New balls, please: bad news for big hitters

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The Independent Online
BRITISH SCIENTISTS have devised a new breed of slower tennis balls which could turn the men's game at Wimbledon from a demonstration of high-speed serving back into a battle of skill.

Developed and tested at Sheffield University with help from the US space agency Nasa, the new balls, which are seven per cent wider, but no heavier, than standard balls, would slow serves by about 10 per cent. Tennis's governing body will vote next month on whether to introduce them to the game's top levels.

That would eventually offer receivers the crucial few hundredths of a second they need to react in the face of 140mph rockets such as those sent down by Britain's Greg Rusedski. On fast surfaces like grass, few points last more than three shots - serve, return and winning volley.

Interest in men's tennis has waned in the past few years as the prevalence of fast surfaces and space-age rackets in the hands of highly trained athletes has turned matches into shootouts far removed from the rallying epics of the 1970s and early 1980s involving players like Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors and John McEnroe.

Increasingly, tiebreaks at six-all are the only way to resolve sets which could otherwise go on for ever: last year almost a fifth of the sets in men's matches at Wimbledon were resolved by a tiebreak. When the tiebreak was introduced in 1968, only about 10 per cent of sets required it.

The International Tennis Federation (ITF) will vote in three weeks' time on a plan to introduce the slower balls in junior tournaments around the world, as a test of their effectiveness. If successful, they could then be used in senior professional tournaments.

"The larger ball does look just that bit bigger, though it weighs the same," said Dr Steve Haake who led the research at the University of Sheffield's sports engineering group. "The result is that they have more air resistance, so they drop more steeply to the ground and bounce higher." That means receivers get about three-hundredths of a second extra to react to the ball, enough to increase the chances of a successful return.

Other versions of the balls, devised by three postgraduate students led by Dr Haake, would speed up play on slower surfaces such as clay, used at the French Open in Paris.

The new balls could solve the problem which has troubled the ITF for the whole decade. Previous suggestions included a serving line behind the baseline, forcing servers to stay on the floor, banning graphite rackets and cutting the number of serves from two to one. All were deemed unsuitable because they would introduce artificial differences in rules between amateur and professional games.

t The Mayan people of Mexico were making elastic bands and solid rubber "superballs" for games almost 3,500 years before modern rubber production, scientists have discovered.

Centuries before the accidental discovery of the vulcanisation process made rubber commercially widespread, the Mayans were mixing latex rubber from a native tree with a vine extract to produce solid balls, rubber bands able to hold axe heads on hafts, and solid and hollow human figurines, according to a report in the journal Science. Excavations at a site in Veracruz in Mexico have uncovered balls ranging from 13 to 30 centimetres (5-12 inches) in diameter, and weighing from 0.5 to 7 kilograms.