Tennis: Ball is left in Wimbledon's court: New regulations will speed up the game on clay, but grass court question still has to be tackled - John Roberts on the problems of power that are facing the All England Club

THE International Tennis Federation yesterday corrected its announcement concerning the specifications of the ball. Though rules were altered at the weekend to allow for a harder, faster ball to speed up play on the slow clay courts of the French Open, no change was made with regard to faster surfaces, such as Wimbledon.

As unforced errors go, this one by the sport's governing body at least had the merit of raising a point. Wimbledon have as pressing a need as the French to make their championships more attractive, particularly in view of the negative response to the past two men's singles finals.

There is plenty of scope within the existing regulations for the All England Club to use a softer, lighter, slower ball, affording less power to players' elbows and inducing longer rallies.

'They (the ITF) are not changing the rule to accommodate Wimbledon should we wish to use softer balls,' Chris Gorringe, the All England Club's chief executive, said, adding that any changes for the championships would not be considered until discussions take place next spring.

Wimbledon's problem in addressing the so-called 'power game' - a combination of physically stronger players and advanced racket technology - is acute. While it is possible to make clay courts faster and to reduce the pace of rubberised concrete and indoor courts, it is not easy to tamper with grass. The sport's only natural surface continues to be dominated by big-serving players.

Statistics presented by the men's ATP Tour showed that the average length of a point on grass in the 1990s was 2.7 seconds compared with 3.8 seconds in the 1970s. On clay, the average length in the 1990s was 8.2 seconds, against 9.2 seconds in the 1970s.

The most radical change to redress the imbalance would be a return to wooden rackets, which is a non-starter. Another possible solution, restricting racket technology, has been discussed without the slightest hint of progress.

Experimentation with a slower ball would at least show the public that there is no complacancy.

A slightly slower ball was tried twice during the Bjorn Borg era, prompting immediate complaints by players that their arms were suffering. That was during the age of wooden rackets, though there is no guarantee that similar moans would not be heard nowadays.

About 31,200 balls are used on average during the Wimbledon championships, and players regard most of them as yellow perils designed to sabotage their prospects of glory.

This is not a slight on the integrity of the All England Club or any particular manufacturer. The suspicion is universal. It manifests wherever the sport is played, on whatever surface, no matter who makes the balls. It appears to be part of the players' psyche to assume that at least one rogue ball lurks in every batch as surely as there is a bad apple in every barrel.

How many times have we seen a player give a ball to an umpire, declaring it unsuitable for play, particularly after losing a point? Usually the umpire will squeeze the offending missile and then place it in his pocket. Perhaps the player is correct, and the ball is faulty; perhaps the umpire is humouring him.

Occasionally, by contrast, there emerges a silver bullet, a ball which is perceived by the server to have produced an ace, a service winner, an unstoppable volley or drive. In many cases, the player will not take his eye off that ball until it is returned to his grasp, rejecting alternatives tossed to him.

Top-class players are so sensitive to the slightest variable which can alter rhythm and break concentration that the very ping when a ball meets the strings of an opponent's racket is viewed an essential clue as to the type of shot being played.

Objections by opponents to the grunting of such as Monica Seles, Jimmy Connors and Thomas Muster were raised not on aesthetic grounds, but because the noise muffled the sound of the ball being struck. There is more to this than imagination. Players whose ears are bunged up from the effects of a cold complain that they cannot time the ball properly.

Wimbledon welcomes the ITF's decision to limit the time between points from 25 to 20 seconds. 'We are delighted,' Gorringe said, 'as we believe that one area of the game which needs improving is for there to be less delay during the course of the match, giving the fans more tennis to watch, and indeed we have been lobbying for this for some considerable time.'

The time during points remains a problem.

(Photograph omitted)

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