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Tennis is a game that has a lot of quirks, including some odd terminology that is downright confusing. It may even feel like one of the hardest parts of tennis to learn. But aside from the pushers and bagels and smashes, there is one word that tends to generate a lot of questions. The word is “love.” You tend to hear it a lot, but what is the meaning of love in tennis? Turns out that the meaning of love, as well as the origins of the terms, is pretty surprising.
What Does Love Mean?
In the English language, love is a complicated word affixed to a complicated feeling stemming from affection. And, as in all matters of the heart, love on the tennis court can be just as flustering as a relationship. Why? Because when love is a courtly affair, it means nothing. Literally. Love in tennis is defined as “a score or point value of zero within a game.”
With the meaning of love in mind, here is a quick review of tennis scoring and other essential terms:
- Love: zero points
- 15: one point
- 30: two points
- 40: three points
- Deuce: a tie at three points
- Fault: the name for an illegal serve that usually occurs when the serve hits the net or bounces outside the legal area
- Double fault: when a player faults twice in a row
- Break point: the point where a player could win the game against an opponent’s serve
- Ad in: “advantage in,” when the person serving wins the next point after a deuce
- Ad out: “advantage out,” when the person serving loses the next point after a deuce, giving their opponent the advantage
- All: expresses that the score is even. For example, you might see 15-all.
You can also check out this short video on tennis scoring:
Pretty simple, right? Despite how logical it seems on paper, the use of love continues to trip tennis players up mid-match.
When to Use Love
Because love means zero points in tennis, there are only a few times you are going to use the term. Let’s say you are playing a game and you are serving. Your opponent currently has zero points. In this scenario, you would call out “15-love,” “30-love,” or “40-love” with each serve to show that your opponent has nothing.
Conversely, if your opponent is serving for the first time and you already have some points, they might call out “love-15,” “love-30,” or “love-40.” This shows that they have zero points.
In short, love is used to express someone having zero points. Yes, you could say “15-zero,” but doesn’t love sound cooler?
Examples of Love in Tennis
To make the purpose of love all the more clear, here is an example of the scores you would be calling out during a match against your friend. In this example, your friend is serving first.
- Your friend is up to serve. This is love-all or zero-zero.
- You win the rally, scoring the first point: love-15.
- Your win another point: love-30.
- The opponent wins the next rally: 15-30.
- Your friend also gets the next point: 30-all.
- You bounce back, earning another point. The score is now 30-40.
- The opponent ties you up, making it a deuce.
- You get the seventh point to the game. Since your friend is serving, it’s an ad out.
- You win again, giving you a game point.
Let’s take a moment to talk about love-all, also sometimes called love-love, a score that is rarely called out during a match. Since the game is just beginning, it is acknowledged that both players have zero points. If a game or two has already been played, the serving player will not report love-all. Instead, they give the score according to the number of games lost or won, such as 1-3.
Thus, players never say love-all. The only time you are going to see it is in a written format.
Is It Wrong To Say Zero in Tennis?
You might be wondering, is it appropriate to say zero when there is a whole other word for it in tennis? While there is nothing wrong saying zero instead of love, the general consensus is that love is proper. If you say zero during a professional match, it will certainly raise a few eyebrows. At the beginner level, it is fine to make mistakes when calling out the scores, but you will want to learn the correct terminology and scoring method if you want to enter tournaments.
The False History of Love
Where the term love came from is a topic of much discussion. There are numerous theories, some more silly than others. The first theory that is popular (and has been around since 1867) but not truly feasible is that “love” in tennis is derived from the French word l’œuf. There is no English equivalent to this cluster of vowels, but a close approximation is LURFF or LUFF.
Oeuf, in French, means egg.
Back when tennis was first introduced to France by the English, the French players used l’œuf to represent the score of zero, because “0” looks a bit like an egg. In American English, “0” is sometimes called a goose egg. In British Egg, it’s a duck’s egg. Interestingly, these terms were around long before the use of love in tennis. And so people theorized that “love” was a poor mispronunciation of l’œuf.
Seems legitimate, right?
However, it was only folk etymology suggesting that the French would use l’œuf to represent zero. The fact is that they don’t. There is no evidence of the French ever using anything but the word zéro for the number zero or a representation of nothing. Meanwhile, un œuf means “an egg” and is reserved solely for food.
Another Spin on Lof
Similar to the egg theory, there is a word present in both Dutch and Flemish. It’s “lof,” meaning honor. In any kind of sport, the focus should be more on the sportsmanship than any reward or prestige earned when you rise victorious. Thus, some people believe that the “honor,” which gives you nothing monetary or physical, is the hidden meaning behind love. Of course, while “lof” sounds like l’œuf, this mention of honor and playing for the game ties more into the next, more probable origin story of love.
The True Origins of the Meaning of Love in Tennis
Another potential origin of love in tennis stems from the phrase “to play a sport for love.” In other words, if you love the game of tennis, you will continue playing, even if your score remains zero. Obviously, this seems like a good notion to keep in mind. Play for the fun, not the money. For many people with any kind of hobby, be it tennis or something else, the “labor of love” is a true thing. The Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam Webster dictionary both make a mention of this theory, as well as another meaning for the word “love,” bringing us to the true origin.
On a side note, a similar phrase is “for love,” which the Oxford English Dictionary states means “without stakes being wagered.” Again, you can see a reflection in the desire to play for the love of the sport and to keep the tradition and sportsmanship of the game alive.
Dating as far back as the 1700s are records pertaining to playing games for love, particularly in card games. For instance, in 1742, an 18th century writer named Edmond Hoyle, who wrote about card games, stated this about a game called whist: “If your adversary is 6 or 7 Love, and you are to lead, your business in that case is to risk a trick or two, in hopes of putting your game upon an equality.”
During the 1700s, “love” meant “nil” in game and sport. As such, it makes more sense in Hoyle’s statement.
In short, whether you believe that the meaning of love in tennis stems from the French word for egg or the term “playing for love,” love has meant “zero” for a very long time now.
One Love For Tennis
What is the meaning of love in tennis? It means nothing. Zero. Zilch. If someone says “15-love” during a match, it means they have a point and their opponent has zero. When you know the origins of love, it is not as complicated as it once seemed. Now that you know that love equals a score of zero in tennis, it’s time to start using it when you call out your score during your next match.
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