SphairistikÉ, Anyone?


Sphairistiké, as played by Major Wingfield and his cronies, was scored like badminton, points accruing only to the server and counting one each up to the winning total of fifteen or twenty-one. But there was something about the game—its ambiance of green lawns, pretty ladies in long dresses, gentlemen in sports jackets, tea and lemonade—that made the old court-tennis scoring system more attractive. The first point scored counted fifteen; the next made thirty; then forty; then game. If you got no points, your score was “love”; if you tied the score at forty-all it was “deuce”; after that you had to make two points to win—advantage and game. The origin of this dreamy terminology is lost in the mists of time, but there arc rival schools of thought, particularly about “love.” A favorite theory holds that this is an anglicization of the French L’oeuf , an egg of course being equivalent to zero; another theory sees “love” as meaning “nothing” in the sense of, “She did it for love, not money.” (Shakespeare may have been of this camp: note Much Ado About frothing , which is about love.) Etymology unfortunately offers little support to either speculation, but whatever its genesis, the romantic scoring system has persisted, with its somewhat dubious logic, since its official adoption in 1877.

In America, as in England, tennis remained for its first quarter century largely a game for the affluent and elegant few. A suitably fine lawn was not likely to be found except on a private estate or on the grounds of an exclusive club. Only four people could play at one time, moreover although it seems that a few bold and brief experiments were made with three or four on each side. The Outerbridges’ Staten Island club soon became a leading center for the game, as did clubs in Newport, Rhode Island, and Philadelphia, both of which had courts as early as 1876. A distressing lack of uniformity with regard to courts, nets, and balls led to the establishment of the United States National Lawn Tennis Association in 1881 still the national arbiter of the game today, although the word national has since been dropped from the title.

Newport, in the i88o’s and go’s, was the most fashionable summer resort in America, with the consequence that the national championship tennis matches were played there from 1881 until 1915, when they were moved to the more accessible West Side Tennis Club at Forest Hills, New York. At Newport’s famous Casino, play on the beautiful grass courts was usually not taken too seriously. Henry W. Slocum, Jr., who was to become the second national singles champion, listed the Casino’s advantages as well-kept courts, good accommodations for the players, and “the most beautiful women of the country” among the spectators. They were there as much to be seen as to see; courtside conversation was often brisker than the play, and many a point was lost because a player had his eye on a belle instead of the ball.

There were, of course, a few young men who concentrated on the new sport with all the fervor they were wont to devote to baseball or bicycling. Such a one was Richard D. Sears, of Harvard, who won the first official national championship at Newport in the summer of 1881 and continued to win every year thereafter until 1888, when he retired from competition because of a neck injury. A diligent student of the game, he kept up with every innovation of style and technique, contributing several himself. His record of seven consecutive U.S.L.T.A. singles championships has never been matched, although two other famous players compiled a total of seven wins each—William A. Larned, between 1901 and 1911, and William T. “Big Bill” Tilden, in the 1920’s.

During Sears’s reign in the 1880’s tennis assumed its modern and presumably permanent form, having reached maturity in only one decade. The net was officially set at its present height, three feet at the center and three feet six inches at the posts, in 1882. With the base lines thirty-nine feet from the net, a nice balance had now been achieved—a balance, it should be said, that makes tennis nearly unique among leading competitive sports.