The History Of Tennis Balls

A tennis ball is very distinctive and are used by millions of children and adults all over the world for playing tennis, of course, but many, many other less formal games too. They are not merely the correct size for tennis, presumably anyway at 2.7 inches or 6.7 centimetres in diameter, but they also fit neatly into a hand or a dog’s mouth. Therefore people use them for playing catch, for various games of softball like rounders and for throwing for the dog to retrieve.

Whilst I was a child, all tennis balls were white, but now you would be very hard pressed indeed to find a white one if, if indeed it is at all possible. These days, all tennis balls are day-glow colours like yellow, green and orange. Presumably this change was made for the sake of visibility on the TV screen.

The word ‘tennis’ comes from the French – ‘Tenez’ (pronounced ‘teney’), which meant ‘Take up Position’ or just ‘Begin’. The origins of tennis were almost certainly well over a thousand years ago, when it was played by monks. The racquet or racket was the palm of the hand and the ball was wooden.

No-one is really sure whether the next innovation was to wear leather mitts or to modify the ball to leather, but whichever it was, there was obviously a move to make the game less painful. When the ball was changed from being wooden, it was made of animal skin, most frequently leather, sewn up with sinews and stuffed with anything that came to hand, such as straw, wool and hair – animal and human.

The point is that these early wooden and leather balls did not bounce, so the game was very different back then. Eventually, the monks began using ‘racquets’, but they looked more like bats than modern day tennis racquets.

In Disraeli’s book, “Sybil” (1845), the story line reveals how Lord Eugene De Vere was to go to Hampton Court to play tennis, so the game was a recognized sport then, but it took until the late Nineteen Century for the game that we know today to be formalized by a set of rules. In 1874, Major Walter Wingfield was granted the patent for the rules and equipment of ‘lawn tennis’ and not much has altered since.

The next year tennis courts were set up in the USA and then the game of tennis spread like wildfire. Wingfield laid down the rules of the game and the type of apparatus to be used. The game has not altered much since then in essence, but it has changed a lot nevertheless. The shape of the court is different now and science has been applied to the apparatus to improve it.

The original ball in the late Nineteenth Century was manufactured of solid rubber and so would have been quite weighty, but at least it did bounce which instantly made the game more interesting and more lively. A bouncing ball made tennis into a more interesting game to play and a more interesting game to watch. The rubber ball allowed tennis to be a spectator sport that crowds would pay to watch.

Modern tennis balls have a rubberized skin, which is around eighty percent rubber, filled with air and covered by a layer of ‘hairy’ felt. The felt is important because it allows the surface of the ball more grip and can standardize the bounce too. It also gives the ball a more predictable flight path even in the presence of wind.

The last aspect of modern tennis balls is the air inside. This can either be pressurized or non-pressurized. Pressurized balls give a better bounce whilst new, but they lose pressure with time and so are less reliable, whereas non-pressurized balls actually improve slightly with use, which is considered a benefit.

If you are a beginner tennis player or are interested in tennis balls and other tennis equipment, please visit our web site entitled Tennis Tips for Beginners

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