So many elements of these famous championships are timeless.
However, tennis balls age like a jug of cream in the sun.
The players here punish these optically yellow Slazengers with such ferocity that the balls have to be exchanged several times per match.
Ball kids – boys and girls – only have six balls in circulation during a match. There are three balls in one can, and the first two cans are in play for the first warm-up and seven games of the match. After that, the balls are changed every nine games.
55,000 balls will be played at Wimbledon over two weeks, including 1,700 a day delivered to the practice courts in unopened cans.
“We have a shop that is absolutely packed at the start of the tournament and now, even with a week to go, it feels like all the balls are gone,” said Andy Chevalier, ball distribution manager at Wimbledon, which kicks off the legendary event. with 58,000 balls.
“So the first few days we go through piles and piles. As we’re losing competitors and the matches are getting shorter because the juniors are only playing three sets instead of five, it seems like you’re running out of balls. But there you are, you’re fine.”
John Isner and Nicolas Mahut in 2010 they broke 42 cans of balls when they played 183 games in a marathon that lasted more than 11 hours spread over three days. With the recent addition of the champions tiebreak at the end of the final set, the most cans used in a five-set match are 18 and 10 in a three-set match.
The partnership between Slazenger and Wimbledon dates back to 1902, making it the longest running sponsorship in tennis and possibly all of sports.
“The balls are so important and they change,” said Pam Shriver, a five-time Wimbledon doubles champion. “They’re so different from the French Open to here than what they play at the US Open. No two brands of tennis balls are exactly the same.”
Wilson provides balls for the US Open and French Open. Dunlop provides them at the Australian Open.
“You’re looking for a lack of fluff. If the ball is fluffy, it is a bigger ball. It will go slower through the air.’
— Former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash
Manufacturers aside, balls that may appear identical to the untrained eye can be vastly different from the player’s perspective. This is why players, and especially men, usually require three balls to be thrown to them before serving, examine them thoroughly, then pick one to pocket and another to discard. (Women often choose one of the two.)
So what are players looking for? What is the difference between two balls that look the same from the stands?
“It doesn’t take long for the fluff on the ball to breathe,” said Australia’s Pat Cash, who won the men’s singles title at Wimbledon in 1987. “So you’re looking for a lack of fluff. If the ball is fluffy, it is a bigger ball. It will go slower through the air. So if you’re serving, you want a ball that’s not fluffy, a new ball that goes through the air faster.”
But this is not always the case. It’s rare, but sometimes players want to slow down and use, in Cash’s words, a fluffier ball instead.
“I remember when I was playing Andre Agassi, he was just pounding my serve every time,” said Patrick McEnroe, who, like Shriver, is now an ESPN analyst. “So I could actually look for a ball that was fluffier because my serve was so bad it couldn’t hurt him anyway. Maybe I’m looking for a way to not get hurt the way the comeback detonated.’
Sometimes players’ decisions about the ball are based on superstition. If a player serves an ace, he might want the same ball back – Andy Murray is like that – and other players have a more systematic approach that doesn’t rely on what happened on the previous point.
“I was always rotating, so I could see which ball we were playing, and I was playing a different ball every time,” said nine-time Wimbledon champion Martina Navrátilová, now an analyst for the Tennis Channel. “I wanted the latest ball, so I always tried to turn them.
Sometimes there’s even game art involved. Consider the case of French player Richard Gasquet, who reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 2007 and 2015.
“He would finish the point and the ball would end up on the other side with the kid with the ball on the other side,” McEnroe said. “And he got the kid to throw the ball – which is very unusual, most players don’t do that.
“So some players would actually keep the ball to annoy him. They would just take the ball and put it in their pocket, just knowing they had to have the same ball.”
Beneath each Wimbledon umpire’s chair are tins of balls labeled 3s, 5s and 7s. These are balls that have been used for approximately three, five or seven games. If the ball is hit into the crowd and needs to be replaced, the umpire will ask the child with the ball for one of the balls in circulation and try to match it with a 3, 5 or 7 ball in similar condition.
And here’s the really cool part: The balls used in the game, which are retired from match play, are delivered to a kiosk on the grounds of Wimbledon and sold to fans at a reasonable price, with the proceeds going to charity – three pounds per ball ($3.57 USD) in a presentation box and four pounds ($4.76) for a tin of three balls.
“I think it’s the best thing you can buy on the property,” Chevalier said. “It’s amazing.”
The fluffier the better.