Have you wondered what are tennis players looking for when they are checking for tennis balls before serving? Here’s an explanation on that.
We have all seen professional tennis players pick up a ball, give it a quick inspection, discard it and choose another one. Most people think it is a superstition – maybe the player thinks he will serve better or have more luck with the other ball – but there is actually a good scientific reason for players choosing their balls.
Smooth Tennis Balls v Fluffy Tennis Balls
Tennis balls, manufactured in enormous quantities, are made of a bouncy rubber, two halves put together and covered with felt. The felt covering is not just to make the balls look good; the covering is functional.
The felt covering slows the speed of the ball in the air, it regulates the bounce, and it makes the balls a little softer. The covering gives the tennis ball a good amount of surface for spin.
The more the ball is hit, the more fluffy the ball becomes. And it is this fluff that tennis players are looking for. Or, it is the smoothness they are looking for. Here’s why.
A Smooth Tennis Ball is Faster
We must remember that in professional tennis, the game is started with brand new tennis balls. The players have no choice as to which balls they use because they are all exactly the same. But the more they play and hit the ball, the quicker the balls change. And this is when the players start selecting their balls before they serve.
A smoother ball is preferred for a first serve. A fluffy ball is preferred for a second serve. A smooth ball, meaning a newer ball, travels faster.
The hairs are flattened down and the ball travels quickly through the air. A fast ball is harder to return than a slow ball, but it is also harder to control, meaning the server could make a mistake. For this reason, the player uses a fluffy ball for a second serve. It doesn’t travel as fast but it’s easier to control, meaning it has more chance of going in, even if it is a few split seconds slower.
A fluffier ball means there is less chance of the player serving a double fault.
Are Players Allowed to Choose Balls?
The laws in professional tennis are that the players can check three balls before they serve, so that they can choose one smooth and one fluffy ball.
Not all players do this; some may prefer smooth all the way, or fluffy all the way. But most players go for one of each, especially those players who are on the major tennis tours. Also, we say that the rules are the players can check three balls, but they are allowed to check as many as they want, but there is an unspoken agreement about three maximum.
The Tennis Serve
When you watch a professional tennis game on television, you always see the stats. You see how many first serves are in, how many double faults are served, and you see the speed of the service.
You can also, by listening to the commentators, see how tennis players use strategy for every part of their game, in particular the serve. You can see strategy before they even start serving, and this is the way they choose their balls. It can also be in how many times they bounce the ball before the serve, the time they take to serve, how they survey the court, in the speed or placing of the serve, or both, of the serve, and in body language.
Yes, body language is used in strategy too.
First Serve v Second Serve
Traditionally, a first serve is always going for extreme speed. A player is putting all his effort into his first serve. The ideal result is an ace, or that the ball is so fast and so hard, and so accurate, that the opponent cannot return it.
A second serve is slower. Firstly, the server cannot take too many risks with a second serve. He or she does not want the second serve to fail. It is therefore a slower serve, which does not mean it is an easy serve, and it is a serve that is more likely to result in a rally.
A Variety of Tennis Balls
There are a variety of tennis balls on the market, including:
- Regular Duty or All-Court Tennis Balls
- Extra Duty or Hard-Court Tennis Balls
- Grass Court Tennis Balls
- High Altitude Tennis Balls
When you play a game of tennis, unless you have no choice, the same tennis balls are used.
Slazenger tennis balls are used at Wimbledon, and have been since 1902. That is pretty incredible.
The Australian Open has a deal with Dunlop, but before Dunlop they used Wilson Tennis Balls.
At the French Open, Roland Garros, there have been a number or changes. They are now using Wilson, although have used Babolat and Dunlop in the past.
The U.S. Open also uses Wilson and have for the last forty years.
What Happens to the Old, Used Tennis Balls?
If you think about professional tennis, a lot of tennis balls are used in every tournament. Over 54 thousand tennis balls are used during a two week tennis tournament. Balls are changed every seven and nine games alternately. This means the balls are still good when they are changed.
It’s why the balls are changed every seven and nine games alternately (after the first seven, the next nine, next seven and so on throughout the match).
The old balls are often auctioned off for charities, or sold to charities, and of course a lot of them are given away to disadvantaged communities.
The old balls are also sold as souvenirs for people who attend Wimbledon – with the profits going to charity.
There is a kiosk that sells these balls. Remember, players pick up three balls (usually) before they serve, and toss one away. This means when you buy used Wimbledon tennis balls, some of them are going to be in perfect condition!