What Does Deuce Mean in Tennis?

Dear Sports Fan,

The scoring at Wimbledon is confusing enough with the weird way they count points but it gets very weird when all of a sudden the score is “deuce.” What does deuce mean in tennis?


As nice as this looks, the fans wouldn’t want to be here forever.

— — —

Dear Aaron,

You’re right! The scoring in tennis is a little unconventional. We explained the basic tennis scoring a couple years ago during Wimbledon in another post:

To win a a game you have to be the first person to 5 points… Just to be confusing instead of counting 0-1-2-3-4-5, games are scored love-15-30-40-game.

The trick is that, like a lot of games we used to play as kids when we didn’t want to go in for dinner, you have to win by two points to win the game. This means that if both players get to 40, the game cannot be won by winning just one more point. Instead of counting up and up (50, 60, 70, 80, etc.) until one player won two points in a row and was therefore 20 points ahead in scoring, tennis switches over to a relative count instead of an absolute count of the score.

So 40-40 is called deuce. Deuce literally means “two” so it’s easy to remember that the score is even between the two players (or teams if you are watching doubles tennis.) At the French open, it’s even easier to remember because instead of saying “deuce” they say “egalite” or equality. From there, the score is relative. When a player scores one point, the score changes to “advantage [that player’s name]. If that player scores again, they will be up by two points and will win the game. If the other player scores, the players will be tied again and the score returns to deuce or egalite and the pattern repeats itself.

Repetition is key because this is one of the few parts of a sports game that could, theoretically, go on FOREVER. A tennis game, once it reaches deuce, could become an infinite loop if the players alternate winning points. Lots of sports have theoretically infinite elements but they usually involve overtime or extra-innings. The only other “normal” element of a sport that I can think of which has the same capacity for going on forever is in baseball. A fouled ball (one hit backwards or sideways out of the field of play) counts against the batter as a strike but cannot create the third and final strike against the batter. Therefore, once a batter has two strikes against him or her, the at bat will continue as long as each pitch is fouled off.

Not to worry though, infinity is a long time and both scenarios are about as unlikely as monkeys randomly composing Hamlet.

Thanks for your question,
Ezra Fischer

Cue Cards 6-25-13: Hockey and Tennis

stk321064rknCue Cards is a series designed to assist with the common small talk about high-profile recent sporting events that is so omnipresent in the workplace, the bar, and other social settings.

Sport: Hockey
Teams: Chicago Blackhawks vs. Boston Bruins
When: Monday night, 6-24-13
Context: Game 6 of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Chicago Blackhawks led the seven game series 3-2.
Result: The Chicago Blackhawks win 3-2 and win the Stanley Cup
Sports Fans will be Talking About:

  • Absolute heartbreak for the Boston Bruins. After a late goal in the third period the Bruins were up by a goal with less than two minutes left. The Blackhawks pulled their goalie (a desperation move) and scored to tie the game. This had to have had everyone in the arena thinking that the game would go to overtime like so many of the games in this series did. The Blackhawks had other ideas and scored again before the end of regulation time to win the game and the series.
  • The end for Jaromir Jagr? Jagr is 41 and played his first year in the NHL in 1990. He won the championship with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991 and 1992 and has not won since. Although he played remarkably well for most of the season and playoffs, he got banged up pretty good in this game, and there was a shot of him after the game mourning the loss that had an air of finality and deep sadness.
  • This series was about as good as the NHL could wish for. Two original six teams from big U.S. markets playing incredibly well against each other. This season, which looked to be at risk of not happening at all after the owners locked out the players, ended on a high note for the sport.
  • Of course one of the consequences of the labor problems is that the season ended unseasonably late in the year. It was 95 degrees in Boston today and the ice quality was very poor throughout, particularly at the end of the game when a lot of the important action happened.

What’s Next: Probably a lot of beer for the Chicago team. And the city of Chicago. And I imagine many of the Bruins fans in my life too.

Sport: Tennis
Players: Rafael Nadal and Steve Darcis
When: Monday, 6-24-13
Context: The first round of any tennis tournament is where one expects the expected. It is very rare for anything head-line worthy to happen.
Result: Steve Darcis beat Rafael Nadal in three straight sets, 7-6 (4), 7-6 (8), 6-4
Sports Fans will be Talking About:

  • The surface — we just did a post on this today about how Nadal’s style of play leaves him open at this stage in his career to being upset on grass.
  • Who is this Steve Darcis guy anyway? No really, no one will know anything about him except that he is Belgian and that no one knows anything about him.
  • Nadal’s knee which looked like it was bothering him. Tendonitis in his knees has forced him to miss lots of time in the past few years and it feels more like this is a permanent disability than something which he will one day look back on as a bump in the road. Every loss and every injury for Nadal is therefore analysed as though it may be his last.

What Happened to Nadal at Wimbledon? Was it the Tennis Court Surface?

Dear Sports Fan,

I just saw Rafael Nadal lose in the first round of Wimbledon – but I thought he just won a huge tournament last week – what gives? I heard an announcer say it was the surface of the tennis court.


— — —

As physically imposing as Nadal is, years of playing stressfully have left him susceptible to upsets on faster surfaces like grass.
As physically imposing as Nadal is, years of playing stressfully have left him susceptible to upsets on faster surfaces like grass.

Dear Jeremy,

Thanks for the question – you’ve put your finger on one of the most interesting facets of tennis: different tournaments are played on different surfaces, and some of them are so distinct that it can seem like another sport.

First, a little context: Nadal is one of the most talented players of all time, and not just because he picks a wedgie with remarkable grace. While he has been most successful on clay courts (most popular among continental European players, who grow up playing on clay courts) he is one of the few players who is so talented that he can win on any surface. He’s completed the career Grand Slam, which means he has won each of the four major tennis tournaments – the Australian Open (hard-court), the French Open (clay court), Wimbledon (grass court) and U.S. Open (hard-court). This is an exclusive club and winning all four of these tournaments speaks to the strength of a player’s overall game. Most players specialize, or at least do better, on one surface over another.

That’s not just a matter of familiarity – the game is very different depending on the surface. Clay court tennis is a slower game – because the clay physically slows the ball down and causes it to bounce higher – and rewards consistency, the ability to put spin on the ball (because the clay accents the ball’s spin,) and defense. Nadal is so athletic and quick that it is virtually impossible to get a shot past him on the slower clay.

On grass the ball bounces lower and moves faster – which, historically, has favored more aggressive players and hard servers like the great Pete Sampras whose relentless attacks were more successful on the quick surface. Hard court tennis is somewhere in between the two surfaces.

Nadal was not always successful on grass but he worked at it and got good enough to challenge and beat Roger Federer, the premier grass court – and all around – player of his generation.

The difference between the two players – who have been friendly rivals and are regarded as the two best players of all time – explains Nadal’s loss today. Watching Federer play tennis is like watching a cheetah run: it’s smooth, effortless and otherwise clearly indicative of something in its element. Watching Nadal play is like watching a construction crew jack-hammering a street: it’s unnatural and you can tell the body is having trouble absorbing the shock. Federer has been remarkably consistent because his game and style of play has minimized the impact on his body whereas Nadal has subjected his body to constant and brutal abuse. On clay, he can play hurt and still gut out a win because he is so much better at the clay court game – but in other tournaments his advantage is less pronounced and, in the case of Wimbledon, he’s susceptible to upsets like the one he experienced today.

Thanks for the question,
Dean Russell Bell

The Return Heard Round the World — Djokovic Beats Federer

Dear Sports Fan,

What’s up with yous? No posts for more than two weeks?? What are we, chopped liver?

Dear Sports Fan Fan


Dear Dear Sports Fan Fan,

Apologies for the long interregnum between posts. We will be trying to ramp back up to close to a post a day in the coming week or two!

Today I’m going to repost an article that Brian Phillips wrote for Grantland.

In it he recaps the amazing tennis match from Saturday in the U.S. Open semifinals between Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer. In it he describes how Djokovic survived two Federer match points and came back to win the match. He wonders about the meaning of this:

We want athletes to be able to explain sports. Sport, at its most basic, is about physically realizing intentions — calculating the angle, plotting the spin, executing the shot. So surely the people who have the intentions, the people whose inner lives sport is expressing in some complicated way, are in the best position to tell us what really happens on the court. And to a certain extent that’s true. But one of the reasons it’s so scary to imagine going into the postmatch press conference as a loser is that it’s not entirely true. What happens during a match may concern you to an emotionally devastating degree, but what happens can also turn on tiny fluctuations of chance so complicated that they are astoundingly difficult to articulate — minute physical differences that fall within any conceivable margin of error, emotional swings that could have gone either way and went against you, who knows why. These sorts of breaks are often monstrously unfair. And as with The Shot and The Confrontation, they tend to take on outsize importance in matches that are otherwise very close. Meaning that the greatest contests, the ones whose outcomes are most exalting for the winners and most devastating for the losers, are the ones most likely to be decided by infinitesimal turns of luck.

I have to say that I think he’s taking a little away from the greatness of the match and the greatness of that moment. Let’s watch it:

What I see in Djokovic’s face before the shot is someone who is resigned to his situation as he sees it. He knows that he has only a small chance of winning and he knows exactly what that chance is. He knows that his only hope is to take a low-percentage chance. He’s going to guess — to over-commit to where Federer might serve. If he’s right he’ll be able to win the point decisively. If not, Federer gets an ace and the match is over. Here’s where the greatness comes in — by this point they have been playing for over four hours. Djokovic has seen 162 Federer first serves. They’ve played 22 other times before Saturday. Without a coach talking in his ear, or a catcher flashing signs at him, Djokovic has to decide what gamble to make. Does he commit outside or inside? How many steps behind the base-line should he be? Should he return cross-court? Facing defeat in front of thousands of people, exhausted by four hours of tennis in the hot sun, annoyed at a crowd which has supported his opponent all day, Djokovic makes up his mind… and he’s right.

Sure it was lucky — but it was lucky like Larry Bird was lucky when he stole Isiah Thomas’ inbound pass, like Muhammed Ali was lucky not to get knocked out while he was rope-a-doping George Foreman.

Ezra Fischer

Why Aren't the Rules the Rules?

Dear Sports Fan,

Reading about the bad call in the Pittsburgh/Atlanta game last night reminded me of something I’ve always wondered. Whether it’s because the ref is looking the other way (literally or figuratively), or because of just plain human error, the rules in sports are often either not enforced, or not enforced correctly. But in many cases, it seems like people just consider that an integral part of the game! Especially given the increasing ability of technology to settle disputes, why not just come up with what the real rules ought to be, and then enforce them as thoroughly as possible?



Dear Erik,

Great question! In fact, this is such an interesting question that I’m going to break my answer into a couple blog posts.

The bad call that you’re referring to is this one:

It won’t work:

Sports rules are complicated and the action happens very, very quickly. Assuming that there is no way that we’re going to be able to rework the rules to change something as integral as “if the catcher has the ball in his glove and touches the runner before he touches home plate, he’s out” then one has to wonder how technology will help. Setting aside video replay for a second, let’s look for another solution. Okay, so — let’s put a chip in the ball. Then, let’s put some material in the catcher’s glove such that the ball knows when it’s in the glove. Great — now we’re cooking with gas! Now we have to have either more material covering the runner’s uniform… and hands, arms, head, neck, etc. Or, I guess we could just monitor whether the glove is making contact by putting some sort of pressure meeter into the ball or glove. Except that won’t work because that glove could hit the ground, the ump, or the catcher’s own body. I’m not sure any of this will work, so let’s go back and examine video replay.

Video replay is the most common form of technology in sports. Football, basketball, hockey, even baseball (believe it or not) have some form of video replay in their rules. In baseball use of video replay is restricted to basically deciding whether a ball was a home run or whether it never left the ball-park, did leave but was subject to fan interference, or left but was foul (too far off to the side to count.) Other sports have more extensive video replay rules. You may have noticed NFL coaches comically struggling to get a little red flag out of their sock, pants, shirt, etc. and throw it onto the field — they are “challenging” the ref’s judgement and calling for a video replay. Every goal in hockey is reviewed by a team of video officials in Toronto. The NBA has been able to replay shots at the end of quarters and games and just recently added video replay for unclear out-of-bounds calls.

Tennis has a system called Hawkeye. This is probably as close as it gets to your suggestion. According to Wikipedia, “all Hawk-Eye systems are based on the principles of triangulation using the visual images and timing data provided by at least four high-speed video cameras located at different locations and angles around the area of play.” In tennis the rules are objective and there is technology which insures the calls are too. Or at least can be. The computer has not totally replaced the line-judges or the referee yet… although I could see a time in the not so distant future where they could.

Most other sports are not as tidy as tennis though. Take the call at home plate that started this discussion: here’s how Jonah Keri described it on Grantland.com

If you want to use replay to make a simple yes or no call, you won’t get unanimity. And no, the fact that Lugo acted as if he were out does not constitute iron-clad proof.

Watch the replay for yourself, with the sound off.

Here’s what I did see: Lugo starts his slide well in front of the plate. Home plate umpire Jerry Meals starts to make his safe sign just as Lugo touches home with his right foot. There’s no way Meals has time to process the play and rule that Lugo had already touched home. He’s also not looking at Lugo’s foot, but rather at the swipe tag. (It should be noted that Lugo did in fact touch home with his right foot the first time — the follow-up tap of home with his left foot was unnecessary.)

Either way, replay wouldn’t have resolved the issue. Not to the point where all parties, including a purple Clint Hurdle, would have been satisfied.

And, as Keri also points out, at the time of this call, the ump had been on the field working in a high-pressure environment for six hours and 39 minutes. Furthermore — even Baseball is a nice tidy game compared to Hockey or Football. No matter how many cameras, sensors, and computers you have, there is no chance in hell you’ll be able to figure out what happened at the bottom of a pile with thousands of pounds of angry football player fighting over the ball.

More tomorrow…
Ezra Fischer 


Isn't it Time to Root for an American Male Tennis Player not Andy Roddick?

Dear Sports Fan,

Andy Roddick — Isn’t it time for us to follow a new American in men’s tennis?



Dear Maura,

First, go easy on Andy Roddick. As the only top American tennis player in the generation that followed two incredible generations of American tennis players – guys like Pete Sampras, Andre Agassi, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe, who dominated tennis for decades –  he was always in an impossible position. Plus, like other sports, the rest of the world is catching up to us, so the days of American dominance were likely to end no matter who came along.

With that said, Roddick has never quite lived up to the potential we all felt he had when he won the U.S. Open in 2003 – other than when he married Brooklyn Decker. He definitely fulfilled his wedding potential.

Unfortunately – and I hate to be the one to break this to you – there’s NO ONE else. Nobody.  If you look at the top 100 tennis players in the world, you realize that far from dominating men’s tennis, we hardly exist in men’s tennis anymore. The next generation of great Americans – James Blake, Mardy Fish (not making that name up), Sam Querrey – never materialized, and for the past five years, and the foreseeable future, a Spaniard, a Swiss, and a Serb have the entire tour under lock and key. Roddick will tease us all a few more times, and a random American may pop up from time to time, but no one on the horizon is poised to rise to the top or even do much of anything.

Depending on how you feel about good looking twins who play preppy sports who aren’t named Winklevoss, there’s always the Bryan twins (Bob and Mike,) who have owned the doubles scene on tour for the past few years. Doubles tennis is hard to watch and, let’s be honest, it’s not really tennis – the average point lasts about an eighth of a second and most of the players’ time is spent trying not to get hit in the face – but if you’re looking for American dominance on a tennis court , it’s your only bet.

One last thought: in the absence of an American…can I convince you to get behind Andy Murray? Like Roddick, he’s also been trying fruitlessly to break through the Spanish/Swiss/Serbian alliance for the past decade. In fact, he’s basically Andy Roddick without the major title or the SI swimsuit cover model wife, or that perpetual annoyed/entitled look on his face. Plus he’s Scottish and – I hear – he also looks good with his shirt off.

Or so they say,
Dean Russell Bell

Where Does Strawberries and Cream at Wimbledon Come From?

Dear Sports Fan,

How did the tradition of eating strawberries and cream at Wimbledon originate?



Dear Tina,

According to the BBC Surrey the first time strawberries were paired with cream was in the 1500s at the table of Cardinal Wolsey. Wimbledon is the oldest tennis tournament in the world, but it’s not that old. There has been a tennis tournament since 1877 when “The All England Croquet Club” changed its name to “The All England Croquet and Lawn Tennis Club.” In the late 1800s, according to the New York Times, strawberries signified the beginning of summer. Soon after 1877 (and perhaps in part because of the pairing of tennis with strawberries,) tennis began to be associated with the start of summer as well. It’s unclear when cream was added to the mix. Jeanne Rose, writing for Yahoo claims that cream was “added into the food tradition in 1970.” Digging through the archives of The Daily Telegraph contradicts this opinion, as Martin Smith points out on sportingintelligence.com. He claims that “in 1881, just four years after the inaugural Lawn Tennis Championship, the Telegraph correspondent noted that as the Challenge final was about to begin, ‘the refreshment pavilion emptied directly…for strawberries and cream and even ices, notwithstanding that the heat of the sun was almost intolerable, had no charms for the enthusiastic multitude once the rivals were ordered to be ready’.”

Fuzzy derivation aside, one thing is clear: a lot of strawberries and cream are consumed during Wimbledon. The estimates vary but they seem centered around 60,000 pounds of strawberries and 1,800 gallons of cream (from eatocracy.) This year, in what is either a brilliant marketing ploy or a horrible degradation of tradition or both, Tesco has introduced a “calorific treat of clotted cream, jam, and strawberries” so that people throughout Great Britain can enjoy the traditional Wimbledon snack. We don’t have Tesco in the U.S., but making a little snack of strawberries and cream to eat in front of the television sounds like a great way to enjoy tennis to me!

Thanks for the question,

Why Isn't Everyone Tired of Nadal and Federer?

Dear Sports Fan,

Doesn’t anybody ever get tired of watching Federer and Nadal in the finals of every tennis tournament, forever? Is there any reason to even watch Wimbledon now that Andy Roddick is out?

Game, Set, Watch?

— — —

Dear Game, Set, Watch?,

I’m sure that it does get awfully tiring for all the other men’s tennis players, but for sports fans and specifically tennis fans I think it’s something that far from getting tired of, they savor every minute of.

First of all, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s consistency at the top of men’s tennis is really unusual. So what seems like a boring fact of life for the last seven years is a rare anomaly in the context of the last fifty plus years of tennis. And even during the Federer-Nadal years, it may seem like they meet in the finals every tournament, but before this year’s French Open a month ago, they had not played in a final match for over two years!

Tennis fans root for Nadal and Federer to play each other in part because they play with such contrasting styles. Federer is a mix between a magician and a matador. He is a magician not only because he always seems to be pulling winning shots out of his sleeve, but also because he has the slightly smarmy elegance of a magician. Everything he owns is monogrammed with a big RF in an annoying faux-royal font. Federer makes very little fuss on the court. He almost never grunts and he rarely even appears to be sweating. Roger Federer is your older brother who beats you and doesn’t even dignify your efforts by looking like he’s trying hard or cares at all. Federer also had the luck of being profiled by David Foster Wallace in a New York Times Play magazine article that made a lasting impression on the literati; check it out, it is worth reading.

Nadal, on the other hand, is most often compared to a bull. He has even embraced the comparison by adopting a bull logo as his mascot. Nadal is the younger brother. He never, ever, ever, stops trying. He’s a powerful player and his natural talents are defensive. He’s frustrating to play against because no matter how good of a shot you hit, he seems to be able to get to it and return it back to you. Nadal looks more like a cat than a bull. His movements are quick and powerful without being out of control. Every step is aggressive. When the players talk to the chair umpire before the match begins, Nadal bounces up and down on his feet like a boxer.

Would you enjoy Bugs Bunny more if he didn’t always face off against Elmer Fudd? An episodic Star Wars where Luke Skywalker fights against a different bad-guy each hour would surely be less satisfying than his epic contest with Darth Vader. There is something special about watching two people who know that no matter how well they do, to succeed they have to beat the other. The diner scene in Heat expresses this understanding perfectly.

Right now there is a special pathos to the Nadal-Federer rivalry. The normal narrative of the younger player succeeding the older is being challenged. Federer is not diminishing quite as quickly as people expected he would and because of Nadal’s powerful style, there is a fear that his body will break down at any moment. They are two of the best players in history but they are increasingly both vulnerable and mortal.

Enjoy the tennis if you can, I will!

Ezra Fischer

How Does Wimbledon Work?

Dear Sports Fan,

How does the Wimbledon tournament work?



Hi Mom,

If your household is like mine, then your early morning television has been dominated by people wearing white hitting balls at each other on striped green grass since Monday morning when “The Championships, Wimbledon” started. We will probably do a post later on in the tournament about the pretensions of the tournament (the white clothing, the fans, the ball-boys and ball-girls, the phrasing of its name, so for this post, let’s concentrate just on how each match is scored and how it fits into the structure of the tournament.

Wimbledon is a single-elimination tournament, just like the college basketball tournament (March Madness,) except that instead of starting with 64 teams, it begins with 128 players. This is the same for men and women.[1] Basically everyone plays and the person who can win seven times in a row[2] wins the tournament. The organizers of the tournament do stack the deck a little. They give an advantage to the top 32 players in the tournament based on their past performances by assigning a seed to them. The top 32 players are seeded or ranked from 1 to 32. Then the match-ups are created so that no seeded player will play another seeded player in the first two rounds and that if everyone who is ranked higher always wins, when there are four players left, the top seeded player will play the fourth ranked player and the second will play the third. The goal is to give the top two players the best possible chance to play in the final match. For a sport dominated by Europeans, tennis is pretty darn capitalist.

Now you understand the tournament it’s time to understand a match. Sports competitions are generally divided into those that are decided by single games between two competitors or teams (football, boxing, sometimes soccer,) those that are decided by a single competition between lots of people (golf, any kind of racing,) and those that are decided by a series of games (hockey, baseball, basketball, and most games of rock-paper-scissors.) Tennis is weird. I said Wimbledon was a single elimination tournament which it is — but each competition between two players is also sort of a series of games. Actually it’s a series of series’.

I’ll explain — Tennis has four units of scoring — from largest to smallest it’s the match, the set, the game, and the point. To win a match you have to be the first to win 3 sets if you’re a man and 2 sets if you’re a woman. To win a set you have to be the first person to win 6 games, although you have to win by a margin of two games. At Wimbledon a tie-breaking game to 7 points (although this too must be won by a margin of two) is played in every set but the final one (the third for women and the fifth for men.) These deciding sets can basically go on until infinity. To win a a game you have to be the first person to 5 points although in this too, you must win by two. Just to be confusing instead of counting 0-1-2-3-4-5, games are scored love-15-30-40-game. Once the players have 40 in a game and they are tied, this is called deuce. After this, when one player is a point ahead (and because they must win by two, they only need one to win the game,) it is Advantage [Players Name.]

Got it? I bet you do! What’s interesting to me about this is how it combines the features of a single match (it’s a single day event, it can hinge on small factors like weather, sickness, even just someone having a bad day with the one of the most important features of a series, accuracy (because winning requires winning the majority of times even after the score resets to zero you are more likely to get the “correct” winner.)

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Not viewers, competitors… although now that I think of it, it is true regardless of whether YOU are a man or a woman too.
  2. 128, 64, 32, 16, 8, 4, 2!