The tennis ball has undergone many transformations in order to get to the modern shape and material used today. Historians document the formation of the tennis ball back to the 1300’s when French aristocracy started to play.
The original tennis ball was actually made of wood and later transitioned to leather with sawdust as the material added inside for an extra bounce. Eventually, the inside of the tennis ball was stuffed with wool and the core was wrapped in twine.
In 1844, Charles Goodyear, a self-taught chemist from the United States, invented and patented the vulcanized rubber process, basically hardening the rubber and revolutionizing the tennis ball. After Goodyear’s invention, a successful group from Germany developed light vulcanized air-filled rubber balls, which were grey or red in colour with no covering.
Welsh inventor Walter Wingfield and Harry Gem, an English lawyer, capitalized on the popularity of lawn tennis, co-founding the game played today by using Victorian lawns that had been laid out for croquet as tennis courts. Wingfield marketed tennis sets complete with a net and racquets which also included rubber balls imported from Germany.
John Moyer Heathcote, an English barrister and tennis aficionado, drafted the original rules of lawn tennis and was the first to experiment with covering a rubber ball with flannel. By 1882, Wingfield was promoting tennis balls that featured a cover made of stout cloth, manufactured in Melton Mowbray, a small town in Leicestershire, England.
In the 1920’s, the balls were pressurized to get greater bounce and faster speed, a huge innovative step at the time. Today, tennis balls are manufactured in factories but the vulcanized rubber process is used with a felt ball covering.
Before 1925, tennis balls were sold in bags or cardboard boxes, which did little to prolong the life of the ball. In 1926, the Pennsylvania Rubber Company (Penn) invented a new airtight cylindrical metal tube that was pressurized. The container held three balls and a church key to open the top.
One year later, not to be outdone, the Wilson-Western Sporting Goods Company (now known as Wilson Sporting Goods) offered their own version of the pressurized cylindrical metal tube. Interestingly, both Wilson and Penn produced cans with “Patented July 20, 1926” listed on the bottom of the container.
During World War II in 1941, war-time rubber priorities put a quick end to the production of new tennis balls. Manufacturers researched ways to create a substitute product that would not use crude rubber and eventually Wilson came up with the “Victory” ball, made with synthetic rubber.
The Victory ball differed from the standard ball at the time in that it had a black seam instead of a white seam and was inflated by means of a chemical pill. The ball was also less lively and 20% more expensive.
In 1967, Sir David Attenborough had the job of introducing colour on television and shortly after the first Wimbledon colour broadcast that year, he made the suggestion of switching to a fluorescent yellow tennis ball for easier visibility.
Attenborough’s influence eventually resulted in the standard tennis ball changing from white to optic yellow in 1972. Ironically, Wimbledon stuck with tradition, electing to continue to use the white ball until 1986.
Today’s tennis ball specifications are controlled by the International Tennis Federation (ITF). The modern ball, mostly made in optic yellow colour, has a diameter between 2.575 inches and 2.7 inches and weigh between 56 grams and 59.4 grams.
The balls today are made by compression molding of a rubber compound into two separate half-shells which are then assembled together to produce a core. The most expensive manufacturing material used is the felt ball cover.
Today there are more than 200 different brands of tennis balls with over 350 million sold worldwide each year. Penn and Wilson tennis balls still maintain the biggest market share.
The recycling of tennis balls did not start until 2015. Three companies (Advanced Polymer Technology, Ace Surfaces and reBounces) joined forces to construct a recycling system that uses old tennis balls to produce a tennis court surface.
In September, 2019, Wilson took a step towards sustainability, releasing the new Triniti tennis ball. Designed in Chicago, the Wilson team replicated the core of the ball and the felt cover, increasing the lifespan of the ball while maintaining a high level of performance consistency.
The latest Triniti tennis ball features a new, lighter core, known as Engage Core, permitting designers to thicken the core’s walls. According to Wilson, the Triniti ball lasts as much as four times longer than a traditional ball, with the same feel and playability.
International Tennis Federeration (ITF) Standards
The International Tennis Federation (ITF) is the main organization for world tennis, wheelchair tennis, and beach tennis. Founded originally in 1913 as the International Lawn Tennis Association (Lawn dropped in 1977) by American Duane Williams who lived in Switzerland, the ITF is comprised of 12 national associations worldwide and is affiliated with over 200 national tennis associations and six regional associations in different parts of the globe.
Part of the ITF’s responsibility is both making and enforcing the rules of the game which includes the tennis ball itself. In addition to the specs already mentioned, tennis balls are tested for bounce by dropping them from a height of 254 cm onto a flat concrete surface at sea-level with a temperature of 20 degrees Celsius and 60% relative humidity. In order for a ball to pass inspection, it must produce a rebound height between 135-147 cm.
Types of Tennis Balls
Pressureless – These balls have solid cores and a long life span. They don’t lose their bounce, but the felt of the ball wears off faster than any other type of ball. These types of balls can be used for any surface and are often used for beginners or recreational play.
Pressurized – These balls have a hollow core filled with air or nitrogen. They come in sealed cans but they begin losing their bounce shortly after the can is opened. These balls are typically used for professional tennis tournaments and this is a high performance ball, bouncing higher than pressuresless tennis balls.
Regular duty – This ball is the best option for both indoor play and clay court use. These balls typically have a thinner felt and are more suitable for a softer surface.
Extra duty – This ball is the ideal choice when playing on concrete/hard court or on a grass court and has a thicker felt so it will be more durable over a longer period of time.
High Altitude – This ball is, according to the ITF, suitable for areas of the world that are 4,000 feet or more above sea level. They were first introduced in 1989. A regular ball in high altitude bounces very high, whereas a high altitude ball is more controlled.
Kids need a tennis ball that is sized and paced to age and ability. Low-compression balls are designed to bounce lower and move slower through the air, giving kids more time to get ready for the next shot and allowing them to strike the ball at a comfortable height. Each age group uses a tennis ball better suited to its size and unique playing ability to help build confidence and develop an enjoyment of the game.
In order to increase tennis participation worldwide and truly grow the game, the ITF recommends a progression, focusing on a range of slower balls and smaller court sizes when starting out. The slowest balls, marked with red, or using red felt, are oversized, under pressurized or made from foam rubber. Those progressing to the next level use orange balls that are also under pressurized but are a normal size. Once youth move up to the next level, they use balls that are green in color, are a normal size and have half the pressure of a regular ball.
For more information, check out: Why Junior-Sized Tennis Balls Are Important