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BIGGER BALLS FOR TENNIS - AN UNHAPPY SOLUTION

 

Throughout the new millennium there has been widespread consideration of changing to different tennis balls on different surfaces - at least in professional tennis. Behind this lies the notion that the game would to a greater extent be a similar sport, when, because of a slight variation in the properties of the ball, the nature of the game and matches would become more alike on different surface materials. This is also considered to mean that players would not necessarily spelialize so largely in different types of courts as today, but at least in principal everyone would be able to manage (almost) as well - or badly as the case may be - on different surfaces. On faster grounds slower balls and accordingly on slower courts faster balls would be used, while the present traditional ball would be retained for semi-fast or semi-slow courts. Seems fair and logical, but have those who introduced the idea, given it enough thought. Hardly so.

As the prime annual tennis event is played on grass ie. THE fastest surface, development of the idea has concentrated only on how to change the balls in order to suitably slow down the game on faster grounds. This way the entity of the game has been left without proper consideration as has the result of the proposed solution of 6 per cent bigger balls. In public we have seen some ostensibly theoretical measurings of how increasing air resistance and decreasing ball bounce affect the receiver´s reaction time. Plus, practically in lab conditions, with some testees there has been a slight increase on the average duration of points. That´s all. Even when enlightened with this information it is not at all certain that the actual problem ( excessive easiness of keeping your serve, in result of which the points played are short plainly tedious for the audience, who, when it comes to that, pays the entire sport ) will necessarily be much for the better. ( Lost you there, didn´t I? )

Consequences

For argument´s sake, let´s presume that due to, for instance, increasing air resistance the receiver has `sufficiently´ more time to get hold of the ball than at present. Now all grass tournaments are naturally outdoors. The worst inconvenience and, at times, regular nuisance in outdoor tennis is rain. The increased air resistance slowing down the speed of the ball means accordingly that it ( the ball ) is more exposed to wind. In addition to today´s rain pauses we would now have wind pauses as well. This would naturally not occur as often as in, say, ski-jumping, but for a tennis enthusiast every time would be one too many, when in live coverage the commentator would start:`The situation here at Wimbledon is desolate, the flags flutter horizontally, there is way too much wind and in gusts, too. As of know, we have no idea of when the matches will start.´ The example may be far-fetched, but the meaning of it is to show that growing air resistance has its reverse side. On the other hand, the wind inconvenience factor will not be that much greater because of the small increase in air resistance, but in the end also that minimal increase in the receiver´s time to react bears no practical meaning.

The growing impact of spins might also be considered a defect with bigger balls. In fact, this may be enough to deprive the player of the alleged advantage when receiving. On the other hand, the desired powerful spin becomes harder to achieve. As a result, players will obviously change for extra-large frames. The disputes over line decisions will probably be more frequent, too. This may be considered trivial, the umpire is the one to make the decisions, but public rows do not agree very well with the gentleman spirit of tennis. The amount of various arm injuries might also increase because of the extra power needed to get the desired result even in the so called clear-cut situations. The least of the bigger ball disadvantages will probably be the randomness brought along by the larger amount of net-cord balls. The rhytm of the play will also slow down with considerably more net serves.

Matters to consider

Man has stereo sight to judge distances. However, this ability is not as advanced with all people, even when counting out those whose one eye is weaker to start with. Persons with weaker ability can in common situations more or less make up for it with their experience: they can thread the needle and hit the tennis ball. The essential issue here is that dimensions have become so familiar that they can judge distances correctly, though naturally never as well as those people with a particularly good stereo sight. As bigger tennis balls would only be used for one part of the season, the changing of the balls might for some players prove out to be such an extra hindrance that they would perhaps prefer to skip that part of the season altogether. Thus, the players´ specialization for different kinds of surfaces would rather be strengthened than lessened, which was the initial intention.

As mentioned above, the better spin qualities of bigger balls will lead to a greater amount of maximum-sized racket frames. Also, a very swift change to maximum-length (ie. longbody) rackets is to be expected. Most of the current top players use use 27 inch rackets. They are simply used to them and never have had the actual need to learn to play with 29 inch rackets, which according to rules are accessible.

If bigger balls threaten to become reality for example at Wimbledon, at least players who base their game on serve, will decide to switch to these extra-long rackets. After they have cursed the bad hits they get with greater balls, as well as noticed that the empirical part of their evaluation of distance does not work; they tend to hit with the head of the racket, they figure change of equipment will solve the problem. Especially on hard courts there is so little `basic court play´ in their game that the risk of its deterioration may well be taken. Then what? With extra-long rackets and bigger balls they feel that their basic play is much better than with the familiar standard rackets and strange big balls. Actually the game feels much the same as now with ordinary rackets and balls. The explanation is simple: when you play with these six per cent bigger balls from a six per cent longer distance it seems/feels similar to your present playing. At this context it might be taken for an accurate enough fact that the distance between the player´s eye and the ball is c. one metre at the instant of the hit. The `necessary´ six per cent surplus will be acquired almost exactly with these two inches longer rackets. Of course, the situation is not quite the same as now: gravitation does not increase six per cent, but at the time of shorter swings and lighter rackets there will be no real problems in timing.

Naturally those players who do not belong to the group mentioned above, will soon find out that they - especially they - need more reach at least to their serve and at the same time realise that their stronger sections do not deteriorate in consequence. The afore mentioned one metre distance applies for the serve,too. Adjustment cannot be too difficult for them either.

As the tennis season rolls on, it is hardly likely that players would en masse return to their shorter rackets at the introduction of slower courts and normal-sized balls. The hits would tend to be too close ( to the body ), but in an era of larger frames it is not such an issue as the other way round. So, as the season turns to one of its peaks, the French Open, players will have larger angles at their disposal and the receiver´s part will be even worse than today. In addition, the `rule renewal´ included the idea of faster balls for slower ie. clay courts. It is very likely that this kind of situation would develop quite quickly. After all, it would not require such a new type of predominant player as at the racket revolution of the eighties.

Conclusion

Modern technology has made it possible to generate rackets which combine power and accuracy in a completely new manner. As players have simultaneously become even more athletic, the debate on how to slow down the game has started. At this context regrettably little attention has been paid to what we want to slow down. No one has complained that some players hit their ground strokes or volleys so hard that - for public convenience - the opponent cannot reach them or the audience is unable to see the (too-) fast flying ball. This cannot not be a problem as little as it is a problem when 100 metre runners become faster. With bigger balls tennis might altogether lose the fine strokes from the back of the court or putting the opponent under pressure from there. This would lead into a growing desire/need to seal the point at the very start and it was longer rallies we were supposed to be after! This also applies for the idea of using using slower surface materials. As to the basic problem, the excessive importance of the serve, the `renewal´ may indeed be opposite to its original intentions.

A friend of tennis must with more or less mixed feelings wait for the next `biggest innovation since shorts´. Heureka! Let´s make it public here and now. The net must be heightened and guess how much? Two inches ie. six per cent naturally. But `Net-heightening - an unhappy solution´ would be its own story.



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Markus Kaila & Antti Karttinen
Tampere, Finland