Guillermo Vilas: The Number One That Never Was - UBITENNIS
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Guillermo Vilas: The Number One That Never Was

UbiTennis has collected the words that journalists and reviewers around the world have written on the new Netflix documentary, “Guillermo Vilas: Settling the Score”, which depicts a 12-year-long campaign to have the ATP recognise the Argentine champion as a former world number one.

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This article was originally published by “Lo Slalom”, an Italian newsletter 

 

On rewriting history or just making it clearer, by Monica Platas, Mundo Deportivo

Now 68, during his tennis career the Argentinian won four Grand Slam tournaments. In particular, in 1977 he won the Roland Garros, the US Open and 14 more tournaments, for a career total of 62. He had a record 53-match winning streak on clay courts, a feat surpassed only by Nadal. Vilas climbed to the second spot in the world ranking on April 30, 1975, keeping it for 83 weeks, but he never reached the top.

Netflix has just released a documentary titled “Guillermo Vilas: Settling the Score”. It describes the statistical investigation of Argentine journalist Eduardo Puppo, who demonstrates how and why the ATP never recognised that Vilas should have been No. 1 in the ranking at least once during the best years of his career.

Vilas was famous for several things:  his Southpaw shotmaking, amazing topspin, long hair, and bizarre behaviour. The newly founded Grand Prix circuit made use of very rudimentary technology in order to compute the players’ ranking, a system that painstakingly lacked rigor in its calculations. Because of this, the ATP does not recognise Vilas as a former number one to this day, but Eduardo Puppo has spent twelve years campaigning for the Argentine to be given what’s due. He produced a detailed report of 25,000 pages, recalculating the rankings in the period between August 1973 and the end of 1978. He finally demonstrated that Vilas did actually climb to the top of the rankings, outperforming Borg and Connors during some periods.

The Netflix documentary film shows the reporter’s frustrated illusion and emotional exhaustion facing this daunting task, but Puppo’s disappointment for the ATP’s repeated refusal to update the records is also central to the narrative. In an e-mail, the reporter is told: “Please don’t rewrite history.” This personal, professional and emotional journey on Puppo’s part is an effective narrative way to see again the biography of Guillermo Vilas in parallel with the Puppo’s work. In the documentary, we can listen to some fragments of the tape recordings that Vilas himself recorded while traveling around the world (these fragments were actually useless due to the low quality of the sound). The documentary film poses an interesting dilemma: since the aim of Puppo’s work is to recognize the merits of an athlete’s career, is this just an attempt to rewrite the history or is it a bona fide act of justice? The documentary includes statements by Federer, Becker, Nadal, Sabatini, Wilander and Borg honouring Guillermo by acknowledging his prominence in the sport. Neither Guillermo Vilas nor his journalist friend got the recognition they were looking for, but even if it’s not the same, the documentary will forever remain as a tribute. It does not help to rewrite the history of tennis, but it helps to explain it better. 

A healed fracture by Furio Zara, Blog Overtime Festival

A man, an obsession, an injustice. A story of sports and life. This documentary is a little gem that helps to define clearly and with love the profile of a champion mocked by ill fate.

What a fabulous tennis player. Vilas is manly, intractable, but only for a just cause. Ambition’s fire burned inside him. He was the son of a lawyer, raised in the comfort of the Argentine middle class. A pure lefty, he wore a band in his hair like his frenemy Borg; an introverted man by nature, women loved him nevertheless. A poet on and off the court, he dedicated a composition to Caroline, Princess of Hanover.  One of the best players on the dirt, he considered Wimbledon a court of “grass for cows.” Never to be tamed, he was capable of sensational strokes, a revolutionary who changed the history of tennis and was a role model for those who came after him. He is the father of the “Gran Willy”, also known as the tweener. His back to the net, he hit the ball in mid-air between his legs. He said: “The idea came to my mind while observing an ad with the Argentine tennis player Juan Carlos Harriott. He hit a ball under the legs of a horse, obviously not with the racket but with a polo mallet. It seemed fantastic and I mimicked it in my game.”

The documentary was helmed by Mexican director Matias Guilbert. It shows the fondness for Vilas of authentic tennis legends such as Bjorn Borg, Rafael Nadal, Roger Federer, Rod Laver and Gabriela Sabatini. Federer honours him by saying, “he had a great influence on the tennis players who came after him.” Nowadays, Vilas is a 68-year-old man, an aging “bandolero” from the Pampas. He is suffering due to a neurodegenerative disease – there are only few moments of mental clarity in his daily life. As the title suggests, the aim of the documentary was not just to create a tribute to an unforgettable champion, but also to finally make things right.  

The gift of imperishable memory for a man who is losing his own by Marco Ciriello, Facebook

It is a hard sell to demonstrate that mistakes were made in the computing of the tennis rankings and that Guillermo Vilas was the best player in the world at some point in the mid-1970s. Journalist Eduardo Puppo has done it, analysing matches and figures, and spent years seeking the evidence to pay tribute to this champion and to get him the accomplishment he deserves. While Puppo was looking for data, points and therefore gestures, victories, cities, fields, tournaments, racquets, Vilas lost his memory. The Netflix documentary film, “Guillermo Vilas: Settling the Score”, describes this endeavour, with the tapes recorded by Vilas reminiscing on his life, and the charts by Puppo aa a sort of backdrop to his playing career. It is a great act of love: for tennis, truth, and justice. People that do not know who Vilas is will fall in love with him. They will appreciate him not only for his lefty shots or for the strength of his game at the net. They will think highly of him also for Hendrix, for his vision of the world and his way of life, for having shown that an Argentine and a Swede (Borg) can complement each other: “Your forehand sucks like my backhand, so we helped each other.” Those who already know and love him will find more reasons to hold him in such high regard.

How Vilas’s undefeated streak came to an end, by Gianni Clerici 

An Austrian genius, Werner Fisher, invented a curious way of stringing racquets, and a Yankee philologist nicknamed them “Spaghetti Racquets”. The rotation of the ball was so impressive that an outraged Vilas withdrew from the final of the Aix-en-Provence tournament against Nastase, who played the previous match with the “Spaghetti”. This kind of racket was belatedly declared illegal, Vilas’s long streak already broken at this point.

Vilas’s tears, by Mariano Ryan, Clarín 

Is it necessary that Guillermo Vilas be recognized for what he was on a tennis court, i.e. a number one, a position he already occupies in Argentinian sports lore? And is it really essential, in order to understand his prominence, that someone should review his files and grant him the status of world-best for a few weeks, when for a whole year he clearly paced all his opponents? Is the ATP compelled to listen to the truth uncovered by Puppo in the documentary in order to provide justice? It is very likely that everything will remain as it has been until now and that the campaign will never produce the results it set out to accomplish. Nevertheless, his titles and triumphs cannot be cancelled. The image of Vilas will never change in people’s memory. A champion on and off the court. A stubborn man who wanted to be the best at what he did, and he was the best, for sure.  His tears at the end of the documentary will last.

The reason behind Guillermo’s tears, from La Naciòn 

This touching moment has its own story to tell. It happened at the end of 2016, just before the best Argentine tennis player in history moved to Monte Carlo. Vilas and Puppo were having a conversation about a book in progress. During their meeting, the camera was accidentally left on, and in that moment Vilas’s emotional distress fully showed. He couldn’t bear what he considered an injustice that had lasted for many years. Puppo holds him in the scene, hugs him and even mentions something about a tattoo on Guillermo’s left arm honouring Alejandro, the little brother he barely knew. When they became aware of the existence of that accidental registration, Puppo, Vilas and an attorney, Adrián Sautu de la Riestra, agreed that it should be included in the documentary film, despite the personal nature of the moment.

Earthly justice comes first, by Carlos Navarro, Punto de Break

The ending of the documentary is a sudden gut-punch. It’s akin to a stratospheric fifth set, an exciting title won in stoppage time. These final moments are the perfect conclusion to a journey that starts with the first steps of a young Argentine on the pro tour who ends up carving a spot for himself on the Mount Olympus of tennis. I don’t know if this beautiful Netflix documentary film will change anything. Neither the number one assigned by Tennis World magazine nor years of research can probably do that. What I do know is that it has become a proof to how humble people can do extraordinary things, of how an Argentine journalist and a Romanian mathematician could change the history of an entire sport. Vilas will end up being what he should have been because his life is in its final stages and earthly justice must come before higher ones.

The fragile Titans, by Andrés Burgo, La Nación

Fame, idolatry and eternity. But what about that number one spot? What is it to be the best? Few times I have seen a Titan look as fragile as Guillermo Vilas does in Netflix’s thrilling documentary. When I say fragile, I’m not talking about his health (that’s a private matter), but rather because, despite almost half a century passing by, the old gladiator still wants that the ATP to rectify its rankings. He is a champion, and we believe we are the ones who need champions, although maybe it’s the other way around. We believe that a champion is invincible. The ATP is more hateful than FIFA. Thinking about Maradona, a colleague reminds me of how interviews with Diego always ended in the 90s. “What do you miss in your life?” the reporter asked. “Being more beloved by the people,” Diego replied.

Borg never learned how to pronounce his first name, by Christopher Clarey (New York Times), via Twitter

The ATP did not release rankings regularly in the years when Vilas would have been the world N.1. The old system was based on players’ average results and thus penalized workhorses like Vilas. What I know for sure is he had the best season of any man in 1977. You would need a heart of stone not to feel Vilas’s pain in this film. It was not his quest in many ways. It started without him being aware of it, but being recognized as No. 1 clearly matters deeply to him. This film is also a chance to see remarkable footage of the young Vilas: flowing hair, soulful disposition and legs of steel. The strokes look languid in comparison to what Nadal & Co. do today. The game has evolved and, in my opinion, improved. But Vilas and Borg were great athletes who could have been stars today. Fun fact from the documentary: he and Borg were close friends despite the fact that the latter apparently never learned how to pronounce Guillermo’s first name.

A negative review

“My life is a discovery. I always look for meaning in every circumstance. The first time I saw fire, I burned myself and it was magnificent. It was warm and appealing, and I thought, ‘What if I touch it? Maybe the heat will get inside me. This is how I discovered the world and how I got here.’” In this way, Guillermo Vilas introduces himself in the documentary film directed by Matías Gueilburt. It’s a film about the Argentine athlete who was one of the great protagonists of world tennis in the 70s and 80s. He began hitting obsessively the ball against a wall in the garage of his house when he was six years old. The only restriction set by his mother was that he could break only one lightbulb a day. He was a stubborn son who chose an ostensibly “unprofitable career” against his parents’ wishes, a would-be lawyer in a country where idols were boxers like Carlos Monzón, Formula 1 drivers like Carlos Reutemann, and footballers like Mario Kempes. The work flows in a very scholastic way in comparison with other two that could be defined more experimental and fascinating, like “John McEnroe. In the realm of perfection”, directed by Julien Faraut and “Subject to Review”, directed by Theo Anthony. The documentary sifts through stock footage, unpublished audio (46 different samples!) recorded by Vilas himself since 1973, as well as interviews with champions who weigh in on his value as a player and on the innovations he brought to the game.

The story suddenly switches gears (and not for the better) when the world rankings come into play. The title and the opening minutes of the documentary evoke the image of a lonely man going through his growth and consecration while pigeonholing the different turning points that change his destiny from an open to a one-way path. A path with a final destination – triumph. Then, the narrative changes. From the obsessions of the man from Buenos Aires, we move to the obsession of a journalist, Eduardo Puppo, who tries to carry on Vilas’s battle. He wants to demonstrate that in some periods (especially 1975 and 1977, the year when Vilas won over 50 matches in a row) Vilas was at the top of the world rankings, despite the ATP claiming otherwise. The wish to re-write history is the reason why the quality of the documentary dips. The darkness and the demons that stir both in the champion and in his unexpected supporter vanish from the narration, losing the audience and blowing out the fire that constituted its initial appeal. (by Mazzino Montinari, Il Manifesto)

Translated by Giuseppe Di Paola; edited by Tommaso Villa

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Novak Djokovic Makes Bid To Move Into A Class Of His Own

James Beck reflects on Novak Djokovic’s marathon win over Stefanos Tsitsipas in the final of the French Open.

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Novak Djokovic (image via https://twitter.com/rolandgarros)

And they kept playing . . .

 

Each with a shot at history of his own.

After maybe the most incredible first set in a Grand Slam singles final.

It was 72 minutes of thrill a second athleticism.

Stefanos Tsitsipas prevailed in that first set, but in the end Novak Djokovic made his shot at history a good one by completing  a second career Grand Slam with a 6-7 (6), 2-6, 6-3, 6-2, 6-4 victory over Tsitsipas in Sunday’s French Open men’s final.

A DOUBLE CAREER GRAND SLAM IS SPECIAL

A double lap of picking up titles at all four of tennis’ Grand Slam championships is something Djokovic’s fellow legends Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal have not accomplished during their storied careers. It’s a tribute to a player of the ages.

And all of a sudden, some observers are calling Djokovic the best player ever.

He didn’t look that way after losing the first two sets to Tsitsipas. But then the Greek standout appeared to start feeling the pressure of the situation and the presence of Djokovic on the other side of the court.

TSITSIPAS MISSES HIS FIRST SHOT AT GREATNESS

As for Tsitsipas, he missed his shot at becoming the first Greek player to win a Grand Slam singles title. But don’t count him out of the running for that honour. At 22 years old, he should have many more opportunities to win Grand Slam titles.

It would seem that Tsitsipas has a much better shot at becoming the first Greek Grand Slam champion than French Open women’s runner-up Maria Sakkari. Tsitsipas appears to be bound for superstar status.

Tsitsipas is talented enough to even spoil Djokovic’s chances to match the record 20 Grand Slam titles Federer and Nadal each have won. Tsitsipas has felt the pressure of a Grand Slam final for the first time. The next time may be his. No one can deny his potential, not even Djokovic.

DROP SHOT MAY NOT BE DECISIVE NEXT TIME

The next time these two meet the drop shot may not be that great of an option for Djokovic.

You might say that Novak’s drop shot was the real winner on the red clay.

But make no mistake about it, Djokovic has 19 Grand Slam singles titles and appears to be a cinch to deadlock Nadal and Federer at least by the end of next year’s Australian Open where he is practically unbeatable.

The task appears easy for Djokovic. But don’t tell that to Serena Williams or even Federer or Nadal, who lost to Tsitsipas after holding a two-set lead in the quarterfinals of this year’s Australian Open, and then also lost three straight sets to Djokovic in this French Open after winning the first five games and first set. In the Australian Open, Nadal was going for a tie-breaking 21st Grand Slam title and also a second career Grand Slam.

The last step in reaching immortality status is never easy for an athlete.

TSITSIPAS GOOD ON ALL SURFACES

Tsitsipas is an all-surface sensation, equally good on all three surfaces, clay, grass and hard courts. He will get a chance to prove his merits on grass and hard courts the next three months at Wimbledon and the U.S. Open.

Rest assured, the sometimes temperamental Greek is already in training for those opportunities. Obviously, his main goals in preparation will be to improve his conditioning, including building up his legs and back while working on his drop-shot defense and improving the accuracy and consistency of his serves.

DJOKOVIC MADE EVEN TSITSIPAS LOOK OLD

You might say Tsitsipas lost the drop-shot battle with Djokovic. By the second half of the match, Tsitsipas was content to concede drop shots to Novak.

Tsitsipas was worn out. Djokovic made him look old late in the match in much the same way Novak made Nadal look on Friday in the last set in a four-set loss by the Spanish left-hander.

Just as against Nadal in the first set, Djokovic looked totally out of it in the second set against Tsitsipas. The long, tight first set appeared to have compromised Djokovic’s physical capabilities in the second set.

NOVAK LOOKS LIKE SUPERMAN

At that point, the big and athletic Tsitsipas looked like a sure thing to fulfill his Greek Grand Slam dream. He had Novak on a string with his aggressive forehands and backhands, and load of aces.

But in the break between the second and third sets, it was as if Djokovic found his Superman cape. He was nearly invincible the last three sets, coming up with service breaks early in each set, fourth game in the third set, first and third games in the fourth set and third game in the fifth set. Tsitsipas had multiple ads in three of those four games in which he suffered service breaks during the last three sets.

AGE OF UNPREDICTABILITY FOR MEN’S TENNIS

Roland Garros was just the beginning of this new page of men’s tennis. There is no real assurance that Nadal or Federer will win a 21st or 22nd Grand Slam title. And Nadal is less than a year older than Djokovic.

It’s becoming the age of unpredictability in men’s tennis with so many young guns chasing the old-timers with big weapons. The next year will be very interesting.

See James Beck’s Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier columns at postandcourier.com (search on James Beck column). James Beck can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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Steve Flink’s Preliminary French Open Projections

Once again Rafael Nadal is the clear frontrunner but who has the ability to stop his run to yet another title at Roland Garros?

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As I write this piece, the French Open draw has not yet been made. That makes it difficult to make projections that are too bold or specific, but I am ready to present my overview of Roland Garros and to look at what could unfold over the next few weeks at the most important clay court tournament on the planet.

 

No matter how the draw turns out (Will Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic end up in the same half and meet in the semifinals? Who will take on Stefanos Tsitsipas in the quarterfinals? What else is in store?) the view here is that no one is going to deny Nadal another triumphant run at his favorite tournament in the world. Nadal is almost surely going to collect a fourteenth crown in Paris, and thus move past Roger Federer into first place among the men as the winner of the most Grand Slam singles titles ever. Nadal is poised to collect his 21st major title after a hard and productive clay court campaign.

To be sure, he was somewhat vulnerable on the red clay this time around. He was ousted in a three set quarterfinal at Monte Carlo by the big hitting Andrey Rublev, and thus prevented from winning that tournament for the twelfth time. The dynamic Spaniard took that loss with his usual equanimity, realizing there was a long road ahead on the dirt, understanding that his form would inevitably improve.

He moved on to Barcelona, and at that ATP 500 event he made amends for his Monte Carlo setback. Nadal was pushed to the hilt by an inspired Tsitsipas in the final. The gifted Greek stylist played with all of his heart and a great deal of verve, bringing Nadal to the brink of defeat. Tsitsipas had a match point and was somewhat unlucky not to convert it. His return of serve was sent deep down the middle. After Nadal commendably flicked it back crosscourt, Tsitsipas unleashed a heavy forehand deep into Nadal’s backhand corner.

Rafa barely got that ball back on the stretch as his two-hander clipped the net cord and fortunately stayed in play. Nadal went on to win that point and claimed the match 6-4, 6-7 (6), 7-5. It was a narrow escape but Nadal deservedly came away with a twelfth crown in Barcelona in a match he needed badly from a psychological perspective.

And yet, he was still not fully in the groove on his best surface. Nadal was ushered out of Madrid in the quarterfinals by a composed and confident Sascha Zverev, who extended his winning streak over the Spaniard to three head to head matches in a row. Zverev won that contest in straight sets after trailing 4-2 in the opening set. He served beautifully, waited for the right openings to approach the net off his forehand, and defended ably in many instances. But Nadal was understandably very unhappy with his performance, and his negativity was readily apparent.

Having lost in two of his three clay court appearances, Nadal once more needed a boost when he went to Rome. And that is precisely what he got in the end. Nevertheless, he was in a very precarious position when he took on Denis Shapovalov in the round of 16. The Canadian left-hander played perhaps the finest clay court tennis of his career to nearly produce a major upset on the Italian clay. 

Shapovalov won the first set and led 3-0 with a break point for 4-0 in the second set. Nadal struck back audaciously to win six of the last seven games to salvage the second set. Nevertheless, the Spaniard soon trailed 3-1 in the final set before getting back on even terms. Be that as it may, Nadal was down match point twice when he served at 5-6 in the final set and was fortunate that the Canadian was a bit impetuous on both opportunities. Nadal came through in a final set tie-break to win a crucial encounter.

Buoyed by that escape, Nadal avenged his Madrid loss to Zverev by upending the German in the quarterfinals. He next took apart the towering American Reilly Opelka in the semifinals, and then he won what was arguably the best played clay court match of the 2021 season by overcoming Djokovic 7-5, 1-6, 6-3 for a tenth Italian Open crown.

Djokovic was first rate across the three sets of high quality tennis. He had the early break for 2-0 in the opening set but Nadal broke right back. At 5-5 the Serbian had a game point but double faulted and was soon broken. But he swept through the second set sublimely and then had two break points with Nadal serving at 2-2 in the final set. Djokovic missed a high forehand into the net tape on one of those break points, and once Nadal held on there he took control the rest of the way, closing the gap in his personal career head to head series with Djokovic to 29-28 for the Serbian.

Nadal did not want to be beaten in three out of four tournaments en route to Roland Garros, and he avoided that fate by playing the big points better than Djokovic in both the first and third sets. He came away with a second clay court title of the season and a considerable lift heading into the French Open. In my view, he raised his game decidedly against Djokovic when he had to, and the Spaniard was pounding the forehand as prodigiously as he has in a very long while. In turn, his serve location and velocity were significantly improved.

Nadal’s tournament preparation for Roland Garros was over and he has put himself in good stead. He will turn 35 early in the tournament but the eminent left-hander is playing like a much younger man. No matter how modest he is and how little he says about his confidence or convictions, the view here is entirely clear—Rafael Nadal fully believes he is going to win a 14th French Open.

I would give only two other men a serious chance to win at Roland Garros. To be sure, Djokovic and Tsitsipas must have everything fall into place perfectly to win in Paris, but both men should be very well prepared to give it their all at the French Open.

Djokovic must be considered the distant second favorite behind  Nadal for a number of reasons. He has won the tournament before which is no mean feat, coming through in 2016 for his fourth Grand Slam title in a row, becoming the first man since Rod Laver won his second Grand Slam in 1969 to sweep four straight major titles. Djokovic is one of only two players ever to defeat Nadal at Roland Garros, eclipsing the Spaniard in the 2015 quarterfinals.

Balanced against that fact is this: Djokovic has been beaten three times in the finals of the French Open by Nadal, bowing against his chief rival in 2012, 2014, and 2020. In last year’s final, Djokovic was taken apart 6-0, 6-2, 7-5 by Nadal in their most one-sided contest ever on such a big occasion. Altogether, his record against Nadal at Roland Garros is 1-7.

The fact remains that Nadal respects Djokovic as a player more than anyone else. The final last year was an anomaly. Nadal was letter perfect on that afternoon while Djokovic was far away from the top of his game. If they meet again this year, the match will not resemble that one. In Rome, Djokovic was outplayed in the end but the margins were exceedingly slim and both players were well aware of that.

The Serbian is competing this week in Belgrade and looking for his first title since taking the Australian Open at the start of the season for the ninth time. Djokovic should win the tournament and thus give himself a boost as he approaches Roland Garros. He played an abysmal match in losing to Dan Evans in the round of 16 at Monte Carlo, and then was beaten in a well played semifinal by Aslan Karatsev in the first of two Serbian tournaments he would play on his way to Roland Garros. But Djokovic was too tight to do himself full justice in that contest.  His break point conversion rate was not up to his standard. Karatsev saved 23 of 28 break points against him in that duel. And then Djokovic lost that hard fought clash with Nadal in Rome.

Djokovic should be ready in Paris. While Nadal clearly has history uppermost on his mind as he goes full force after the title in Paris, Djokovic will be similarly motivated. If Nadal wins the tournament, Djokovic would trail the Spaniard by three majors, but if the Serbian prevails he could close the gap to one title. That is a huge difference.

While Djokovic will have the match play he needs to perform at optimum level in Paris, so, too, will the surging Tsitsipas. The Greek player won his first Masters 1000 title in Monte Carlo, lost narrowly to Nadal in that Barcelona final, fell in the round of 16 in Madrid, but then nearly toppled Djokovic in a stirring quarter final battle in Rome. Tsitsipas served for the match before losing that riveting encounter 7-5 in the third set.

That was his second agonizing clay court loss of the season. Both Nadal in Barcelona and Djokovic in Rome demonstrated that they are the best big pressure players in the game. But Tsitsipas recovered well from the Djokovic loss. This past week he won his second clay court crown of the season in Lyon. That triumph could not have been more timely.

There are others, of course, who are capable of capturing the title at Roland Garros under the right set of circumstances. But two of the top four seeds are at very low emotional ebbs at the moment. Dominic Thiem has been magnificent in many ways over the last five French Open editions. In 2016, he lost to Djokovic in the semifinals. A year later, Nadal beat him in the penultimate round. And then in 2018 and 2019 he was the runner-up to Nadal. Last year, Thiem fell in the quarterfinals against Diego Schwartzman but he was weary then after winning the U.S. Open a few weeks earlier.

Now the Austrian is simply not himself physically or emotionally. He skipped Monte Carlo, lost to Zverev in the semifinals of Madrid, fell in a closely contested round of 16 skirmish against Lorenzo Sonego in Rome and then bowed out tamely this past week 6-3, 6-2 against Cameron Norrie, who made it to the final and lost to Tsitsipas.

Thiem is a great clay court player, but his spirits now are so diminished that I don’t see him going deep into the draw in Paris. His vulnerability is unmistakable. And what of world No. 2 Daniil Medvedev? He has freely admitted that clay is a surface he simply does not understand. He has struggled inordinately all spring. I expect Medvedev to lose early at Roland Garros. He has been beaten in the first round at the French Open no fewer than four years in a row. His morale is low. It is hard to imagine him making much of an impression. For Nadal to be seeded behind Medvedev in Paris is a glaring injustice.

I believe Sascha Zverev is going to be a factor in Paris. The 2020 U.S. Open finalist was victorious in Madrid, taking his third career Masters 1000 clay court title. He has the game to succeed on any surface but does he have the emotional stability to get through a fortnight in Paris this time around? I doubt it, although he is one player Nadal would rather not have to face.

Four other players could make their presence known depending on their draws. Rublev is a workhorse who approaches every tournament as if it will be the last one he will ever play. But after his final round appearance in Monte Carlo, his results on clay were disappointing. Matteo Berrettini is very comfortable on the clay and reached the final in Madrid, but can he move beyond the quarterfinals or perhaps the semifinals? I doubt it. 

Meanwhile another Italian must be watched closely. Jannik Sinner has not done himself justice during the clay court season but the Miami Masters 1000 hard court finalist is among the most determined competitors out there. He pushed Nadal hard in a respectable loss at Rome. He can make inroads after reaching the quarters last year in Paris and nearly winning the first set from Nadal. But the feeling grows that Sinner’s best case scenario is a semifinal showing.

It all comes back to Nadal. This is a man on a mission. He will be looking to peak in Paris as he does almost every years. Here is a redoubtable champion who won Roland Garros the first four times he played it (2005-2008)  before a shocking round of 16 loss to Robin Soderling in 2009. Then he won five in a row (2010-2014) before losing to Djokovic in 2015 and withdrawing prior to a third round match in 2016 with an injury. Since then he has won four more titles in a row. 

Beating Rafael Nadal in a best of five set match on clay is the toughest task in tennis. I am almost certain he is going to be the last man standing again in Paris.

___________________________________________________________________________

Steve Flink has been reporting full time on tennis since 1974, when he went to work for World Tennis Magazine. He stayed at that publication until 1991. He wrote for Tennis Week Magazine from 1992-2007, and has been a columnist for tennis.com and tennischannel.com for the past 14 years. Flink has written four books on tennis including “Dennis Ralston’s Tennis Workbook” in 1987; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of the Twentieth Century” in 1999; “The Greatest Tennis Matches of All Time” in 2012; and “Pete Sampras: Greatness Revisited”. The Sampras book was released in September of 2020 and can be purchased on Amazon.com. Flink was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2017.

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All You Need To Know About The Past, The Present And The Future Of Tennis Balls

Balls are the most ubiquitous part of the game, with a production of over 300 million per year. However, manufacturers are now trying to adapt to new commercial and environmental landscapes.

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A historical examination of the evolution of tennis balls allows to conventionally identify three phases: 

 
  • An initial phase, in the early days of the game, when the first regulatory developments took place 
  • A second phase corresponding to the beginning of the Open Era, when regulations became more compliant to television needs because of tennis’s increase in popularity 
  • A third phase starting in 2015, when the industry embraced the ecological way of the reconversion of the production process of fuzzy balls. 

Sources:  Tennisplayer.net, Merchantoftennis.comStevegtennis.comUdl.co.ukNewyorktimes.comAbnamro.nl

In the video above, shot in the 1920s, Renè Lacoste is about to try the first ball machine. It is possible to notice how balls are picked up from a carton box and not from a pressurized cylindrical metal tube, a packaging innovation which was introduced in 1926 by the American company Penn. A year before, in 1925, a new rule was devised, prescribing that balls had to bounce from 53 to 58 inches (135-147 cm), falling from a height of 100 inches. Bounce ranges have not changed, except for balls used at high altitudes and for special balls used by children for the progressive learning of shots. 

At the onset of tennis, rubber balls were not pressurized. This way, there was no fear of losing pressure, because bounce and compression were produced by a rubber compound. However, the latter was far from being top quality, and consequently the balls were too tough or too soft or bouncing too low due to the lack of internal pressure. That’s why pressurization was introduced. But how were balls supposed to keep their bounce intact when they were simply packed in carton boxes? Before the advent of metal tubes, the solution was to over-pressurize the balls. This means that at the beginning of the season, balls were probably bouncier than at the end.  

As for the use of felt, it is a material designed for tennis, provided with wider fiber threads than those used in clothing. This felt allows to:

  • Reduce ball speed both after the impact with the racquet and in the air
  • Improve ball control by preventing it to bounce irregularly after having hit the racquet
  • Reduce ball bounce to a comfortable height, regardless of surfaces. 

Felt is now the most expensive material of the production process. 

TYPES OF BALLS

Today there are different types of tennis ball, which can be divided as follow:

  • Type 1: fast, or known as regular duty (pressurized or not pressurized), commonly used on clay
  • Type 2: medium, conventionally divided in Extra Duty for men and Regular Duty for women, commonly used on hardcourts
  • Type 3: slow, commonly used on grass 
  • Balls to be used at high altitudes

Additionally, other models have been created to facilitate the progressive learning of children (aged between 7 and 12) – it is the biggest innovation of tennis balls in recent years. The chart below summarizes the ITF standards that producers are required to abide by, with a few ulterior notes: Type 1 ball can be pressurized or pressureless, but the pressureless balls must have an internal pressure not exceeding 7 kPa (1 psi); Type 3 balls are also recommended for high-altitude play on any type of surface starting at 1.219 km above sea level; high-altitude balls are always pressurized and should only be used for play starting at 1.219 km above sea level.

TYPESMASS (WEIGHT)SIZEREBOUNDFORWARD DEFORMATIONRETURN DEFORMATIONCOLOUR
TYPE 1 (FAST)56.0-59.4 gr. 6.54-6.86 cm 135-147 cm (53-58 in.)0.50-0.60 cm 0.67-0.91 cm White or Yellow
TYPE 2 (MEDIUM)156.0-59.4 gr. 6.54-6.86 cm 135-147 cm (53-58 in.)0.56-0.74 cm 0.80-1.08 cm White or Yellow
TYPE 3 (SLOW)256.0-59.4 gr. 7.00-7.30 cm 135-147 cm (53-58 in.)0.56-0.74 cm0.80-1.08 cmWhite or Yellow
HIGH ALTITUDE (3)56.0-59.4 gr. 6.54-6.86 cm 122-135 cm (48-53 in.)0.56-0.74 cm 0.80-1.08 cmWhite or Yellow
Tolerance0,4 gr.None4 cm0,08 cm0,10 cmNone
STAGE 3 (RED) FOAM25.0-43.0 gr.8.00-9.00 cm85-105 cm NoneNoneAny
STAGE 3 (RED) STANDARD36.0-49.0 gr.7.00-8.00 cm 90-105 cmNoneNoneRed and Yellow, or Yellow with a Red dot
STAGE 2 (ORANGE) STANDARD36.0-46.9 gr.6.00-6.86 cm 105-120 cm 1.40-1.65 cm NoneOrange and Yellow, or Yellow with an Orange dot
STAGE 1 (GREEN) STANDARD47.0-51.5 gr.6.30-6.86 cm120-135 cm 0.80-1.05 cm NoneYellow with a Green dot

Source:  https://balls.com/rules/tennis- ball-specifications-defined-for-four-types.html

Research conducted in 2013 (and published in the “Journal of Sports Science and Medicine”) empirically showed that the forehand performance of a small group of eight children with an average age of 8.1 (±0,74) improved in a restricted court and with low-compression balls. The performance of the forehand hit from the baseline was evaluated using three indicators: speed and accuracy index (VP), speed and accuracy success index (VPS) and the percentage of success in hitting the shot – this last indicator is a function of the other two. Participants completed three different forehand patterns on two consecutive days, first using low compression balls on a 18,3 meters court and then using standards Type 2 balls on a 23,8 meters court. Participants using low-compression ball recorded higher VPS score values (p< 0,001) for each shot without errors, as well as higher VP (p= 0,01). The results are summed up below: 

This research suggests that law-compression balls (as well as the reduced dimension of the court) facilitate the execution of the shot and improve children’s ability to hit with more speed and higher success rate. Performance improvement using such balls could become a decisive factor in the development of tennis fundamentals at a young age. 

EVERY TOURNAMENT HAS AN OFFICIAL BALL

Managing to adapt to different balls in different tournaments is only one of the adjustments that pro tennis players have to make throughout the season. Some of them change the string tension according to the balls used in the various tournaments while also considering other (mostly meteorological) factors that might affect the bounce of the ball. It is known that heat makes rubber more elastic, thus making the balls bouncier. Humidity instead makes them heavier – this is the reason why Nadal is even more devastating at Roland Garros during sunnier days. What follows is the manufacturer used by each of the main ATP tournaments (Slams, Masters 1000 and ATP Finals):

Sources: essentiallysports.com, tennisfansite.com, ubitennis.com

Clay tournaments that sport Dunlop balls are Monte Carlo, Rome, Barcelona, Madrid, as well as the ATP 250 events that take place in Estoril, Munich, and Belgrade. Besides the above mentioned tournaments, Dunlop is the Official Ball of the ATP, a really important detail for merchandising purposes. Today, Dunlop is the most common ball brand in the tennis world. 

Does balls supply represent a cost or an income from sponsorships for a tournament? Although figures are unclear, it is thought that the response depends on the importance of the tennis tournament. In December 2016, Le Figaro wrote that Wimbledon made the clever move of making its partners, including ball supplier Slazenger, the event’s official sponsors. This allows the AELTC to avoid restrictions imposed by brands other than the main suppliers and, at the same time, to have the necessary equipment while containing costs – revenues also grow because of the more collegial nature of the new partnership deals. In exchange for a sum negotiated by the two parties, brands can attach the Wimbledon logo on their products. Not all the tournaments have the importance and the contractual power of Wimbledon and this leads us to think that the less important the status of the tournament, the costlier supplies are. 

Long-lasting supply collaborations imply that technological innovations are implemented by R&D departments of sponsoring companies, as is the case with Slazenger and Wilson. While Slazenger patented a phosphorescent fiber ball with a water-repellent system, Wilson tested different specific pressures only for balls used during the US open to reduce possible variations, as Bill Dillon (Wilson senior manager) told the New York Times in 2018. 

Considering the chart at the beginning of this section (the one related to ITF standards for manufacturers), it can be noticed how rigid these standards are. However, there is some leeway when new balls come into play or at the end of the seven canonical games (in every match, balls are changed after the first seven games and then every nine games). This allows producers to stretch the limits a little bit. Jeff Ratkovich, Head-Penn’s senior business manager, claimed in the same New York Times article that pro players are able to “perceive even the smallest variation” – this is the reason why Head-Penn uses far more rigid specifications than those imposed by the ITF. When the changes of official supplies in the most important tournaments occur, players tend to be overtly critical. During the 2019 Championships, Nadal stated that balls had slowed down the game. During the Australian Open, a few months prior, Federer said that he had problems with the new Dunlop balls. During the 2011 Roland Garros, Djokovic, Federer and Murray complained about the new Babolat balls, which happened to make their debut in that edition of the event. In the autumn edition of the French Open held in 2020, Wilson balls made their debut, and as usual criticism abounded. 

TOWARD THE ECOLOGICAL TRANSITION

On average, worn-out tennis balls are re-utilised for different purposes only in 3 to 7 percent of cases before they are incinerated and taken to a landfill – it is esteemed that about 300-325 million of tennis balls are produced every year. As early as August 2012, Ubitennis talked about a business initiative aiming to revitalize the old tennis balls, bringing them back to the appropriate pressure thanks to a special machine created by Rebounce. In 2015, this company teamed up with Advanced Polymer Technology and Ace Surfaces to create the Tennisballrecycling consortium, whose aim is to recycle the old balls to produce materials that will be used to re-surface tennis courts. How does the system work? After the first usage, balls are brought back to the appropriate pressure, extending their lifespan. When the felt is completely worn out, balls are snipped to recycle the rubber. Lastly, Laykold, an enterprise of the APT group (Advanced Polymer Technology) paves the tennis surfaces, recycling up to 10,000 balls for the surface of a single court

The spring of 2020 marked the creation of Renewaball, a Dutch start-up which produces balls from recycled ones. Till then, the pure rubber and the felt partitions could not be separated – this was the main issue for the recycling process. The new start-up found out a way to do it, and therefore opened the door the production of a tennis ball that uses others as a base. The company has assured that the percentage of balls produced this way will significantly increase in years to come, but it has also warned that it will be impossible to produce a ball made of 100% recycled balls because the final product – a Type 2 ball valid for all playing surfaces and sold in pressurized plastic containers – will always need a minimum part of “pure rubber”. 

Tennisballrecycling Vs Renewaball. Images courtesy of Tennisballrecycling and Renewaball 

Nowadays, the production of tennis balls takes places almost solely in Southeast Asia, i.e. far from where tournaments are played. It has been calculated that a tennis ball can travel up to 80,000 km before it comes out of the box. This is a cost for our environment, which implies a lot of marine diesel, kerosene and CO2 emissions. As highlighted in the chart below, the majority of production takes places in Southeast Asia – Thailand is the first producer in the world of natural rubber, followed by China and the Philippines.

Moreover, the use of tennis balls produces thousands of plastic microparticles that the polyester/nylon felt releases into the air after a shot is hit. Those micro-particles will probably end up on the sea ocean or will be part of the floating plastic “soup” that is constantly increasing in the seas. The graphic below highlights the comparison of CO2 emissions between the traditional productive process and that implemented by Renewaball. 

Overall, for each ball produced with the Renewaball productive process, there should be an impact reduction of 0,1764 kg Co2-eq per tennis ball. Considering that the Netherlands are currently using 5,5 million balls, this is equivalent to: 

5,5 mil x 0,1764 kg Co2-eq = 970.200 (a decrease of KgCo2- eq per year) 

Further details and clarification on the Renewaball productive process are available to the following link

FINAL COMMENTS

Despite a productive know-how which is relatively stable over time, it appears that the market of tennis balls is going toward a monopoly. Until now, the most important takeover has been made by Head, which bought Penn in 1999. Reconversion of productive processes and the demand for new balls for children should guarantee other factors of differentiation, in addition to those crystallized over time due to specific sponsorship deals. 

Once clarified the scenario, let’s try to imagine what the T7, the new tennis governance entity recently mentioned by Andrea Gaudenzi, might do vis-à-vis the implementation of a single supplier for tennis balls – albeit for different reasons, they would be following the supplying model of tires in motorsports (F1 and MotoGP). On the one hand, there is the undeniable advantage of having a single ball standard for all the players during the season. On the other, giving that much contractual power to a single interlocutor, representative of the various tennis organizations, seems unfeasible, given the number of interested parties that are currently part of this market, both in terms of tournaments and ball manufacturers. To get rid of sponsorship agreements, tournaments should receive more or equivalent incomes from the T7 or reduce supply costs. However, in the meantime producers will have developed specific know-how for playing surfaces, so another solution could be to split the supply cake on a triennial basis between the main manufacturers; however, this action could generate an oligopoly with fairly strong entry barriers for new producers. A final option would be to impose the use of balls from the same brand on each surface. If things remain unchanged, it is very likely that the entourages of the players will talk to experts in order to find algorithms able to optimise the string tension of racquets based on surface, ball typology, ball brand, the player’s feel and weather conditions, greatly simplifying the work of stringers. 

As for the green solutions, the writer of this article thinks that the road undertaken by the producers aiming to extend the life of the balls without using plastic containers will only cause a reduction in sales and, besides, won’t solve the problem of their disposal. Tennisballrecycling’s solution is connected to the demand of new tennis courts to be paved and is thus connected to the sport – however, the destiny of said discontinued courts is still uncertain. The solution proposed by Renewaball, on the other hand, embraces logics and principles of circular economy, creating a potentially infinite productive cycle. 

Article by Andrea Canella; translated by Luca Rossi; edited by Tommaso Villa

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