Tennis “Love” and the Love of Tennis

A novice tennis fan wouldn’t be blamed for being confused about who’s winning a match—an understanding of the language of tennis scores is needed to appreciate the game! Unlike soccer, basketball, and baseball, which simply count points for every goal, basket, and run, tennis has a scoring system (and lexicon) all its own.

At the beginning of the game, when both sides have no score, the game is love-love because in tennis, love means having a score of zero or nil. One point brings a player to 15, two to 30; and three to 40. The next point wins the game, unless a complex series of tiebreakers comes into play, because in order to win a tennis match, a player must win by a margin of two.

Where did the game gets its affectionate score for zero? The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the term might be rooted in the colloquial phrase “for love,” meaning “without stakes being wagered.” This theory reflects the sport’s long history of etiquette and sportsmanship. Others theorize that love arose from the French word for “egg,” l’oeuf, because a zero on a scoreboard resembles an egg. This is a clever claim, but it remains unsubstantiated.

Tennis might have ended up with a different name altogether. Major Walter Wingfield, who laid down the rules for modern tennis, had another name for tennis. He called it sphairistike, based on the Greek phrase “skill in playing at ball.” The word tennis most likely comes from the French word tenetz — meaning “hold!” — the imperative conjugation of the verb tenir. Etymologists hypothesize that this was an early command used in the game, but there is no firm evidence to support this.

Have you heard other theories about why love is used in tennis?