I don't watch a lot of sports other than basketball, but if there's one sport I ought to give more attention to, it's tennis.
For athleticism and drama, it doesn't get much better, and I've rarely regretted sitting down to watch a match. So in honor of the U.S. Open—one of the four major tennis tournaments—let's look at some tennis words, which won't help your stroke but will boost your vocabulary.
For more tennis vocabulary, check out: The Smashing Lexicon of Tennis.
The primary sense of ace is a playing card that has two meanings or functions: it takes the place of one, but it's also the most valuable card in the deck. In tennis, an ace is also valuable: it refers to serving with such power and speed that your opponent can't hit the ball back. Serena Williams is great at acing opponents. If you get 100, you can say you aced a test. Among other meanings, ace can be an adjective for someone really talented at what they do, like an ace pilot.
This is a word that applies to many situations that involve one plus one. If your shirt and pants go together, they match. If you meet the person you want to marry, you met your perfect match. In sports, a one-on-one contest is called a match: this term is used in boxing, chess, wrestling, mixed martial arts, tennis, and just about anything involving one person taking on another. If two players are similar in skill level—you could say they're well-matched, and the contest is a good match-up. Tennis commentators talk about match play (singles matches) as opposed to doubles (teams of two playing each other). Doubles is the tennis equivalent of a tag team match.
To smash something is to destroy it utterly. It's no accident that destructive antihero the Hulk's catchphrase is "Hulk smash!" In tennis, smash has a meaning with similar power: a smash is an overhead hit, often right at the net, resulting in a point, since the opponent has no chance of hitting it back. A powerful serve could also be called a smash.
The original meaning of volley is fairly horrifying: since the 1500s, a volley was a discharge of multiple guns or other firearms. In tennis, a volley is far more peaceful and entertaining: a player volleys when they return the ball before it hits the ground. This term is obviously also important to another sport with a net, volleyball.
A fault is some kind of defect or mistake. If you spilled a drink, and then someone slipped on it, that was your fault. Also, everyone has faults in the sense of traits that aren't the best: spending too much money is a fault, not that I would know anything about that. In tennis, the meaning of fault is more specific: an error made while serving. If your serve hits the net, even a little bit, that's a fault, and you need to serve again. If you hit the net again, that's a double fault, which results in a point for the other player. Players usually don't smash their second serves with as much force as the first, because they're scared of double faulting.
When someone has an advantage, they have a leg up in some area. If you're applying for a job, and your uncle is doing the hiring, that's probably an advantage. In basketball, being tall is an advantage. In tennis, there's a specific sense of advantage related to scoring: if you're up a point following a deuce—which is a tie—you have the advantage. If you win the next point, you win the game. The announcer will say "Advantage Federer," if Roger Federer is a point away from winning a game, which he often is.
There are many kinds of strokes, but the tennis type refers to someone's full physical motion when they hit the ball: it's a lot like a batter's swing in baseball or the throwing form of a quarterback in football. If you have a powerful stroke, you can hit the ball very hard. Strokes can be strong, smooth, quick, or (for the average person) inconsistent. Tennis players are always working on their stroke. Another type of movement described by this word is a swimmer's stroke—including the swimming motion called the backstroke. There's no backstroke in tennis, but there is a backhand.
There are several surfaces for tennis courts: the slowest is clay. When playing on clay, the ball just doesn't have the same zip, even when you clobber the ball as hard as you can. Of the four major tennis tournaments, only one is played on clay: the French Open. Clay is very different from non-clay surfaces. For example, Roger Federer, who has won the most majors of all-time among men—a whopping 19—has 8 Wimbledon titles, 5 Australian Opens, and 5 U.S. Opens, but only one French Open. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Federer's rival Rafael Nadal, has won 15 majors—10 of them on the French Open's clay. So even for the greatest players of all-time, clay is something to be loved or loathed but never ignored.
Fortunately, writers don't need to worry about the playing surface when composing, although some folks still do like to do early drafts by longhand in a notebook. That may be old-fashioned, but it's far from a fault: writing is tough, so you gotta do what you gotta do.
Mark Peters is a language columnist, lexicographer, and humorist who has written for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, Psychology Today, Salon, and Slate. He contributes to OUPblog and writes the Best Joke Ever column for McSweeney's. You can read Mark's own jokes on Twitter, such as, "I play by my own rules, which is probably why no one comes to my board game parties anymore."Click here to read other articles by Mark Peters
- Rate this article: