How the Humble Tennis Ball Has Helped Change the Game

Tribal TechContributor IIIDecember 19, 2010

Andy Murray prepares to serve
Andy Murray prepares to serveJulian Finney/Getty Images

Recently I was alerted to an interesting article that was published in the Independent Newspaper in September 2001.  The article was entitled ITF introduces three types of balls to counter power game. 

It is interesting to look back to 2001 to see how the game has changed since then and the International Tennis Federation’s direct influence on that evolution.  Certainly a lot of factors seem to have fallen into place to give us the game of Tennis we have today.  Some of those factors I discussed in my article entitled How Tennis has evolved in the last two decades Part 1, Part 2.

I talked about the slowing down of surfaces, particularly grass and hard courts plus the virtual disappearance of indoor carpet courts. I also talked about the new types of polyester strings and more flexible racquets.  One thing that I haven’t discussed and haven’t seen discussed too many times is the composition of the Tennis ball.

According to the article in the Independent, three types of standard ball were to be introduced in 2002:

“Ball type 1 (fast speed) is identical in size to the standard ball except it is manufactured with harder rubber.”

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“Ball type 2 (medium speed) is the standard ball”

“Ball type 3 (slow speed) is six percent larger in diameter than the standard ball and tends to move slower in flight” All are the same weight as a standard ball.

The article says that the introduction of different balls was designed to slow down the power and speed of serves on hard courts, but speed up the game on slower surfaces such as clay.  It was also claimed that the larger type three ball flies off the racquet at the same speed as a standard ball, but will slow down during flight to give the receiver about 10 percent more reaction time.

A study was undertaken by South Bank University based in London; this study showed that players could play for 35 percent longer when using a type three ball. The type one ball has a harder specification which produces a lower angle of bounce on surfaces like clay, making it faster. 

There was also a report which said that during experimentation over a two year period in Davis cup ties, Fed cup ties and men's professional events, the larger ball improved accuracy, allowed for longer rallies at all levels of play, and increased ball visibility for players and spectators.

Looking back at these changes of 9 years ago, it is extremely relevant considering how Tennis has evolved during that period in both the ATP and WTA tours.  One can say it has certainly met the intentions and expectations of the ITF.

It can also be said say that these changes coincided with the fact that many of the attacking players of that era were on their way to retirement.  It’s also fair to say that the changes prevented a new generation of attacking players emerging.  Clearly, the returner has an advantage which they didn’t have previously.

It is also ironic that the changes took place when they did, as I mentioned in my previous article about the evolution of Tennis, I understood that the French Open were using lighter balls to speed up the game during the 2000s.  Had this been the case during the 1990s, one of the many attacking players of that era may have had a much better opportunity to win the tournament, a lot of those guys got close, but didn’t win the trophy.

There is also no incentive now for younger players to learn the art of an attacking game, or indeed be encouraged by coaches or federations. The last player to win a major tournament with a serve and volley strategy was Amelie Mauresmo who won Wimbledon in 2006 serving and volleying on virtually every first serve. It may be some time before that happens again.

On a personal level, I’ve always wondered why Tennis Balls were numbered so now the explanation falls into place.  I know Dunlop and Wilson partake in that practice and they provide Tennis balls for three of the four grand slam tournaments and numerous other tournaments around the world. 

Slazenger provide tennis balls for the Wimbledon championships and provided tennis balls for the Australian Open championships until 2007.  As you may recall, there has also been a row over the balls used at Wimbledon when it was reported a few years ago that cans were opened before the tournament to reduce the pressure of the balls, and counteract the effectiveness of big serving.

Tim Henman made comments about that.  Serves seem faster than ever but as we know, that’s timed straight off the racquet but will slow through the flight, as it reaches the returner, the returner has more time to get into the point, especially as guys are not coming in to put away volleys anyway.

One side development to all this is the definition of the all court player.  When I was younger I always understood the all court player to mean the player who can play at net and the baseline, but who gravitated to net play on grass.  Obvious names would include, Boris Becker, Pete Sampras, Cedric Pioline, Michael Stich, Todd Martin, Tim Henman, Goran Ivanisevic. 

Ivanisevic hardly ever served on any other surface other than grass.  In the women's game, players like Jana Novotna, Amelie Mauresmo and Justine Henin.  On the flip side of the coin, Ivan Lendl consistently served and volleyed on grass in an attempt to win Wimbledon.

However, it seems that in recent years the all court player is now described as the player who can win on all surfaces despite style of play.  That’s an interesting development considering the homogenisation of surface speeds and the changes to the tennis ball aiding the specialist returner.

The changes made by the Tennis authorities in relation to the ball the slowing of the courts and the different types of balls used, Tennis has now become the domain of the baseline player and that will be the case for years to come, if not decades.


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