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

Why Celebrating LGBT+ Pride Month In Tennis Matters

Besides the fancy rainbow-coloured clothing that is worn, there is a far more important reason.

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Guido Pella during a Men's Singles match at the 2021 US Open, Wednesday, Sep. 1, 2021 in Flushing, NY. (Manuela Davies/USTA)

June is when players switch their focus from the clay to grass in order to tune up their preparations ahead of the prestigious Wimbledon Championships. But for some linked to the sport this month is also significant for another reason.

 

It is LGBT pride month which is an initiative that was originally created as a way to mark the Stonewall Riots which began on June 28th 1969 in New York. A series of protests took place in response to a police raid on the Stonewall Inn which was the catalyst in the fight for equal rights among the LGBT community. In the UK the first pride March was held in 1972 and today there are more than 100 events in the country annually.

Today Pride is about promoting equality in the world with various organizations taking part, including tennis. The British Lawn Tennis Association has gotten more involved this year by hosting a series of Pride Days at their ATP and WTA events. They have taken place on the Friday of tournaments in Nottingham, Birmingham and Queen’s. The final one is taking place this Friday in Eastbourne.

“We still live in a time when people don’t always feel like they can be open about their sexual orientation or gender identity, so the more we can do to show support and let them know everything is ok the better,’ British player Liam Broady recently said.

https://twitter.com/the_LTA/status/1537788274890121216

Some may wonder as to if Pride events such as these are necessary in tennis considering it is 2022 and lives for LGBT people have improved considerably over the years. However, there is still work to be done. One study called OUTSPORT found that 90% of LGBT+ respondents believe that homophobia and transphobia is a problem in sport and 33% remain closeted in their own sporting context. Another study conducted in recent years is Out On The Fields which found almost eight out of 10 respondents felt that an openly gay person would not be very safe as a spectator at a sporting event. Obviously, these findings vary depending on the sport and the country, but it still illustrates the seriousness of the subject.

In tennis, the WTA Tour has seen various LGBT role models triumph at the very top. Both Billie Jean King and Martina Navratilova were some of the very first professional athletes to come out publicly during the 1980s which was a decade when misinformation about the Aids crises lead to the stigmation of the gay community. King said she lost all of her endorsements within 24 hours after being outed in 1981 and that was before the Aids crisis erupted. Navratilova also experienced similar misfortunes.

The WTA was founded on the principles of equality and opportunity, along with positivity and progress, and wholeheartedly supports and encourages players, tournaments, partners and fans’ commitment to LGBT+ initiatives,” the WTA told UbiTennis last week.
“The WTA supports LGBT+ projects across the tennis family, such as amplifying our athletes’ voices on this topic through the Tour’s global platforms, increasing awareness by incorporating the LGBT+ spirit into our wider corporate identity, among many other initiatives.”

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) tells UbiTennis the sport has a ‘proud history of advocating social change.’ The organization oversees the running of all junior events, Davis Cup, Billie Jean King Club and the Olympic tennis events.

“Inclusion is one of the ITF’s core values and a pillar of the ITF 2024 strategy. Tennis as a sport has a proud history of advocating social justice and instigating change. Within the tennis community, we embrace the LGBTQ community and full support any initiative, such as the celebration of Pride Month, that continues the conversation and furthers progress in ensuring sport and society are free from bias and discrimination in any form. There is always more that can be done, and we will continue to make every effort to ensure that all our participants, our employees and fans feel welcome, included, and respected day in, day out.” The ITF said in a statement.

Whilst the women’s Tour has had plenty of LGBT role models, it is different on the men’s circuit. At present there is no openly gay player in men’s tennis where around 2000 people have an ATP ranking. In recent months the governing body has looked into making the Tour more inclusive. Last year they reached out to Lou Englefield, the director of Pride Sports, a UK organisation that focuses on LGBTQ+phobia in sport and aims to improve access to sport for all LGBTQ+ people. Through their connection, they contacted Eric Denison, a behavioural science researcher at Monash University’s School of Social Sciences. Monash University supplied the ATP with a series of scientifically validated questions, which they used to ‘look under the hood’ at the factors which supports a culture where gay or bisexual players feel they are not welcome.

It has been over nine months since news of the survey taking place emerged but the findings are still to be published. In an email to Ubitennis, the ATP confirmed that they are ‘finalizing their next steps’ and will be making an announcement shortly. They acknowledge that the survey process has taken longer than expected but it is unclear as to why.

As for those who may be experiencing difficulty in their personal lives regarding their sexuality, Brian Vahaly has his own advice which he shared with Ubitennis last year. Vahaly is a former top 100 player who came out as gay after retiring from the sport.

“Find somebody to talk to, somebody you trust. Know that people like us are there if you have questions. It’s just nice to have somebody to talk to who can help you learn about yourself,” he said.
“What I try to do is in terms of putting my family forward is that we live a pretty ‘normal life.’ I have two kids, I have a house and I walked my kids to preschool this morning. It doesn’t have to be such a defining characteristic of who you are. In the sports world, it feels that it is magnified, but what I want to show is that you can have a great athletic career, meet somebody and have a family no matter your sexuality.”

Pride is as much about making sports such as tennis an open environment for everyone as it is about marking a series of historic protests which took place in America more than 40 years ago.

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It’s Unfair, Rafa Is Too Good In Roland Garros Final

James Beck reflects on Nadal’s latest triumph at Roland Garros.

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Rafael Nadal - Roland Garros 2022 (foto Roberto Dell'Olivo)

This one was almost unfair.

 

It was like Rafa Nadal giving lessons to one of his former students at the Nadal academy back home in Mallorca.

When this French Open men’s singles final was over in less than two hours and a half, Rafa celebrated, of course. But he didn’t even execute his usual championship ritual on Court Philippe Chatrier of falling on his back on the red clay all sprawled out.

This one was that easy for the 36-year-old Spanish left-hander. He yielded only six games.

 It certainly didn’t have the characteristics of his many battles at Roland Garros with Novak Djokovic and Roger Federer.

It must have been a bit shocking to the packed house of mostly Rafa fans.

RAFA DIDN’T MISS ‘HIS SHOT’ OFTEN

Nadal didn’t miss many of his patented shots such as his famed reverse cross-court forehand. He was awesome at times. Young 23-year-old Casper Ruud must have realized that by the middle of the second set when Rafa started on his amazing 11-game winning streak to finish off a 6-3, 6-3, 6-0 victory.

Ruud is good. The Norway native will win his share of ATP titles, but probably not many Grand Slam titles. If any, at least until Rafa goes away to a retirement, certainly on his island of Mallorca.

Rafa already has his own statue on the grounds of Roland Garros. Perhaps, Mallorca should be renamed Rafa Island.

RUUD COULDN’T HANDLE RAFA’S PRESSURE

Ruud displayed a great forehand at times to an open court. But when Rafa applied his usual pressure to the corners Ruud’s forehand often  went haywire.

Rafa’s domination started to show in the third set as Ruud stopped chasing Nadal’s wicked reverse cross-court forehands. 

Ruud simply surrendered the last three games while Nadal yielded only three points. Nadal finished it off with a sizzling backhand down the line. In the end, nice guy, good sport and former student Ruud could only congratulate Rafa.

JOHNNY MAC: RAFA ‘INSANELY GOOD’

The great John McEnroe even called Nadal’s overall perfection “insanely good.”

If Iga Swiatek’s 6-1, 6-3 win in Saturday’s women’s final over young Coco Gauff was a mismatch,  Iga’s tennis idol staged a complete domination of Ruud a day later.

It appears that the only thing that can slow Rafa down is his nearly always sore left foot, not his age. He won his first French Open final 17 years ago.

For Nadal to win a 22nd Grand Slam title to take a 22-20-20 lead over his friends and rivals Djokovic and Federer is mind-boggling, but not as virtually unbelievable as winning a 14th  French Open title.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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At The French Open Rafa and Novak Lived Up To A Battle For The Ages

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Rafael Nadal (photo @RolandGarros)

Rafa Nadal is simply amazing.

 

His herd of fans couldn’t have been more pleased with their hero on this day just hours from his 36th birthday. He was never better, his patented reverse  cross-court forehand a marvel for the ages and his serve never more accurate.

The presence of his long-time friend and rival on the Court Philippe Chatrier that he loves so much made Nadal’s victory over Novak Djokovic even more special. The 59th meeting between these two warriors was a match for the ages, marvelous play by both players. Some games seemed to go on forever, with these two legends of the game dueling for every point for nearly four hours in a match that started in May and ended in June.

NADAL HAS NEVER PLAYED BETTER

The 6-2, 4-6, 6-2, 7-6 (4) victory sends Nadal into his birthday on Friday to face Alexander Zverev for a spot in Sunday’s final of the French Open. Win or lose now, Rafa will remain the all-time leader in Grand Slam singles titles until at least Wimbledon due to his current 21-20-20 edge over Djokovic and Roger Federer.

Nadal played like he could go on forever playing his game, but he is quick to remind that his career could end at any time. The always painful left foot remains in his mind.

But the Spanish left-hander has never played better than when he overcame a 5-2 deficit against Djokovic in the fourth set. Nadal sparkled with energy, easily holding service, then fighting off two set points with true grit, holding easily to get back to 5-5 and then holding serve at love for 6-6.

A 6-1 TIEBREAKER DEFICIT TOO MUCH FOR EVEN NOVAK

The tiebreaker belonged to Rafa for six of the first seven points. That was too tough a task for even Novak to overcome.

Rafa’s podiatrist must have felt relieved at least for now. If Rafa was in pain, he didn’t show it for the first time in quite awhile.

If Nadal could pull off the feat of taming the big game and serving accuracy Zverev displayed while conquering potential whiz kid Carlos Alcaraz, and then taking out whoever is left in the battle between Denmark’s young Holger Rune, Croatia’s veteran Marin Cilic, Norway’s Casper Ruud and Russian Andrey Rublev, Nadal might own a nearly unbeatable lead with 22 Grand Slam titles.

James Beck was the 2003 winner of the USTA National Media Award for print media. A 1995 MBA graduate of The Citadel, he can be reached at Jamesbecktennis@gmail.com. 

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