So many elements of these glorious championships are ageless.
Tennis balls, however, age like a pitcher of sunscreen.
Here, players punish these optic yellow Slazengers with such ferocity that balls have to be replaced multiple times per game.
The ball children – boys and girls – only have six balls in circulation at any time during a match. There are three balls per box, and the first two boxes are in play for the first warm-up and seven one-game matches. Thereafter, the balls are changed every nine games.
In two weeks, Wimbledon goes through 55,000 balls, including the 1,700 a day delivered to the training grounds in unopened boxes.
“We have a store which is absolutely packed at the start of the tournament, and now even with a week left it feels like all the balls are gone,” said Wimbledon head of ball distribution Andy Chevalier, who begins the legendary event. with 58,000 balls.
“So the first few days we go through loads and loads. As we lose competitors and the matches get shorter because the juniors only play three sets instead of five, it seems like you’re almost out of balls. But you do it, you’re fine.
John Isner and Nicolas Mahut tore through 42 cans of balls in 2010, when they played 183 matches in a marathon game that lasted over 11 hours spread over three days. With the recent addition of a champions tie-break 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 place since 1902, making it the oldest sponsorship in tennis, and perhaps all sports.
“Balls are so important, and they change,” said five-time Wimbledon doubles champion Pam Shriver. “They are so different from the French Open here and what they play with at the US Open. No two brands of tennis balls are exactly the same.
Wilson supplies the balls for the US Open and the French Open. Dunlop supplies them for the Australian Open.
“Looking for a lack of fluff. If a ball is inflated, it is a bigger ball. It will go slower in the air.
— Former Wimbledon champion Pat Cash
Manufacturers aside, balls that may look identical to the untrained eye can have significant differences from a player’s perspective. This is why players, and especially men, usually ask to be thrown three balls before serving, examine them carefully, then choose one to put in a pocket and another to throw. (Frequently, women choose one of the two.)
So what are gamers looking for? What is the difference between two balls which, seen from the stands, look alike?
“It doesn’t take long for the fluff on a ball to get fluffy,” said Australian Pat Cash, who won a men’s singles title at Wimbledon in 1987. “So you’re looking for a lack of fluff. If a ball is inflated, it’s a bigger ball. It’s going to go slower through the air. So if you’re serving, you want a ball that’s not inflated, a new ball that goes through the air faster.
But it’s not always the case. It’s rare, but sometimes players want to pump the brakes on speed and instead use, in Cash’s words, a softer ball.
“I remember when I was playing against Andre Agassi, who was just hitting my serve every time,” said Patrick McEnroe, who like Shriver is now an ESPN analyst. “So I might actually be looking for a fluffier ball, because my serve was so bad that he couldn’t hurt him anyway. Maybe I’m looking for a way not to get hurt as much by the way he castigated the comeback.
Sometimes decisions made by players regarding the ball are based on superstition. If a player serves an ace, he might want to get the same ball back – Andy Murray is like that – and other players have a more systematic approach, not relying on what happened at the previous point.
“I always rotated, so I could follow what ball we had just played with, and I was playing with a different ball each time,” said nine-time Wimbledon winner Martina Navratilova, now an analyst for Tennis Channel. “I wanted the newest ball, so I was always trying to rotate them.”
Sometimes there is spirit. Take the case of French player Richard Gasquet, who reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon in 2007 and ’15.
“He would finish a point and the ball would end up the other side, with the ball on the other side,” McEnroe said. “And he was forcing the kid to throw the ball – which is very unusual, most players don’t do that.
“So some players would keep the ball to piss him off. They would just take the ball and put it in their pocket, just knowing they must have the same ball.
Under each Wimbledon referee’s chair are boxes of balls called 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 ballplayer for one of the balls in circulation and then look to match it with a 3, 5 or 7 in a similar condition.
And here’s the really cool part: balls used in play that are removed from match play are delivered to a kiosk on the Wimbledon grounds and sold to fans at a reasonable price, with proceeds going to charity – three pounds per ball ($3.57) in a presentation box and four pounds ($4.76) for a box of three balls.
“I think it’s the best thing you can buy on the pitch,” Chevalier said. “It’s brilliant.”
The softer, the better.