, and even Australia. The rules were gradually standardized, and although tennis was withdrawn from the Olympics in 1924, it later returned in 1984 and continues to this day.

Tennis terminology is unique, including vocabulary such as "love" and "service".  Scoring in tennis match is divided into sets, games and points.  Points in a game progress from 0 or love to 15, 30, 40, and unless tied in a deuce, to the end of the game.  The origin of these terms is unknown, although it is conjectured that in Medieval France the face of a clock might have been used to track score, and the word love may have been derived from the French word "l'oeuf" meaning "egg", because an egg looks like the number zero. Another theory posits that a game in tennis begins with love because at the beginning of the game the players still love one another.

There is a famous reference to tennis in the works of Shakespeare in which the young King Henry V receives messengers from the Dauphin who, in mockery of his youth, bestow a gift of tennis balls upon him.  The young King graciously receives the gift, but not without a powerful return to this service:

"We are glad the Dauphin is so pleasant with us;
His present and your pains we thank you for.
When we have match'd our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God's grace, play a set
Shall strike his father's crown into the hazard." (King Henry V, Act I, Scene II)

Judging by this speech and later by his St. Crispin's Day Speech, King Henry was not only ready to counter the Dauphin in tennis, but to defy the armies of France.

The score is love / love. So, without further ado, tenez!