Tennis Trivia: The Game With An Egg For A Zero?

On the final weekend of the U.S. Open, host Scott Simon talks to trivia expert A.J. Jacobs about the sport's obscure and bizarre history.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

We're going to turn to tennis now. The U.S. Open is in its final weekend, and to find out a bit more about that sport, we turn to a man who both works and plays without a net: Esquire magazine's editor-at-large, A.J. Jacobs, who joins us from New York. A.J., thanks for being with us.

A.J. JACOBS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: So, how did this game begin maybe?

JACOBS: Well, maybe - a lot of people think it was invented most likely in medieval France. And it wasn't quite the tennis that we know. It was a game using hands or gloves. But some of the early adopters were monks who played it in monastery courtyards. And these ball games were forbidden because they might lead to ungodly language by some medieval John McEnroe.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Yes, I could - they had an order called the McEnronians, if I'm not mistaken, that express themselves vehemently.

JACOBS: And tennis actually went through a lot of different versions. So, there were versions with six players on a side, tennis balls stuffed with dog hair. But thankfully, now we play tennis as God and Nike intended.

SIMON: And, if we might invoke religion once more, I gather there was a version in which - boy, we're going to get emails - the infant Jesus got the tennis ball.

JACOBS: Yes. One of the first mentions of tennis in literature is a medieval religious play called "The Second Shepherds' Play." And in this play, the shepherds give three gifts to the newborn Jesus, and one of them is a tennis ball, which I always thought was an odd gift. Because it's well known the Bethlehem country club was restricted. So, where was a Jewish guy going to play tennis?

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Frankincense, myrrh and a tennis ball. And we must note: tennis was not always good for the health of French monarchs.

JACOBS: No. If you are a French king, you want to stay far away from tennis courts. Louis X died of a severe chill after an exhausting tennis match, and Charles VIII died after hitting his head on a doorframe while on the way to a match. And that's not to mention the French Revolution, which arguably began on a tennis court with the Tennis Court Oath, where they pledged to create a constitution for France. And that did not end well for Louis XVI, as you might remember.

SIMON: I don't remember but I saw the movie. And we should note the French are also responsible for that wonderfully lucid scoring system in tennis, aren't they?

JACOBS: There are many theories of where the 15-30-40 scores come from. But one is that it represents the minutes in an hour. And there's also the theory that the word love for zero may come from the French word l'oeuf, which is an egg, which is the same shape as a zero.

SIMON: There was a time when tennis was considered just for guys, right?

JACOBS: Right. For a long time - centuries - it was a men's game. But in the 1800s, women started to play tennis.

SIMON: And while we're on the subject, the integrity of that famous 1973 match between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King has recently been called into question.

JACOBS: This was the famous battle of the sexes. And it was promoted like a pro wrestling match. Billie Jean King was carried in on a chariot by shirtless men, and Bobby Riggs arrived surrounded by gorgeous women. But ESPN magazine just published an article about the battle of the sexes, and they have found some "truthers" who allege that Riggs threw the game to help pay off gambling debts. Now, I personally don't buy this thesis. But, regardless, the story did have a happy ending. Riggs and King became friends, so there is hope for inter-gender peace.

SIMON: A.J. Jacobs, author most recently of "Drop Dead Healthy," one man's humble quest for bodily perfection, speaking with us from New York. I guess contractually I'm obliged to say: A.J., what a pleasure. Talk to you soon.

JACOBS: Talk to you soon. Thanks, Scott.

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