There’s nothing like the feeling of hitting a brand new tennis ball with the middle of the racquet to win a shot.
It’s one of the reasons why tennis is such an addictive sport!
The wonderful pop of the ball as it flies off the racquet feels great.
But have you ever paused for a moment and wondered where tennis balls came from?
Or why they are fuzzy and yellow?
Well, you’ve reached the right place. This article will share the history of the tennis ball and explain how it came to look the way it does.
Table of Contents
The origins of tennis can be traced back to the 12th Century in Northern France when aristocrats developed a handball game called jeu de paume (“game of the palm”).
However, the first tennis courts in the modern style weren’t developed until the 13th Century, when Louis X of France constructed several indoor courts.
The tennis balls used during this time were made from a wide variety of materials. However, it is suspected that they would usually be leather pouches containing wool, chalk, dust, sand, or sawdust. As you can imagine, they weren’t particularly good at bouncing!
In 1480, Louis XI of France restricted the use of tennis balls containing certain materials, proclaiming that all tennis balls should be:
“good leather, well-stuffed with wool balls”.
By the 16th Century, tennis was taking off in Britain. The tennis balls used during this time were mostly made from a combination of putty and human hair.
By the 18th Century, this changed to balls made from a cork nucleus surrounded by small strips of wool, strings, and white cloth.
The Scottish were quite inventive when it came to making tennis balls. They created balls made from wool-wrapped stomachs of goats and sheep that were tied together with string.
They also used animal fur and rope made from animal intestines or muscles to make balls. Disgusting but effective!
The biggest change to the tennis ball occurred in the 1870s when lawn tennis became popular in Britain. Players began using vulcanized, air-filled rubber balls which were imported from Germany.
They had a fantastic amount of bounce on the hard croquet lawns commonly used by British players, which changed the nature of the game. These balls were plain rubber and usually grey or red in color.
Towards the end of the 19th Century, British tennis pioneer John Moyer Heathcore suggested that tennis balls be covered with flannel.
This would slow the ball’s speed slightly and make them softer. There were multiple types of tennis balls available, depending on your play time.
The final major breakthrough came in the 1920s when pressurized air was used for tennis balls and they were covered with felt. To ensure these balls didn’t lose their bounce while on the shelves, they have to be stored in hermetically sealed cans.
The International Tennis Federation instituted strict codes about tennis balls around this time. This included rules for how bouncy each ball should be under specific environmental conditions.
Since 1972, tennis balls used in professional games have been colored “fluorescent yellow” or “optic yellow”. The reason they are yellow? The advent of color television.
Bright yellow balls are much easier for television viewers to see.
Yellow also contrasts nicely against green grass courts and brown clay courts.
Tennis balls aren’t fuzzy just for fun. They have fuzz because it changes the aerodynamics and hardness of the ball. Fuzzy tennis balls are softer and fly through the air slower than a plain rubber ball.
The fuzzy covering also helps to regulate how tennis balls bounce, as it prevents the ball from skidding like a plain rubber ball might. Finally, the fuzz allows players to place more spin on the ball, as it provides more surface area and traction for the racquet.
The ‘stripes’ on tennis balls are actually seams where the felt is attached to the rubber. The felt patches are attached to the rubber ball with a vulcanizing solution.
The International Tennis Federation is a real stickler when it comes to rules.
A regulation tennis ball must be between 65.41 mm and 68.58 mm in size and weight between 56 grams and 59.4 grams. It must also bounce in a specific way.
When a ball is dropped from a height of 254 cm onto concrete, it must bounce back between 135 cm and 147 cm.
This test is performed at a uniform temperature of 20°C with 60 percent humidity and atmospheric pressure of 102 kPa. They really take their tennis ball regulations seriously!