Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

How Many Grand Slams in a Grand Slam?

Posted by Neal on June 13, 2006

This was the headline in the sports section of the New York Times a few days ago, before Roger Federer lost the French Open to Rafael Nadal:

Federer, Eyeing 4th Grand Slam, Faces Nadal in Final

I could just imagine Dad reading the headline, and then saying to Mom, “No, Federer is not ‘eyeing a fourth Grand Slam’! To get a fourth Grand Slam, he’d have to have three Grand Slams already, and he doesn’t. He doesn’t even have one Grand Slam. The only tennis players ever to win even one Grand Slam were Don Budge, Maureen Connolly, Rod Laver, Margaret Smith Court, and Steffi Graf.”

Mom would probably nod and agree. To make sure she really did agree with him and wasn’t just faking it to avoid having to debate the point, Dad would continue:

“To win a Grand Slam, a tennis player has to win, in one calendar year, the U.S. Open, the French Open, the Australian Open, and Wimbledon. At least, that’s how it used to be. Later they changed it so that it was enough to hold all four titles at once, even if they weren’t all won in the same calendar year. Then they came up with the ‘career Grand Slam,’ so you don’t even have to hold all four titles at the same time. And now, lo and behold, you don’t even have to win all four titles. Just one of them is enough for you to be a Grand Slam winner. Incredible!”

This was more or less what Dad told me a few years ago when he’d read some story or heard some commentator talking about how many Grand Slams Pete Sampras had won. I’d never paid any attention to professional tennis, so it was the first time I learned any definition of a Grand Slam (aside from the kinds in baseball and at Denny’s), but it did sound like there was some serious title inflation going on.

So I put the question to a couple of fellow grad students who were more of a more of some sportsfans to a greater degree than I was: Steve Hartman Keiser and Panos Pappas. They admitted that people did talk about tennis players “winning a Grand Slam” when they had won only one of the required tournaments, but it wasn’t a problem of title inflation. Rather, it was an “insidious ambiguity” of the kind you get when a compound noun loses its head.

Consider the compound noun Grand Slam tournament. There could conceivably be any number of relationships holding between the modifier noun Grand Slam and the head noun tournament. (See Heidi Harley’s recent post on interpreting compound nouns.) As it happens, the more conservative one would be the part-whole relationship: a Grand Slam tournament is a tournament that constitutes a part (one fourth) of a Grand Slam. But it could also be misconstrued as the general-specific (“isa”) relationship: a Grand Slam is a kind of tournament. And once it’s been analyzed that way, the path is cleared for the head noun tournament to be dropped.

By way of analogy, you’d never call a car door a car and expect to be understood, but if you’re talking about kinds of haircuts, it’s more natural to refer to, say, a mullet, than to redundantly say, “mullet haircut.” The ambiguity of Grand Slam “true Grand Slam” vs. Grand Slam “tournament in the set constituting a Grand Slam” is analogous to that of State of the Union “one of the fifty United States” vs. State of the Union “address to Congress regarding the current state of the Union” that I wrote about here.

After talking to Steve and Panos, I reported my findings back to Dad, and he understood them. Even so, I bet he’d’ve said something about the Times headline if he’d seen it. He’s never been one to let the existence of a logical explanation get in the way of a good rant.

Update: For more on the development of Grand Slam in bridge, baseball, and tennis, see this posting on Bob Kennedy’s much more sports-oriented linguistics blog.

9 Responses to “How Many Grand Slams in a Grand Slam?”

  1. Glen said

    And that rant might go something like this: “Anyone who’s taken Journalism 101 knows that you shouldn’t include unnecessary words in a headline. In this case, ‘Federer, Eyeing Grand Slam, Faces Nadal in Final’ would have been both shorter and unambiguous (or at least no more ambiguous).”

  2. Philip Whitman said

    Neal said, “After talking to Steve and Panos, I reported my findings back to Dad, and he understood them. Even so, I be[t] he’d’ve said something about the Times headline if he’d seen it. He’s never been one to let the existence of a logical explanation get in the way of a good rant.”

    Both Neal and Glen are correct as regards my tendency to rant. In fact,, had they wished to venture onto other philisophical things in general, they could have also quoted me as having said, “Never underestimate the power of a good ad hominem attack.”

    Nevertheless, I believe that, just as Barry Bonds makes a mockery of baseball home run records with his steroid pumping, so does the sports media make a mockery of the records of past tennis giants by equating anemic modern achievements with past records, without any explanation of the evolution in commonly perceived definitions.


  3. Philip Whitman said


    I’m not sure but I think the original meaning of “Grand Slam” in tennis was drawn from the card game of bridge, wherein to accomplish a grand slam is to take all thirteen card tricks in ONE hand of bridge — analogous to winning four of the major international tournaments in ONE year.


  4. Philip Whitman said


    I meant to say, ALL four of the major international tournaments in ONE year.


  5. Before the match started, Bud Collins went on a rant, which was promptly ignored by everyone.

    The usage I see most often now is to disambiguate by contrasting “_a_ Grand Slam” with “_the_ Grand Slam” or “a calendar year (or true) Grand Slam”. Then, of course, there’s the non-calendar slam for any 52 week period not coinciding with the calendar year, and specifically the Serena Slam and the attempted Roger Slam. A new attempt at the Roger Slam begins from scratch in a couple of weeks, and if Federer keeps up the dominance, we may be hearing talk of a Golden Slam in 2008.

    Regarding the non-calendar Grand Slam, Wikipedia claims, “Though the term [Grand Slam] was originally restricted to the winning of all four tournaments in the same calendar year, the International Tennis Federation declared the official term as a player holding all four titles simultaneously, regardless of the calendar year. After Martina Navrátilová won four consecutive major championships, holding all four at once, the International Tennis Federation awarded her the Grand Slam $1,000,000 bonus, as she held all four titles at once.”

    What really made me mad was when the ATP site kept saying Federer was going for a “career Grand Slam”. It was true, but it violated Grice’s Maxim of Quantity. Agassi had a career Grand Slam but never had four in a row, because his only Wimbledon title came seven years before his only French Open title. Federer was attempting to hold all four in a row, which the ATP headlines ignored.

    Piece of trivia: Agassi’s best 52 week period with respect to majors comprised three wins and a runner-up position, just as Federer’s best thus far has, but because he lost the second of the four, he was never in the running for a (non-calendar) Grand Slam, unlike Federer who lost the fourth.

  6. Something else I thought of that’s wrong with that headline: even if we accept the meaning “Grand Slam tournament” for “Grand Slam”, Federer was eyeing his *eighth* Grand Slam (tournament). He was eyeing his fourth *consecutive* Grand Slam (tournament).

  7. Neal said

    Atheneglaukopis: Thanks for your very informative comments. Good points about the befuddling violation of Quantity, and the factual incorrectness of “fourth Grand Slam” whichever way you interpret the term. Do you have a link to Bud Colins’s rant, or was it spoken?

  8. It was spoken, I’m afraid.

  9. geo said

    thanks for clearing this up. i was so confused…

    Wikipedia is wrong, and does not explain this…someone should edit it.

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