Tennis is a sport that has been around for over 900 years, starting out as jeu de paume – an aristocratic sport – in northern France in the 12th Century.
Its longevity in society and culture around the world had meant many tennis idioms have become commonplace in our lexicon. Tennis sayings are so commonplace that we use them as metaphors at times when we don’t even know they come from tennis in the first place!
Some of these sayings are metaphorical – we use them as non-literal figures of speech. Such tennis metaphors include “aced it” and “break point”. Others are simply sayings and idioms such as “unforced error” that have been co-opted and employed in unrelated, non-sporting contexts.
Note: You may need a basic understanding of how tennis works to understand the origins of some of these terms.
Tennis is a sport with incredible history and has become intertwined with our English language. Do you use some of these sayings below in your everyday life?
Tennis Metaphors, Sayings, Slogans and Idioms
|#||Tennis Metaphors & Idioms||Meaning and Everyday Use|
|1.||Aced It.||You did a really good job!|
|2.||Game, Set and Match||It’s all over!|
|3.||Break Point||A high stakes moment.|
|4.||Straight Down the Line||Excellent execution.|
|5.||Unforced Error||An easy mistake you shouldn’t have made.|
|6.||We Need a Tie-Breaker||We need to do something to differentiate between two very similar things or people.|
|7.||He’s a Wildcard||Someone who we don’t know much about and who could do anything.|
|8.||It’s a Grand Slam||You won everything!|
1. Aced It!
In tennis, when you say someone “aced it”, you mean they served a ball that was so well executed that the opponent couldn’t even touch the ball with their racquet (what we call an ‘ace’). But outside of tennis, the saying has been employed to explain any event in which someone does and excellent – even perfect – job at a task. For example, you might say “he aced that job interview, he’s sure to get the job.”
2. Game, Set and Match
In tennis, the match is broken down into games and sets. You usually need to win 6 games (and 2 more than your opponent, or else enter a tie breaker) to win a set. Then, you need to win the majority of sets to win the match. There are usually 3 sets, and occasionally 5 in the four men’s majors tournaments.
When someone wins the match the referee will often announce the conclusion of the match by announcing: “game, set and match” and then naming the winner.
But you may hear this phrase used in very different contexts nowadays. You might hear when someone wins a game of chess someone will say it, or at the end of a business deal. In these instances, the people are really just saying “that’s a wrap – we’re all done here!”
3. Break Point
In tennis, people who serve usually have an advantage in a game. But you nearly always need to beat the person serving in at least one game in order to win a set. We call this “breaking serve”.
The point where the person has a chance to break serve is called the “break point”.
Confused? Just remember this: the break point is a high stakes opportunity to beat you opponent and get a huge advantage over them.
So, if you want to use this tennis idiom as a metaphor you could jump in and say “This is break point for us”, meaning it’s a huge pivotal moment to get a huge advantage over the competition.
You might use this term when talking about a huge moment that might make or break your business or give you a chance to move up to the next league in a video game or Saturday sports contest.
4. Straight Down the Line
In tennis, hitting something “down the line” usually refers to a forehand shot that shoots straight down the baseline. This is a shot that, when executed well, is extremely hard to return, making it an excellent shot.
When we say you “hit it down the line”, you are applying a tennis metaphor that essentially means you executed something impeccably.
But we would also note this term can also mea. that something was said without bias or spin, such as “the political was straight down the line with voters”. Another way the term can be used is to say you did something legally and
5. Unforced Error
An unforced error in tennis is a mistake that a player makes that wasn’t caused by the opponent’s tactics. If a player is forced to run for the ball and doesn’t quite reach it, it’s not really “unforced”. But if the player misses an easy shot or double faults their serve, here we have an unforced error.
This is a term that probably wouldn’t roll easily off the tongue outside of the context of tennis, but because the term is so widely used in tennis, it has spilled out into other areas of life. You might make an unforced error in business, for example, when you make a silly mistake that you shouldn’t have made.
6. We Need a Tie-Breaker
In tennis, a tie-breaker is a special game played when a set is tied 6 games all. Yo determine who will win the set, this special tie-breaker is used. It’s a game that goes on until there is a clear winner who has broken ahead of the opponent.
But you might use this tennis metaphor used in all sorts of other situations. For example, if two people have interviewed for a job and they’re both equally as good, the interviewer might look for a tie breaker task to assign them both to see who does a better job.
7. He’s a Wildcard
“Wildcard” is a tennis saying that refers to the addition of a player into a tournament who may otherwise not have qualified. Famously, Maria Sharapova was a wildcard in the US open after returning from a playing ban. She couldn’t qualify urt due to being out of the game for too long (leading to a drop out of the world rankings) but because of her reputation and stardom, she was invited anyway.
Outside of tennis, we might use this tennis idiom when talking about someone who appears unexpectedly to do well in a pursuit. We may also call someone a wildcard when we’re not sure how well they will perform. Without recent history of performance, we just have to say “well they’re a wildcard – we aren’t sure what to expect.”
8. It’s a Grand Slam
We know we promised 7 … but here’s a bonus one.
In tennis there are four majors each year: Wimbledon, French, US and Australian. Sometimes people mistakenly refer to each major as a “grand slam tournament”. But the real definition of a Grand Slam is when someone wins all four majors in the one year.
This tennis idiom is so famous that we will often call anything that’s a clean sweep a ‘grand slam”. For example, if you play bingo and win all rounds, we might say you won the grand slam in bingo this week.
There you have it – 10 tennis sayings that have become tennis idioms and metaphors used in diverse non-sporting contexts. That’s a wrap. Thank you linesmen, thank you ballboys!
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education.