Tennis: Pressure and prices to stay the same: Enthusiasts worry about costs, not specifications. Simon Jones reports

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The Independent Online
THE decision of the International Tennis Federation to liberalise its regulation affecting the hardness of balls, which will make the game faster on slow courts, is unlikely to affect the main complaint levelled at manufacturers by club players in this country. It is a simple one: balls are too expensive.

The ITF's rule change merely ratifies an existing experiment that has been in operation for the last 18 months. The technicalities are complex. The popular perception is that faster balls have a higher pressure, slower balls a lower pressure.

In fact, nowhere in the regulations is pressure mentioned.

Instead the rules are concerned with such niceties as how high a ball bounces when dropped on to a piece of concrete from 100 feet and how the ball deforms under pressure. It is the rule governing the 'return deformation' that has been altered to allow a harder ball.

Under the old rules a small number of balls, perhaps four or five out of a thousand, would have been too hard. Now it should be possible to produce a ball that conforms 100 per cent to the regulations. Pat McKerr, of the ball manufacturers Penn, said yesterday that the rules have now 'come in line with today's product'.

In other words, the manufacturers are already taking advantage of a rule that allows balls to be harder and faster. Fortunately for the consumer, a harder, faster ball should be more durable because it retains its pressure for longer periods. However, there is no further scope within the regulations to extend this process. Rick Jarvis, the factory manager for Wilson USA, in South Carolina, confirmed that there would be 'no change' in the balls made by Wilson.

Peter Alfano, of the ATP Tour, yesterday welcomed the ITF move. Clay court tennis, he believes, will be improved. 'What was once a game of attrition is now becoming more aggressive. It is being enhanced by technology,' he said.

Alfano, and the ATP, still see a problem in the way grass court tennis is played. What is needed on a fast court is not a faster ball, but a slower one. However, at present, no one manufactures a ball at the slowest end of the spectrum allowed by the existing rules.

The message, therefore, for the enthusiast is more interesting tennis, maybe, on the slow play of Roland Garros; no change in sight at Wimbledon; and no difference in the tennis balls in the shops.

Retailers are acutely aware of the public's dissatisfaction with the cost. In America, the standard price for a can of three balls is dollars 1.99 ( pounds 1.30): in this country it is around pounds 5. Chico Davda, the owner of Wigmore Sports, London, said yesterday: 'The only complaints we get are about the price. They need to produce a ball that is less expensive.' This is one rule which seems likely to remain hard and fast: balls will not get any cheaper.