New balls please, and not just for tennis

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The Independent Online
TENNIS'S contribution to the common good of sport has been rather limited in recent years. Other games have enough petulant dissent and grimness of purpose of their own to benefit from seeing such qualities being raised to an art form on the tennis court. And the latest theory being promulgated by the sport's most recent major champion - that scruffiness is next to Godliness - is not likely to impress either.

Suddenly, from this game beset by all manner of rigor mortis problems comes a tiny speck of light that could eventually bathe us all. By changing the specifications of the tennis ball, they may well be able to demonstrate to the sporting world that there are ways to improve play that do not involve showering the top participants with more money.

The rules of tennis are being altered to allow a harder, faster ball to be used on the slow clay courts of the French Open. At the moment, the ball tends to plop over the French net like a doughboy but the change will add a little zip and spice up the rallies.

While they were at it, you would have thought that the introduction of a slower, softer ball to Wimbledon might help them cure the exact opposite problem, that of thundering fast serves, rare returns and rarer rallies. It seems the International Tennis Federation changed their minds about a rule change in this respect because the existing regulations already allow Wimbledon to introduce a ball likely to bring more skill back into the exchanges. They have yet to decide whether to do so.

The same effect might be gained by going back to wooden rackets, but changing the balls would seem to be a simpler solution. The new balls would be available only to the pros. As Harold Wilson might say to club players, this will not affect the ball in your pocket which will retain its present properties and remain unforgivably overpriced.

This attempt by tennis to rescue the game from the consequence of evolution must have implications for other sports. Rugby union is a classic example of a game that has found it necessary to adjust rules regularly in order to cope with developments on the field of play. One problem defying solution is the distortion that the penalty kick inflicts on so many matches. The letters section of sports pages continue to be dominated by supporters suggesting various remedies. Altering the weight of the ball has yet to be given any earnest consideration.

The weight of the rugby ball at the moment is between 400 and 440 grams, which is roughly 14-16 ounces. There are variations in shape between various manufacturers. Older players tend to favour the more pointed Gilbert ball while others like the rounded Mitre or Adidas versions. What the rugby authorities ought to be considering is a change in the weight of the ball that would render kicking at goal a more difficult art than it is now without affecting the handling part of the game.

A lighter ball would provide a greater test of the kicker's skills, particularly in the wind, and when it came to the punt its descent would be more difficult to judge for the poor soul waiting to catch it. Passes might be inclined to float, making interceptions easier and the reception of the ball a little more difficult for the ham-fisted.

A heavier ball would make long-distance kicking less inviting a prospect and more penalties might be run as a result. Handling may be easier for the pass receiver but it would depend how much heavier the ball was made. A heavy ball passed at full power by a large centre could carry a light winger over the touchline. These logistical matters, of course, would have to be properly examined.

If rugby could benefit from a change of ball weight, the same could surely be said for football. Indeed, there are many former footballers who swear that the old T-panel football was much weightier than the modern ball and would hardly be shifted by the present-day players with the flimsy slippers they wear. Indeed, many of us put our baldness down to the systematic destruction of our hair-follicles during years of heading the old T-panel. Maybe brain-cells, too.

But the football has remained at a similar weight to a rugby ball, 14-16 ounces, since it was last changed in 1937. Before then, believe it or not, the weight of the ball was between 12 and 15 ounces. So the ball has got heavier since Charlie Buchan and his contemporaries used to belt it around with those great clod-hopping boots.

Considering how hard they appear to kick the ball these days and how thrilling it is to see a long-range shot on target, perhaps they should experiment to discover the weight of ball that will travel fastest. We should get more goals as a result. Alternatively, we could get rid of the Route One tactic if we had a ball too heavy to be kicked more than 30 yards.

The golf ball has probably seen more advance than any and at the moment the manufacturers are right up against the limits imposed by the rules. The technology exists to make balls that the average golfer could hit 300 yards and the pros around 400 yards. They would make a nonsense of existing courses. Send me a dozen and pulp the rest.

What would Curtly Ambrose make of a cricket ball half the present weight? How would badminton players react to an aluminium shuttlecock? The possibilities abound.

THE British Olympic Association chairman, Craig Reedie, wants to talk to the four home football associations about the possibility of entering a British team in the 1996 Olympics. I fear they will be greeted with the

ashen-faced alarm of men conditioned to deny that we even live next door to each other.

I have long advocated that we should enter a UK team for the World Cup so that we should have a better chance of qualifying every time and giving a good account of ourselves when we get there. It has always been treated as a treasonable suggestion because they believe it would lead to the rest of the world insisting that we became one association permanently.

Although understanding their anxiety to keep a grip on their autonomy, this has never been a realistic apprehension and is certainly even less so now. The break-up of the communist bloc has brought a wave of new countries into football from Moldova to Lithuania. England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland were football associations in their own right before the rest of the world knew what a football was.

Perhaps I can accept their obstinacy about the World Cup, despite the thought of the great players to whom we have denied the chance of appearance at the highest level. But the Olympics applies only to players under 23.

In 1996, the British players who would qualify to go to Atlanta include Ryan Giggs of Manchester United, Robbie Fowler and Jamie Redknapp of Liverpool, Simon Donnelly of Celtic, Sol Campbell of Spurs and a good few others well worthy of the honour. Each team is allowed three over-age players, so men of the calibre of Alan Shearer could be drafted in.

Is there anyone in Britain who wouldn't want to see such a team in Olympic action? The priority should not be administrative anxiety but the interests of the players and the nation as a whole.