The First Book of Tennis

(Venice 1555)


The International Tennis Federation (ITF) have been experimenting with a number of modifications of the rules of tennis to make the sport more attractive, in particular for TV viewers. Before coming to any far-reaching conclusions that they may later regret, this is perhaps an opportune moment for the Rules Committee to be guided by Antonio Scaino, philosopher at the Court of Ferrara, and author of the very first book of tennis rules. Scaino wrote his Trattato del Giuoco della Palla (Treatise of the Ball Game, 1555) after his patron Alfonso II d'Este, the later Duke of Ferrara (1559-1597), discussed the awarding of a point during a game of tennis at one of his (he had as many as six) tennis courts. Scaino's explanation of the situation was so plausible that Alfonso commissioned him to write a rules book on how to play ballgames in a courtly way.

Portrait of Alfonso II d'Este (Scaino's patron), by Girolamo da Carpi (Prado Museum. Madrid).

"Why the game can never end with one point"

We will quote from Scaino's Trattato (translation by Tony Negretti) to give the reasoning that moved him to contrive the rules as he did and project them to the modifications the ITF have been contemplating the last couple of years:

It is to be noted that the game of tennis is of a beautiful and well-reasoned ordinance. The winning of points is called by the numbers 15, 30 and 45 and if the two teams have each won three points the score is "a dua", meaning that the game is reduced to two points (became "à deux" or "deux à" in French, "deuce" in English) and not one! The method of fighting such a distinguished battle should be removed from any suspicion of chance or fortune. He who wins must be sure that he has won by his own valour, not by any outside favour. Who does not see now that the game could not be devised with good reason to end with only one point? The good and staunch Cavalier is judged not by one thrust of his lance; the elegant Dancer not by just one leap, however bold and skilful, but by prolongued dancing, and the sure and cautious Bombardier not by one discharge of his Artillery, but by many.

Hitting the ball twice

We will now pass on, Most Illustrious Prince, to discuss other doubtful cases that may take place during play, but outside the art of the game. Should a fault be admitted against the intention of the players, it seems to me that those faults merit pardon that are committed by chance. In the game with the racket it is usually accounted a good stroke should the ball in one single movement touch the racket twice. In case two players, on the same side, return the ball hit by their opponents at the same time and it is doubted whether the ball is touched twice or but once: I say the stroke is valid provided the two players have struck the ball unitedly. This is so since the two partners are playing with each other as if they were one person!

Scaino's book with diagram of tennis court

Should the ball be made bigger for more control on fast surfaces, or smaller in order to generate more pace on slower courts?

It is Scaino's philosophy that any ruling to make the game more exciting, for players as well as spectators, serves a most reasonable purpose that is completely in line with Nature. So this ITF Rules Committee measure, which they have already seen fit to review, appears to have received Scaino's blessing. Some other projected revisions, have been put in cold storage, so it appears. For any future adjustments in the laws of tennis, however, the Rules Committee are advised to pay heed to the role of every legislator: that in this as in all other civil matters, reason should be administered, for tennis is a game in which wise and discerning men are concerned and in which talent and art have pride of place, not Fortune or Chance

Before we take leave of Scaino's world of Renaissance tennis this is perhaps an opportune time for the ITF to ponder about introducing a special incentive for Winning the Furious Game, which Scaino calls Triple Victory:

...when one player has won three consecutive points and victory of the game is within his grasp, but then loses the next five points one after the other because his opponent, at first overcome by bitterness by being 40-0 behind, then becomes inflamed by the great desire to win the triple victory and starts to realise he can still win by fighting valiantly. What art and skills does he not employ to escape being scorned by the spectators and carries on the battle with a brave heart, leaving his opponent catching his breath and furious? This entitles the winner to three degrees of reward and is therefore called triple victory

So Scaino concludes.

Rewarding the winner of The Furious Game with three games may be regarded as slightly exaggerated, but would it not be an exciting suggestion to have the winner of this game rewarded with automatic victory of the first point of the next game?! We can hear the spectators roar in the Wimbledon stands when Roger Federer prepares himself to serve from the "ad" side of the court, having just taken The Furious Game from an exasperated Andy Roddick at the other side of the net.