Many elements of these glorious championships are ageless.
Tennis balls, however, age like a pitcher of cream in the sun.
The players here punish these optic yellow Slazengers with such ferocity that the balls have to be replaced multiple times per match.
Ball boys and girls have only six balls in circulation at any one time during a game. There are three balls per can, and the first two cans are up for grabs for the first warm-up and seven games of a match. Thereafter, the balls are changed every nine games.
Over the course of two weeks, Wimbledon goes through 55,000 balls, including 1,700 a day delivered to the practice courts in unopened cans.
“We have a store that is absolutely packed at the start of the tournament, and now, even with a week to go, it seems like all the balls are gone,” said Andy Chevalier, Wimbledon’s ball distribution manager, who kicks off the historic event. with 58,000 balls.
“So the first few days, we went through lots and lots. As we lose competitors, and as matches get shorter because juniors only play three sets instead of five, it seems you hardly have any balls left. But you do, you’re fine.
John Isner and Nicolas Mahut smashed 42 ball cans in 2010, when they played 183 games in a marathon game that lasted more than 11 hours spread over three days. With the recent addition of a tiebreaker of champions at the end of the final set, the most cans used in a five-set match is 18 and 10 in a three-set match.
The partnership between Slazenger and Wimbledon has been in existence since 1902, making it the longest-running sponsorship in tennis, and perhaps in all sports.
“The balls are very important and they change,” said Pam Shriver, a five-time Wimbledon doubles champion. “They are very different from the French Open to what they play at the US Open. No two brands of tennis balls are exactly the same.”
Wilson provides the balls for the US Open and the French Open. Dunlop supplies them for the Australian Open.
“You’re looking for a lack of fluff. If a ball is fluffy, it is a bigger ball. It’s going to go slower through the air.”
— Pat Cash, former Wimbledon champion
Manufacturers aside, balls that may appear identical to the untrained eye may have significant differences from a player’s perspective. That’s why players, and particularly men, usually have three balls thrown at them before they serve, examine them closely, then choose one to pocket and one to discard. (Often women choose one of two.)
So what are players looking for? What is the difference between two balls that, from the stands, look the same?
“It doesn’t take long for the fluff on a ball to become fluffy,” said Australia’s Pat Cash, who won a Wimbledon men’s singles title in 1987. “So you look for the lack of fluff. If a 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 isn’t swollen, a new ball that goes through the air faster.”
But that is not always the case. It’s rare, but sometimes players want to slow down the speed and instead use, in terms of Cash, a fluffier ball.
“I remember when I was playing Andre Agassi, who hit my serve every time,” said Patrick McEnroe, who like Shriver is now an ESPN analyst. “So I might go for a ball that was more swollen, because my serve was so bad I couldn’t hurt him anyway. Maybe I’m looking for a way to not feel so hurt by the way he criticized the return.”
Sometimes the ball decisions players make are based on superstition. If a player serves an ace, he may want to get the same ball back (Andy Murray is like that) and other players have a more systematic approach, one that isn’t based on what happened at the previous point.
“He would always rotate, so he could keep track of which ball we had just played with, and he would play a different ball each time,” said nine-time Wimbledon winner Martina Navratilova, now an analyst for Tennis Channel. “He wanted the newest ball, so he was always trying to rotate them.”
Sometimes there is gambling involved. Consider the case of French player Richard Gasquet, who reached the Wimbledon semi-finals in 2007 and 2015.
“I would finish a point and the ball would end up on the other side, with the ball boy on the other side,” McEnroe said. “And he would have the ball boy throw the ball, which is very unusual, most players don’t do that.
“So some players would really keep the ball to piss him off. They just took the ball and put it in his pocket, knowing that he had to have the same ball.”
Beneath each Wimbledon umpire’s chair are canisters of balls labeled 3, 5 and 7. These are balls that have been used for approximately three, five or seven matches. If a ball is hit into the crowd and needs to be replaced, the umpire will ask a ball boy for one of the balls in circulation and then look to match it with a 3, 5 or 7 under similar conditions.
And here’s the really cool part: Used in-game balls that are removed from matches are given to a kiosk on the Wimbledon grounds and sold to fans for a reasonable price, with the proceeds going to charity. : three pounds per ball ($3.57) in a presentation box and four pounds ($4.76) for a tin of three balls.
“I think it’s the best you can buy on the field,” Chevalier said. “It is brilliant.”
The fluffier the better.