Game Ball, Match Ball

Last fall I penned a deep dive into “game ball” and “match ball” and how those two unnecessary phrases have insidiously infiltrated our game in the U.S.

The article, due to an editing error, appeared minus a couple of paragraphs that I had inserted into a late draft:

In 1968 in the quarterfinals of the Baltimore Invitational Doubles, Michael Pierce & Newt Meade lost the first two games to Frank Satterthwaite & Palmer Page. In the third game Pierce & Meade went down 14-3. It was Pierce’s first doubles tournament. He was still a kid and nervous. “We kept chipping away,” Pierce said. “They were screwing around a bit, such a huge lead, but at 14-7, they started to get serious.”

“I remember we decided to not make an error,” said Palmer Page, who was also a doubles neophyte at the time. “We kept the ball in play and they made winner after winner.”

Pierce & Meade climbed back into the game. “At 14-14,” Pierce said, “They called no-set. Newt hit a high-arcing lob serve for an ace—Frank couldn’t touch it in the cold court. Newt just served out the game.”

Of course, it went to five games and into a tiebreaker. Pierce & Meade survived—and Pierce’s Hall of Fame career was launched, without more than a dozen “match balls.”

All of this came forcefully to mind this week when I was reading Albert de Luze’s 1933 masterpiece La Magnifique Histoire du Jeu de Paume. (My French being notoriously awful, I was reading the 1979 Richard Hamilton translation, which was published in a gorgeous slipcover edition.)

In discussing the history of tennis in France, de Luze wrote a single sentence on this issue: “When a player is within a point of winning the final set, it is traditional for the marker to draw the players’ attention to the fact by adding the words du tout and this old custom has recently been adopted by the English.” Du tout means of the whole or all, i.,e, match point.

So here we have another theory on the origin of game ball and match ball, that the French invented it, used it for a long time and passed it along to the English around the turn of the twentieth century. It is interesting that the custom has died out in tennis. The other theory,  the one suggesting that the English invented it while playing racquets, might be true—and it is still done today in racquets. Either way, since squash is the grandchild of tennis and the child of racquets, game ball and match ball do apparently have a long, historic lineage.

It still doesn’t make them good.