Sixty years ago, a petite product of San Diego’s public tennis courts accomplished the greatest feat by a teenager in the history of sport.
In 1953, Maureen “Little Mo” Connolly, at the age of 18, became the first woman to win the Grand Slam of tennis — all four majors in a calendar year — losing but a single set. In her meteoric career, cut short by a tragic horseback riding accident in 1954, San Diego native Mo Connolly captured the last nine Slam tournaments that she entered.
Had not her horse, Colonel Merryboy, been spooked by a speeding concrete truck careering around a curve in Mission Valley, who knows what unreachable heights Maureen Connolly might have scaled? She was just 19, but she never recovered from the awful leg injuries she suffered in the mishap. Only 15 years later, she succumbed to cancer.
Standing at 5 feet, 2 inches, Maureen acquired the nickname “Little Mo” because her lethal ground strokes called to mind the firepower of the World War II battleship Missouri, nicknamed “Big Mo.” Remembering Maureen Connolly, who first stepped onto our municipal courts brandishing a $1.50 racquet, I offer a small glossary of tennis terms:
- tennis. Descended from the French tenez, “take heed” or “mark,” frequently used to start a match, tennis became the name of the game itself.
- court. From the Norman French cort, “an enclosed area of yard.” Court tennis, the forerunner of the modern game, was played mainly in courtyards.
- love. The most charming derivation for the tennis version of love to indicate “no points” is that the word derives from the French l’ouef — “the egg” — because a zero resembles an egg, just as the Americanism goose egg stands for “zero.” But un oeuf, rather than l’ouef, would be the more likely French form, and, anyway, the French themselves (and most other Europeans) designate “no score” in tennis by saying “zero.” Most tennis historians adhere to a less imaginative but more plausible theory. These level heads contend that love is rooted in the Old English phrase “neither love nor money,” which is more than a thousand years old. Because love is the antithesis of money, it is nothing.
- poach. From Old French pochier, “to pocket,” which came to mean “to encroach or trespass for game; to steal.”
- racquet. From the Arabic rahat, “palm of the hand.” The earliest racquets were palm-shaped bats used by the Persians as early as the 4th century.
- round robin. The robin in round robin descends from the French ruban, or “ribbon.” During the 17th and 18th centuries in France, it was a brave man indeed who had the courage to address a grievance to the crown. To avoid losing one’s head — literally — some clever complainants devised a rond ruban, a method for taking grievances to superiors with the document signed in circular form by the petitioners so that no one name would head the list.
- seed. Despite the fact that this word is often erroneously spelled cede, what we have here is an agricultural metaphor. In tennis tournaments the highest-ranked players are separated like seeds drawn from a husk and then strewn around the field of entrants.
- serve. From the Old French servir, “to labor as a servant,” attesting to the relative unimportance of the first shot in a point in the early days of tennis. Clearly this term was coined before the careers of Andy Roddick and Venus Williams.
- volley. From the Middle French volee, “flight,” a derivative of the Latin volare, “to fly.” The application to tennis is first recorded in 1596 for the action of hitting a ball in flight before it has bounced. When you exchange shots with your opponent from the back court, that is a rally, not a volley.
Richard Lederer be appearing at the Main Library, 330 Park St., at 6:30 p.m. Monday to celebrate the centennial of the crossword puzzle. He’d love to meet you there. Please send your questions and comments about language to email@example.com