Why Is Tennis Scoring so Confusing?

One of the first things that incoming tennis fans have to deal with when they first start watching or playing the sport is the different scoring system. Tennis isn’t alone in having a strange scoring system.

After all, Football goes by six-point touchdowns combined with one or two extra points, three-point field goals, and that doesn’t factor in safeties. The scoring system in tennis is different, though. With every point counting the same regardless of how it’s scored, why is it so bizarre?

How is tennis scored? 

The first thing that new tennis fans think about when heading into the sport is the old adage, “Game. Set. Match,” as that can help them remember the breakdown of competition.

A game is the smallest unit a player can win. It ends when one of the players wins. Next, there’s set. A set is a collection of games that goes on until one of the competitors wins six games by a margin of at least two. The match is the entire competition and the one win that truly matters.

As far as the in-action scoring, it gets even more complicated. All tennis matches start with a little bit of shared love by both sides, as zero is called “love” within the sport. Once someone scores, they have 15 points, then 30, then 40. If the match isn’t tied, the next point wins. If not, it goes until somebody can break through the advantage and break the tie. 

There are other factors, such as tie-breakers and penalties, but this is the convoluted means by which the game is scored, but why?

Why is it like this? 

Strangely enough, this means of scoring is rather mysterious in nature. What likely happened was that it had some meaning at the onslaught of the game’s invention, but it was lost as times changed and the game evolved into what it is today.

Elizabeth Wilson, author of Love Game: A History of Tennis, from Victorian Pastime to Global Phenomenon, has some thoughts on why this is the way it is. 

“There are various theories, all sorts of romantic theories have been built up about it,” Wilson said (per Time Magazine). “That’s partly what makes tennis into a kind of romantic game, because it had all this history that isn’t really history, it’s legend more than actual history. Some of the ideas about how it began are quite fanciful.”

How far back does the system go? 

According to Time, tennis can be traced back to the game jeu de paume in 12th century France. However, the current way the game is played can be traced to Victorian England.

A 15-century poem has a similar, but different system counting points in a game that it tells about, saying the game goes from 15, to 30, to 45. 40, however, has some apparent origins in 16th-century England. Some theorized that 40 came about because it was easier to say. 

While people have tried to meticulously find why the scoring is the way it is, they have found this to be a fool’s errand. The reality is that tennis spread from its French roots, and with it, each culture added its own twists.

“Love”, for instance, comes from the French l’oeuf, which means egg. This phonetic trick, perhaps, best describes how tennis and other sports become a hodgepodge of hard-to-trace traditions and rule changes. 

Whatever the origin of tennis’s strange scoring system, it appears that they are in no mood to change it. What may have made sense centuries ago has become the status quo of the sport. Changing it now would only add to the confusion.

Next time you are watching Serena Williams or Rafael Nadal, however, think about the hundreds of years that got the game here to produce these moments.