Mysteries of the Game - Part 322 January, 2018
What an odd word we have for the initial stroke of any rally! Why should it be called "service"? Why do we talk about "serving"? What or whom are we supposed to be serving?
Just as so many aspects of all racket games owe their derivation to the ancient game of Tennis (now sometimes called Real Tennis or Court Tennis in different parts of the world), so does the word "service" and the verbs associated with that noun.
Tennis originated in France several centuries ago, and modern racket games still preserve, in some form or other, expressions which are closely associated with the French, even if much later developed sports such as Badminton, Lawn Tennis, Rackets and Squash Rackets owe very little to France and the French.
However, such well known words in these games as "racket" ("racquette"), "love" ("l'oeuf"), "deuce" ("a deux) and even the 15, 30, 40 scoring in Tennis and Lawn Tennis are directly attributable to the French. And "service" is yet another. It is exactly the same word in French.
"Service" implies the performing of some task for the benefit of another person or persons. It has the same meaning in both French and English.
Four and more centuries ago the initial hit of a rally in Tennis actually was a service performed by another person for the benefit of the two competing players. Why this should have been so is not clear, except that it was thought that putting the ball into play by hitting it up onto the pent-house was regarded as a sort of menial task. Particular skill was not required, notably as in those early days a service fault was merely ignored. Like the bowling of "wides" in the early days of cricket it incurred no penalty. A further effort had only to be made to get the ball into play.
The service in the early days of Tennis was not considered to be an attacking stroke; it had no particular part in the game, and such a menial performance might just as well be done by a servant, of whom the nobility, the only players in those days, had plenty. Indeed, one can well imagine the marker's sharp call of "Service when the flunkey was required to act his part.
Later on, when it was realised that the service could be an attacking stroke, the players undertook the job themselves, but the word "service" remained, as it has to this day.
That servants were regarded as part and parcel of the game does to a small extent till hold good nowadays. We do not call them that now of course, but we still make good use of ball-boys at Lawn Tennis when they are provided.
Much less than a century ago ball-boys were regarded by the aristocracy as almost a necessity when playing Lawn Tennis. With the later spread of the game, all this has changed, but I well recall hearing from the late A. D. Prebbe his reminiscences of a Lawn Tennis tour to St. Petersburg (now Leningrad). He was a member of an English team invited to the then Russian capital in 1913. The four Englishmen were dined and wined to a remarkable extent, and when they appeared on the Lawn Tennis court the balls were always handed to the server on a silver tray by a flunkey in full livery. That was "Service" and very clearly a relic of the much older days of Tennis.
Mr. Prebble was, by the way, one of the first vice-presidents of the International Badminton Federation; indeed, he took the chair in 1934 when the Federation was founded. In the first decade of this century he had won four All-England Badminton titles and also represented England internationally on several occasions. He was later to become an extremely prominent administrator for both Badminton and Lawn Tennis.
For much of what appears above we must give credit to M.D. Whitman's "Tennis Origins and Mysteries" which is a mine of information on the centuries-long development of racket games.
-- By Herbert A.E. Scheele, Editor - World Badminton, December 1975