Saturday School: Wooden Spoon in Tennis

It was in 2016 when I first came across the concept of wooden spoon in tennis. I had read headlines stating that Rafael Nadal had bagged the wooden spoon at the 2016 Australian Open. He won the wooden spoon because of his first round defeat against compatriot Fernando Verdasco. The term ‘wooden spoon’ resurfaced during the 2018 Roland Garros when the ladies’ defending champion Jelena Ostapenko became its recipient. Keen to know about its origins, I traced the first usages of the term and learnt its intriguing venture from an academic mock reward to a subordinate sporting accolade.
The word “spoony” made its first entrance in the English language in 1971 at the Cambridge University. It was a slang term which substituted the word “foolish.” At Cambridge, “Tripos” refers to the final honours examination for a Bachelor of Arts degree. In 1973, at the Mathematical Tripos, the first ever wooden spoon was handed out to the person who stood last in the list of students who graduated. The handing of the wooden spoon to the student who was eligible for it was a ceremony conducted with a thorough decorum. Also, there wasn’t a whisker of difference in the appreciation that one gave to the senior wrangler (the top student) and the wooden spoon receiver. The hall of the Cambridge University where students receive their degree, houses two galleries. Students who stood in both galleries would hold a string, in the centre of which lied the centre of attraction – the wooden spoon. When the student who qualified for the wooden spoon would come on the stage, the spoon would hang above him. Later, the spoon was lowered down when he/she rose from his/her knees. The strings were later cut from above after the concerned individual held the wooden spoon.
The first published text on the wooden spoon was in 1823 in The Cambridge Tart, entitled,”The Wooden Spoon.” One of its stanza reads,
“And while he lives,
he wields the boasted prize,
Whose value all can feel, the weak, the wise;
Displays in triumph his distinguish’d boon,
The solid honours of the Wooden Spoon.”
The following year, the Gradus as Canatabragiam had a brief explainer about the wooden spoon. Two lines read, “The last of each class of the honours is denominated The Spoon. This invidious distinction sticks to a man through life.”
Classics Tripos decided to follow the footsteps of the Mathematics Tripos an year after the publication of The Wooden Spoon poem. They could not decide on what they should honour the most bottom-ranked graduate with. However, they found the answer in the name of the individual who stood last among the graduated students – Hensleigh Wedgewood. Fittingly, Wedgewood received a wooden wedge in the degree ceremony. He would go on to become a barrister and an etymologist. The tradition of receiving the wedge wood continued when his son, Ernest Wedgewood received one in the 1860s.
The wooden spoon gained popularity and soon spread to North America. However, Americans decided to etch their own philosophy of the wooden spoon. Instead of the usual ritual, universities like Yale presented the wooden spoon to the most popular student of the class. The Oberlin College handed the wooden spoon to the most ugliest person of the class.  The University of Pennsylvania adapted the wooden spoon handover tradition in 1861. The graduates of the Cambridge University brought the term Wooden Spoon into sports. The Home Nations Championships was a rugby event, which saw participation from a lot of Cantabrigians.
In 1894, South Wales Daily Post reported that Ireland and Welsh were to clash against each other and the outcome would decide the winner of the wooden spoon. This was one of the first mentions of the wooden spoon in sports. It was also the first time the term wooden spoon made its appearance in the media. An year later, the County Championships at England introduced the wooden spoon in the sport of cricket1903 saw cycling become the third sport to welcome the concept of wooden spoon. The individual who finished last in the Tour de France races received the wooden spoon. “Lanterne Rouge” was the term given to the cyclist who would win the wooden spoon.
Ever since its introduction in 1973 in academics, the size of the wooden spoon enlarged to 1.5 metres in its final year in 1909. Cuthbert Lempriere Holthouse was the final recipient of the wooden spoon after he finished last in the Mathematics Tripos. The tradition of the wooden spoon discontinued as the students were later divided into three classes from 1910. This made it difficult to decide upon a single recipient of the wooden spoon. Holthouse did not mind the long wooden spoon he received; the primary reason being, he was an oarsman.
The inscription on Holthouse’s spoon/oar read,“In honours Mathematical,This is the very last of all The Wooden Spoon which you see here O you who see it, shed a tear.”
Four years later, Chatto & Windus published the term Wooden Spoon and Wooden Wedge in their slang dictionary. Years passed by and the wooden spoon became a household name despite its popularity that kept fading. The dimmed usage was lit up yet again in 1931. England, the birthplace of the “Wooden Spoon” received one itself, after losing to France in a football tournament.
The distance between Cambridge and the spot where the first tennis club (Leamington Tennis Club) was established in 1872, is less than 75 km. Additionally, only 101 km separate Cambridge from London, where the first ever official lawn tennis tournament was held at Wimbledon in 1877. Yet, what surprised me is that instead of Lawn Tennis, it was rugby that introduced wooden spoon in sports in 1894. All 22 players who played the first Wimbledon hailed from the United Kingdom. The earliest mention of a wooden spoon winner in tennis that I came across was on Wikipedia (that considered only grand slam tournaments). According to it, Greg Rusedski was the earliest winner of the wooden spoon at the 1994 US Open. Wooden Spoon winners in tennis do not receive an accolade of any kind. It is also not an official terminology sanctioned by the International Tennis Federation. But, the winners of wooden spoon in grand slam tournaments have received special attention since the late 1990s. They are then termed as the Anti-Slam winners.
I was curious to find out the wooden spoon winners of the tour level WTA tournaments after I learnt Ostapenko received one at the Roland Garros in 2018. After learning how to deduce a wooden spoon winner in tennis, I found it very appealing to read the draw backwards, because that’s how one deduces wooden spoon winners. The loser in the finals is first marked. Later, the player who lost in the semis to the runner-up is considered next. Further, the player whom the semi-finalist defeated in the quarter-finals is considered next and so on till it draws down to the first round.
Based on the above image, we can say that Henry Soden was the first ever winner of the wooden spoon in lawn tennis. My curiosity in wooden spoon calculations deepened. As a result I came up with a list of all the winners of the WTA Tour level events starting from 1995 – the year when the WTA Tour, as we know it today, was born.
I came across many tournaments where the wooden spoon winner was a seeded player or a lucky loser who received a bye into the second round. The entire concept of the wooden spoon is to give the booby prize to the player who stands last in the competition. Consider this scenario: A player who received a bye in the first round lost his/her second round match. In the same tournament, another player loses his/her first round match. This creates a complexity as it becomes difficult to decide which player should be the one with the bottom-most finish. Thus, I came up with a concept of my own, known as the Pseudo Wooden Spoon. I would like to define it as follows:
“Pseudo Wooden Spoon is won by a player who received a bye in the opening round, else was the front runner for the wooden spoon.”
Consider this draw of the 2018 Kremlin Cup. Based on the method of deciding the wooden spoon winner, it is Karolina Pliskova who should be its winner. But, there are other players who lost in the first round of the same event. Hence, Pliskova is more eligible for the Pseudo Wooden Spoon rather than the original wooden spoon.
Here is the link to the list of wooden spoon winners that I collected for every pro level WTA tournament played since 1995:
I will release the data of the wooden spoon winners of the ATP Tour in 2019.

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