Soft option fails to stem tennis aces

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The Independent Online
Wimbledon's attempt to make servers a soft touch at this year's tournament, by introducing softer balls, has turned out to be a flop.

An analysis of every point played on the six show-courts by the computer company IBM shows rallies are as short, and serves as fast, as in the previous four years. The new balls, made by Dunlop-Slazenger, have a lower pressure and were introduced as an experiment to lengthen rallies, by making serves slower. Tournament organisers are blaming the weather for speeding up the slower balls. Instead of rain, the heat has made the balls behave like their predecessors. In the past 10 years modern technology, such as large-headed graphite rackets, has made serves faster, and put the receiver at a marked disadvantage on Wimbledon's slick grass courts. In modern tennis matches on grass, the ball is in play for only five minutes of every hour's play.

But the IBM figures show that in the men's tournament, the service is as dominant as ever, with the ball-holder winning an average of 65.2 per cent of points, compared to the average since 1991 of 65.1 per cent. A serve of 134mph - equal to the second fastest since 1991 - was recorded within two days' play. In the women's tournament, the Centre Court has seen the fastest serve this decade, timed at 115mph, while servers are winning 57.1 per cent of points, against a four-year average of 56.6 per cent.

A non-scientific confirmation that the balls feel as hard as before came on Wednesday, when the British player Tim Henman hit a ball girl on the head when he lashed out at a spare ball. The girl fell to the ground in tears. Henman was disqualified.

The players have noticed little difference. "Wimbledon on grass is always going to be fast," said Goran Ivanisevic, the Croatian player noted for his booming serve and tally of aces this week. "I'm still going to hit my 20 or 30 aces [per match] if they make us play with water balls."

A spokeswoman for the All-England Club blamed the lack of difference on the warm weather. "They were using the same balls at the Stella Artois tournament at Queen's a fortnight ago and the players said they could notice the difference," Sue Youngman said.

Wimbledon, page 32