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bagel

verb [transitive] [often passive]

in tennis, to win a set with a score of 6-0 against your opponent

bagel

noun [countable]

in tennis, a score of 6-0

'Keothavong, however, was bagelled in the deciding set of her prelim opener by Czech player Birnerova after the two ladies traded sets at 6-3 apiece.'

Eurosport AU 23rd May 2013

'He might have bagelled the Swiss had an outrageous, flat-on-his-back volley at the net not inched wide in the sixth game of the third set.'

Guardian 5th June 2013

In May 2013, sports journalists seized a rare opportunity to highlight a blip in the performance of Serena Williams, one of the most successful female tennis players of all time. In a quarter-finals match during the Madrid Open, Williams suffered the unusual blow of being bagelled by her unseeded Spanish opponent, a situation which had apparently not occurred for five years. In case this conjures up images of a frustrated opponent hurling doughnut-shaped pieces of bread at a formidable champion, then I should quickly elaborate. If a tennis player is bagelled, then they do not win any games during a set, and therefore suffer the humiliation of seeing a 6-0 score against them appear on the scoreboard. In this set at least, it was Serena, and not her opponent, who was feeling frustrated …

if being … on the receiving end of a bagel weren't frustrating enough, there's even a modified version double-bagel, which indicates the action/situation of winning two sets 6-0, 6-0

In tennis contexts therefore, it seems that the word bagel is yet another noun that has undergone the process of 'verbing', starting life as a thing and being unexpectedly transformed into an action. Functioning as a transitive verb, bagel can be used in the active voice but more commonly appears as a passive form be/get bagelled, thereby shifting the focus to the loser rather than the set winner. Following spelling conventions in British and American English, the 'l' is doubled in participles for British usage but not in American, where the spelling would be, e.g.: bageled (c.f. travelled/traveled).

Bagel is also sometimes used as a noun in the same sense, where it simply refers to a score of 6-0. Frequent collocates are phrasal verbs such as serve up and dish out, or verbs give and complete.

If being bagelled or being on the receiving end of a bagel weren't frustrating enough, there's even a modified version double-bagel, which indicates the action/situation of winning two sets 6-0, 6-0 as illustrated in this recent citation describing the form of the phenomenally successful player Roger Federer:

'There was evidence of his sublime form in the quarter-finals on Friday when he double-bagelled Mischa Zverev.' The Guardian 16th June 2013

And in reference to a resounding defeat in a five-set match, there's also some evidence for use of the term triple-bagel, though this is of course a bit more unusual.

Background – bagel

Why bagel? The connection is simply the physical shape: a bagel, that baked piece of dough with a hole in the middle, resembles the number '0'.

Use of the word in the tennis domain dates back to the 1970s, when US tennis player Eddie Dibbs used it to refer to a score of zero games. Latterly, the baking metaphor has been extended further, with reference to a score of 6-1 as a breadstick (a straight, thin breadstick resembles the number 1). A player on a losing streak can correspondingly be breadsticked. Some commentators have even made the tongue-in-cheek suggestion that a score of 6-3 could be described as a 'pretzel' (the curly shape of a pretzel resembles the number 3), though there's no evidence as yet for this really catching on.

Dibbs' use of bagel as a representation of the number zero is thought to have taken inspiration from the comparison between the number '0' and the shape of an egg. This is a throwback to tennis's French roots, where a zero score was sometimes described as 'l'oeuf'. Interestingly, this connection gives us one possible theory about why a score of 0 in tennis is described as 'love' in the modern game – some believe this was down to an English mispronunciation of French 'l'oeuf'.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

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This article was first published on 24th June 2013.

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