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Why all the bagel talk at the US Open? Here’s why they use ‘bagels’ to keep score in tennis

Meet Jewish tennis champ Harold Solomon, the man behind all those tennis ‘bagels’

The U.S. Open tennis championship is underway in New York, and if you’re paying even casual attention, you can’t help but notice the use of the word “bagel” in descriptions that have nothing to do with lox. 

“Djokovic grabs a late-night first-set bagel in 23 minutes,” tweeted the U.S. Open’s official account Monday night.

“14th career bagel for the Serb at the #USOpen,” the Tennis Channel tweeted

Ten years ago, the New York Post took the metaphor a step further with this headline: “Bagels and a roll: Serena chews up quarters opponent.”

The site defines a bagel as “a set where the ending score is 6-0″ and gives this as a sample sentence: “I’m going to serve my opponent a bagel today.” 

The explanation is simple: A bagel is round, like a zero. So it’s used to describe situations where one player scores nothing.

But tennis originated centuries ago in France and England, not on the Lower East Side. So how did the term come to be used so ubiquitously for scores?

Harold Solomon and Bud Collins

Credit two men: Jewish tennis champ Harold Solomon and the late Bud Collins, who was the first tennis coach at Brandeis University and an influential sportscaster whose commentary on the game helped popularize the sport.

Solomon, 70, was a tennis pro for 15 years, in and out of the top 10 for half that time and reaching a No. 5 ranking worldwide. In a phone interview Tuesday, Solomon said he and his doubles partner, Eddie Dibbs, originated the term “bagel” in tennis and Collins made it ubiquitous.

In talking to Collins about a game at one point, Solomon recalled saying, “‘I bageled the guy.’ Bud Collins picked up on the term. He started calling me and Eddie the bagel twins. The bagel thing became a thing Eddie and I were known for. Every 6-love set became a bagel.”

He added: “If you won two sets 6-love, you’d double-bagel them, because zero looks like a bagel.”

(Dibbs, his partner, wasn’t Jewish, but he’d grown up in Miami with a Jewish crowd and “he was Jewish when he wanted to be,” Solomon added with a laugh.)

Was the term accepted outside the U.S.? “Whatever Bud came up with pretty much stuck,” Solomon said. “It’s an international term now among all the players and coaches and writers, even in Europe.” There’s even a new tennis magazine called Bagel

Colllins also gave the 5-foot-6-inch Solomon his nickname, the “human backboard,” for his “stellar defense.”

The BBC guide to tennis jargon says zero scores are sometimes called “doughnuts” for the same reason they’re called “bagels.” And the term “love” for zero in tennis originated with the French word for egg, l’oeuf, which sounds like “love” and is also round like a zero, according to the BBC.

A bagel for breakfast?

After retiring from his pro career, Solomon lived for many years in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he ran a tennis academy, and he recently relocated to North Carolina. But he grew up in Maryland, in Langley Park and Silver Spring, and recalled being sent on his bike as a kid to pick up a dozen bagels, cream cheese and lox for his family. Silver Spring today still has lots of places to buy bagels, with shops like the Parkway Deli, Einstein Bros. and Goldberg’s New York Bagels. 

But do tennis players eat bagels? “There’s nothing wrong with eating a bagel,” Solomon said. “I used to eat a lot of bagels before matches.”

Indeed, the U.S. Tennis Association webpage about players’ diets on match day says carbohydrates are important to fuel their energy, and lists, as a perfect example, bagels.

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