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tennis language

Bagel, bisque, and grill: the delectable language of tennis

While many people in the Northern Hemisphere are mourning the end of summer, to a certain set of folks in America and around the globe, this is the most wonderful time of the year – time for the U.S. Open! The fourth and final Grand Slam tennis tournament to occur in a calendar year, it takes place over a two-week period at the end of August and beginning of September, coinciding with Labor Day, a national holiday in the States.

If you’re lucky enough to score a coveted ticket to this annual event, you’ll find that the grounds of Billie Jean King National Tennis Center offer a smorgasbord of food options as diverse as the population of New York City itself: pizza, hot dogs, crepes, deli sandwiches, seafood, and more. While the U.S. Open may not be synonymous with a specific food in the way that Wimbledon is with strawberries & cream, the language of tennis, both the obvious and the obscure, does have some parallels with food.

Can I take your order?

Those who work with food are sometimes referred to as employees of the service industry. It can be said that tennis players work in a service industry of their own. The service game of tennis, to serve, is the act of hitting the ball into play from one side of the court over the net and into the other. A high-speed serve is a powerful weapon for a tennis player but the most successful players in the game have other weapons in their arsenal, with the modern game seeing players also rely heavily on their footwork. Whether it’s a serve-and-volley game (in which a player advances towards the net to return the ball) or a baseline game (where players remain at the back of the court and exchange a series of groundstrokes), foot speed is key. Various strokes are important, too. When combined with spin, players often slice the ball to try and win the point. Hard hit, spinning balls see players scrambling around the court, often sprinting as much as a few miles over the course of a match. During a doubles match, players may find themselves poaching each other’s area of the court in order to save points.

You can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs

Newcomers to tennis may baffle over the scoring system it employs, particularly the use of love to mean nil or nothing; scoreless. Confusing to some, it is adored by promotional departments (the official motto for the U.S. Open being “It Must Be Love”) and punsters (“Why should you never fall in love with a tennis player?” “To them, love means nothing.”) alike. Theories as to the origin are numerous, with some speculating that it stems from the French word for egg, l’oeuf, which sounds similar to the English word “love” and is round like a zero, but this is unlikely to be the case. A related term that is certainly used in today’s game is bagel, which describes failing to win a game over the course of a set and losing 6-0, the first usage of which is traced back to 1976. Winning a game against an opponent’s serve is called a break.

Hot and cold

Attendees of the U.S. Open may associate a grill with the fiery coals whose mouth-watering aromas are wafting their way, but fans of the early game (as early as 1700) probably more closely associated the word grill to mean the square opening in the end wall on the hazard side of the court, adjacent to the main wall. Though you are unlikely to hear this used by John McEnroe or Mary Joe Fernández when tuning into CBS, bisque is used to describe a point allowed to the weaker player of a match. Perhaps a move you’d grant a kid brother during a light-hearted match at your local YMCA, but the massive stage (22,547 fans on the main court in Arthur Ashe Stadium) and intense stakes (the total tournament prize money being over $34.3 million, and all the prestige and perks that come with being heralded a Champion) make this a point not likely seen during the tournament. A term refreshing to both a player on the verge of winning and the sun-soaked fans is ice cream point. A slang term for match point, the situation in which a player only needs one more point to win, ice cream point made its way into Parke Cummings’ The Dictionary of Sports in 1949, though is not commonly used in the modern game.

Hopefully I’ve whetted your appetite for delectable tennis terminology. Now let’s grab a table for two and enjoy some brunch. Better yet, are you up for a game of table tennis?

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