“New balls please!” Heard that one before? You sure would have if you are even a peripheral follower of tennis, with the chair umpires often using this phrase to inform the players and those watching the match there will be a change in the balls used for the encounter.
Why is playing with a new ball so important in tennis and what are the advantages associated with it?
Tennis, in as much as it is a physical sport, is also a sport of very fine margins. This is why; even the most minute of tasks that a professional player undertakes in a match might look trivial to an avid watcher but have a major effect on the outcome of a point, a game, or even a match.
Serving with new tennis balls is part and parcel of the tennis rule book. And in this article, we shall expound on the advantage of serving with new tennis balls, if indeed any (you can also read more about tennis balls in general here).
First off, it is of relevance to dig into the evolution of the tennis ball and highlight critical changes that have taken place in its creation since the first official tennis ball was made in the 19th century.
What are Tennis Balls Made of?
As the game of tennis has evolved, so too has the tennis ball. On the ATP Tour Uncovered series, the sophisticated process of tennis ball production has been well explained. As of 2022, over 300 million tennis balls are produced globally.
Modern tennis balls differ substantially from the old tennis balls in bounce, weight, and compression. To meet these three parameters, each ball is individually hand-tested by dropping it onto concrete and is expected to achieve a bounce between 53 and 58 inches from a height of 100 inches.
The composition of a tennis ball hasn’t undergone a lot of modification. A blend of natural and synthetic rubber has been and still is the chief component in production since the first official tennis ball was made in the 1850s.
The Wimbledon tournament in 1902 marked the first time that Slazenger – the tournament’s official ball sponsor – began supplying tennis balls.
At the time, the balls were hand-stitched and covered in wool. The major drawback was that the two balls were never alike and the bounce of the two balls was never the same.
Further development in ball design for the next century took effect sporadically before the end product was standardized as articulated in the aforementioned series.
How to Distinguish a New Tennis Ball from a Used Tennis Ball?
Tennis balls have pressurized air inside them. The rubber that is used to make tennis balls is gas permeable, but does not have a valve; hence the gas regularly escapes after a few hits making the balls lose pressure and ultimately their bounce.
This explains why new tennis balls are always packed in air-tight cans which have the same degree of pressure as the air inside the balls. Not only does it aid in retaining the pressure of the ball, but also the bounce.
New tennis balls have been specifically designed to have a short lifespan once out of the can.
At the top-tier level, professional tennis players clock serves that can go beyond 150 miles per hour. As a result, these balls get fluffed up and do not travel as faster as fresh balls from cans. The smallest wear of each ball will considerably affect the flight of the ball when serving.
Used tennis balls are slower and are sometimes referred to as dead balls because they make a thud sound when they hit the turf. They are also generally harder to hit through because, at the point of contact, they are closer to the court surface than new tennis balls and will generally have a low bounce.
When are New Tennis Balls Introduced in a Match?
In hindsight, tennis balls that are used in competitive matches are never recycled for use in other top-level tournaments or matches.
Take, for instance, the famous John Isner-Nicolas Mahut Wimbledon mayhem from 2010 that spanned over three days and took 11 hours of on-court action.
Serve after serve, pound after pound and you would feel sorry for the little fuzzy yellow ball. Except that the first ball and the last ball were never the same, and so too the balls used in the middle of games.
Unlike club or amateur players who do not have the luxury to switch overused balls into new ones, professional players at the top level play with new balls after a pre-determined number of games.
The widely conceptualized reason for this is to maintain the highest degree of uniformity possible and flow in the match both from a spectacle standpoint and the players’ efforts.
Tennis balls tend to wear out very quickly in competitive matches because professional players hit the ball so hard and with distinct ball spin. And besides the racket-ball interaction, the court surface also damages the ball wear over time.
Consequently, tennis balls are produced differently to cater to each surface. A tennis ball that is used on a clay court is more durable than usual because clay court balls tend to wear out quicker than on other surfaces.
This is supported by the view that players apply extra force in their shots due to the slowness of the surface.
A report by the New York Times titled Which Tennis Ball Is In Use, it highlights the different adjustments that tennis players have to make at different tournaments.
For instance, the French Open’s decision to switch its official ball from Babolat to Wilson caused a storm prior to the tournament in 2020, with the 21-time Grand Slam winner Rafael Nadal categorically criticizing the move.
Nadal’s view of the ball being super slow and heavy coincided with the majority of his peers who also lamented the switch. But it is pertinent to note the 2020 French Open was played in autumn rather than summer, which made for a slower, less lively bounce.
It is impossible to know the precise number of balls that are used in one match because of the unpredictable length of the match. Also, Grand Slam tennis uses more tennis balls than say an ATP/WTA 500 or 1000 event. But we can ascertain the number of ball changes during a match.
At the start of a match, six new balls are used and the first ball change occurs after seven games (the warm-up session is the equivalent of two games). Then, the balls are changed after every nine games.
What is the Advantage of Serving with New Tennis Balls?
Serving with new tennis balls is of perceptible difference to the server.
According to data collected from the Infosys platform on ATPtour.com over five seasons (between 2015-2019), depicting the serve performance with new balls, the best servers have each held over 90% of their service games.
Statistically, the newer balls have a direct correlation with a higher percentage of points won by the server.
A player like John Isner, for example, hardly considers clay as his favorite surface. But you would be amazed to learn that the towering American posted an unrivaled record of 95.24% (held 60 out of 63 games) of service games won with new balls between 2015 and 2019.
Picking the right ball before serving can make a difference. Tennis players would almost invariably select two balls out of three or four from the ball kids before serving, and choose the least worn for a first serve. So, is there really an advantage?
Yes, albeit marginally.
New Balls Move Faster Through the Air
There is a high level of risk tolerance behind the first serve simply because the server tries to complement their precision with a lot of power. The ultimate reward is an ace or an unreturnable first serve.
A new tennis ball takes time away from the receiver because they are at their highest potency in terms of speed. The returner has a fraction of a second to make solid contact and put the ball back in play.
Server Gains Foothold in Taking the Second Shot
The receiver would usually stand a few feet behind the baseline to retrieve a first serve.
That puts him in a very fragile position to defend or attack the second shot if the first serve lands successfully. The second shot after serve embodies the art of serve-and-volley, the one-two punch on an empty zone and gives the server plenty of room to work on their next shot.
New Balls Shorten Rallies
New balls are also attributed to shorter rallies, especially on fast courts. They affect how points are played out.
Generally, new balls help players in all sorts of shots but most noticeably on serve. This is why fresh balls tend to benefit tennis’ biggest servers such as Isner, Ivo Karlovic, Kevin Anderson, Roger Federer, and Serena Williams.
These types of players have an efficient first serve that is bedrock to their game.
Final Words on New Balls in Tennis
New balls play their own tactical role and usually aid the stronger servers. They also assist in shortening the rallies and are different from older balls in multiple ways. In a competitive encounter, tennis balls are changed every nine games to keep them fresh.