Sunday 8 August 2010

Tennis, Eggs, Love and John Milton

When a cricketer fails to get a single run, a zero is written next to his name on the score sheet. This numeral of shame came to be referred to a duck's egg, and then simply a duck. That is why cricketers are out for a duck, and until they score that first run they are trying to break their duck.

I had always fondly believed the same to be true of love in tennis. I was told when I was a boy that love came from l'oeuf, which is French for the egg. I was, I fear, wrong. The idea of love as a vacuity comes not from Gallic ova, but from the idea of doing something purely for the love of it, or in other words for nothing.

This makes tennis a lot less fun than I thought. It would be more bearable if tennis weren't called tennis. You see tennis is the name of the old French game, real tennis as it's now called, and derives dully from tenez, meaning hold. Lawn tennis, the game that everybody knows now was invented by an Englishman called Major Walton Clopton Wingfield. He didn't call it tennis. He called it Sphairistik√®, which was Ancient Greek for ball skill (as in sphere tech). 

But love and Greek are vanished. So I must console myself with the fact that John Milton was the first person to use the sporting sense of advantage:

For if the Scripture be for reformation, and antiquity to boot, it is but an advantage to the dozen, it is no winning cast.

Oh, and there's this Shakespearean gem, where Pericles, washed up on a beach, meets two fishermen and introduces himself to them as:

A man whom both the waters and the wind,
In that vast tennis-court have made the ball
For them to play upon, entreats you pity him:
He asks of you, that never used to beg.

Mrs M spots a typo

1 comment:

  1. And of course Henry V's tennis ball incident, and subsequent war-as-tennis declaration.

    You haven't given the image a title: I suggest 'Mrs M. spots a typo.'