By Giri Nathan
Perhaps the strangest comment ever made in the afterglow of a Slam victory was the complaint lodged by Ash Barty’s coach, Craig Tyzzer, after his charge had won the 2022 Australian Open without dropping a set. “The US Open really needs to change the ball for the girls. The fact they still use a different ball for guys and girls, it’s a terrible ball for someone like Ash,” Tyzzer said this January, briefly veering into the technical details that all you nerds eat up. “It was the only tournament last year and really for two years where she uses a gut racquet, but I had to change her to a poly just to get any sort of control of the ball. If they keep that ball the same, no one like Ash will win that tournament.” His words were sort of prophetic: Barty never did win the US Open, the one major that eluded her. Though perhaps that has more to do with the fact that she retired this April than the fact that the Open uses a problematic tennis ball.
Still, I’ve had Tyzzer’s words stuck in my head, in part because it’s funny to moan about a random tournament immediately after winning a different one, in part because the good folks at The Tennis Podcast never fail to resurface that quote, and in part because there’s a kernel of genuine mystery. Are the balls at the Open really determining which players can succeed there? No other major uses different balls for the men and women’s tours. Iga Swiatek, with all the clout of the No. 1 rank, has become the most prominent hater of the ball, which is used during the North American hard-court swing, where she stumbled this summer. “Basically the thing is that they are lighter. They fly like crazy. You know, we have really powerful games right now. It’s not like 10 years ago—except Serena, girls, I think they played slower, right?” Swiatek said in Cincinnati. “Right now we play powerful, and we kind of can’t loosen up our hands with these balls. I know that there are many players who complain, and many of them are top 10.” She also said that the balls made for visually unappealing tennis.
Wilson makes both “regular-duty” and “heavy-duty” balls for the Open, to be used by the women and men, respectively. As a Wilson product director explained to the WSJ in 2019, those balls are indistinguishable by most measures: “Based on the weight, circumference, rebound and deformation, a measure of hardness, you wouldn’t be able to decipher a difference between the two.” But on court, players may be affected by the sole difference between the balls: the felt on the surface. The weave of that felt is tighter on the regular-duty balls, which causes less air resistance and lets the ball fly through the air faster than the fluffier extra-duty ball would. This makes the players feel that it’s a “lighter” ball, despite its identical weight.
World No. 4 Paula Badosa reshared Swiatek’s lament on Instagram, adding a poop emoji for good measure. In another post, Badosa pointed out that a canister of extra-duty balls reads “ideal for longer play on hard court surfaces”—which best describes the US Open—while the regular-duty can reads “ideal for indoor and clay surfaces.” World No. 8 Jessica Pegula backed up Swiatek’s complaint, and said she might use her power as a member of the WTA player council to “get something together and maybe make it more consistent.” At least No. 20 Madison Keys, who beat Swiatek in Cincinnati, stands up for these beleaguered balls, which are her “favorite.” It’s difficult to discern much of a pattern here among these players in terms of playing style, so it may just be a matter of personal taste.
The WTA seems open to revisiting a choice initially made in the early 1980s, with player health in mind. “The basis behind using the regular felt ball was that it limited the potential of arm, shoulder, elbow and wrist injuries,” said a WTA spokesperson in a statement to The Washington Post, acknowledging player complaints. “This is something that we will continue to monitor and discuss further with both our athletes and our sports science teams.” If they do change it up, Craig Tyzzer is obligated to get Ash Barty back on court to test his hypothesis.
Above: Fuzzy buddy: The 2017 US Open ball. (Getty)