Tennis balls have undergone an incredible journey.
The journey goes back over 700 years or more. Before there was tennis as we know it, there was a game called Real Tennis, the original racket sport from which the modern game of tennis is derived. Real Tennis, coined the ‘Sport of Kings’, started in England in the 1400’s.
Jesmond Dene, Newcastle Real Tennis Club built 1884
The game was played inside on an oval court with balls that didn’t bounce, weird rackets and a scoring system and rules that would confuse most. But they did use some sort of ball!! Sadly,there are only 27 real tennis courts left in the UK and only 46 left in the world.
The balls in those times were often made of cork, with fabric tightly wound around the cork, and covered with a hand-sewn layer of heavy woven woolen cloth. But since there were no uniform balls in Europe, they could be made of pretty much anything that could fit inside the covering including animal intestines.
The first significant change in the tennis ball came in the 1870s in England when lawn tennis began to replace real tennis as the game. Walter Clopton Wingfield, a Welsh inventor, who was one of the pioneers of lawn tennis began to import rubber balls from Germany where the Germans had been successful in creating vulcanized air-filled balls.
These were light and grey or red in color and had no covering. Then John Moyer Heathcote, an English barrister and real tennis player, suggested covering the rubber ball with flannel. By 1882 Wingfield began advertising his balls as clad in stout cloth. This was the beginning of the balls we know today.
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the entire tennis market was affected. Because 90% of the rubber being cultivated was going to war priorities, this put an end to the manufacturing of tennis balls. Tennis players would go into tennis stores and buy them out in fear there would be no balls on the market.
The Wilson victory ball made of reclaimed rubber and used during World War 2.
The modern ball has gone through its own evolution especially when it comes to the packaging and the cans, and of course, changing the traditional white balls to optic yellow in 1972 so the TV audience could better see the ball.
Interestingly, because of International Tennis Federation regulations, the making of the tennis ball hasn’t changed much in years and most of the factories are the Far East. Outside of Bangkok, Wilson’s 118,403 square foot factory turns out a 100 million of the yellow-green furry things every year, using a process that involves 24 intricate steps.
The relationship with the player and the tennis ball can be a complicated one. Players like Novak Djokovic are so mesmerized by the ball that they will bounce it dozens of times before actually striking it. His bounce record is 39 times in a 2007 Davis Cup match against Australia.
Dominika Cibulkova appears to kiss newly opened tennis balls. She denies that and said instead, “I smell them, I love their smell, the smell of new balls.” The Slovakian claimed that she could smell a ball and know which tournament it came from. At the 2017 Wimbledon Championships, Dominik was blindfolded and then correctly matched each ball by smelling it to the tournament it was originally used in.
In the United States alone 125 million tennis balls are sold each year and 325 million worldwide.
Sadly over 100 million balls are dumped into landfills each year and will take over 450 years to decompose. So the next time you decide to hit a ball over the fence remember, it will likely be there long after you’re gone.