Human history is shrouded in mysteries and sports as a branch of it is no exception. A game's evolution often brims with unaccounted for sparks of genius that flashed up during an anonymous match in distant past, accidentally set off a wildfire and molded the game into its modern form.
Despite the unknown sources of creativity, many types of sports today can at least count on one thing to be straightforward: the system of keeping scores. Moving upwards from zero to beyond a hundred if needed. Not the case with tennis. Starting from "love-all" (i.e., nil to nil), tennis scores move upwards to 15, 30 and 40 within each game of a set. Of this odd design, using "love" to stand for nothing is particularly puzzling.
There is yet a consensus on the origin of the racket sport's unique score system. For exactly how the mechanism came out ascending by quarter, an apparent association is with the clock. But what had driven the game's early athletes to make the connection is a riddle. Critics of the theory claim that the human brain needs the aid of minute hands to divide an hour into four sections. Yet tennis scores had been called in the quarterly manner before the introduction of the time-pointer.
Convincing explanation is not yet found either on how "love" came to substitute "zero." "Forty-five" was dropped in favor of "forty" in standing for the third point won, likely to save the announcer a syllable of trouble, given that "fifteen" and "thirty" contain only two. However, "love" emerging in the place of nil doesn't seem to follow the same logic. A guess along the linguistic line points to the French word "l'oeuf," meaning "egg" like which 0 is shaped. Another theory draws inspiration from the English idiom "neither for love nor money." The losing side ends up with nothing but love.
It would hardly have felt right had a game that always starts with "love-all" failed to deliver any romantic story that we can relive on this rare occasion of a St. Valentine's Day coinciding with the Australia Open, would it?
Australia appears relatively prominently in the love story of Roger Federer, arguably the face of 21st century tennis, and his wife Mirka Federer. The pair came to Sydney Olympics in 2000 and left with sparks flying. Both returned to Melbourne the next year for the Australia Open but neither had gone far in the tournament. Federer lost to Arnaud Clément who was outplayed by Andre Agassi in the final. It was Agassi's only Grand Slam title in 2001, but he still finished the year successfully as the world's No.3 and officially the husband of Steffi Graf.
The Melbourne Park rolled out the red carpet for its first Asian champion Li Na in 2014. Only a year ago she became the first Chinese to hold The Musketeers' Trophy by rocking Roland-Garros. For her most devoted fans, Li's love story had been an envy for many and a source of tension at the same time. Li and her husband Jiang Shan met in university. Jiang was her coach for several years after they got married and often caught right in the middle of her on-court temper. The spouses felt "more relaxed" with each other since Jiang retired himself from coaching his wife in 2012 and began touring with her as only a supporting husband. In a 2019 TV program a tearful Li said she would never betray Jiang for the world.
At the same year of her Australia Open victory, Li ended her career as professional tennis player. Agassi left the up and down of the on-court life behind in 2006. He won his last of eight Grand Slam titles in Melbourne in 2003. Of a few people whose tennis achievements can outshine his, his wife is one. Steffi Graf retired in 1999, leaving the game as the only player with the record of "Golden Slam," (i.e., winning all four Grand Slam tournaments and the Olympic champion within one calendar year) – no matter how many blurred moments had slipped away unnoticed over the past centuries of the sport's history, Graf penned the year of 1988 with the brightest and clearest of a stroke.
That bit of history may get updated in the coming summer if the Tokyo Olympics could be well under its way at the time. It might be a big "if" given that the world is still in the clutch of the COVID pandemic that had already delayed the beginning of the 2021 Australia Open for a week and overlapped the St Valentine's Day with it. Worryingly still, Melbourne has been thrown into another lockdown due to a recently discovered cluster of cases on Friday, which comes as a huge blow to the tennis event as well because live audiences are prohibited from attending.
The cheerful news is that vaccines have been served worldwide – in this competition against the killing coronavirus, humanity has finally secured a "game point".