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Tennis Balls

There are few sporting sounds as recognisable or as evocative as that of a tennis ball connecting with a racket as the tennis player serves and returns, but the sound is a fairly modern phenomenon as tennis balls began life made with a mixture of ingredients.


Back in the fifteenth century in the days of ‘Real Tennis’, balls were made of wood,  cloth, leather, sheep gut or goat gut and stuffed with sand, soil, chalk, sawdust, human hair and wool – the latter of which was insisted upon by Louis XI. 


No doubt each combination impacted on the performance of the players and the injuries incurred.  Plus, as the balls did not bounce, they had to be kept aloft to sustain the game.


Originally players wore mitts to serve and return, the arrival of rackets – which in truth were more like bats, has been accredited to 16th century monks.


The emergence of lawn tennis in the late 19th century era of manufacturing and mass production brought rubber balls to the game for the first time.  Although still quite heavy they did bounce and brought greater interest, pace and strategy to the game.  It’s no coincidence that at this time tennis became increasingly popular in the UK, USA and Europe for players and spectators.


Little changed until the arrival of vulcanized rubber covered with felt in the 1970s giving the balls greater grip and making them lighter which introduced even greater consistency and excitement.  Back then balls were white, but this was the era of record TV viewings and the growing army of armchair tennis addicts required a ball that was easier to see so the colour yellow was introduced in 1972. 


The most recent innovation is the introduction of pressurized air inside the tennis ball. Those that are pressurised initially give better bounce but this is lost in time and gives a game inconsistency unless ‘new balls’ are brought in after an appropriate time.


Recreational players can pick up tennis balls of any colour, size and pressure at a wide variety of shops and websites but if you’re serious about the game you’re probably best considering a ball that meets the criteria set by the International Tennis Foundation (ITF).


The ITF has three ball categories: Stage 3 (red), Stage 2 (orange) and Stage 1 (green) each on relating to the experience and ability of the player.  Each stage adheres to strict guidelines on size, mass, rebound height and forward deformation.  The ITF publishes a list of all tennis balls approved for each stage and good retailers will specify whether the balls they’re selling are ITF approved and also which stage category they fall into.

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