Tennis: When your cheque is the more likely to bounce: Rosanna de Lisle reports on the drain on the amateur's pocket that is the humble tennis ball

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The Independent Online
'NEW BALLS, please.' A week tomorrow these words will start to float over the Wimbledon loudspeakers every nine games, as familiar to seasoned fans as Virginia Wade, queues deep into SW19 and ludicrously expensive strawberries. But plucked from its context, the idea becomes extraordinary: barely have these tennis balls gathered a grass stain than they are dismissed out of court.

For most players, the idea of changing balls even once during a match is unthinkable: manufacturers complain that the British will play a ball until it can scarcely get up. When the standard cost of four good balls is pounds 7.50 and rising, it's hardly surprising we want them to last the season.

They don't of course. Modern tennis wrecks them. Whacked with a graphite racquet on a tough surface like asphalt, even a top-line ball will not survive more than 10 to 12 hours' play in peak condition. When you add the ones lobbed over the club wall, the cost of balls is a relentless drain on the tennis player's pocket.

Twenty-one million tennis balls are sold a year worldwide. The vast majority of balls sold in Britain are produced by four international players: Dunlop Slazenger (one and the same), Wilson, Penn and Tretorn. All produce various types of ball, which fall, roughly, into three bands: tournament standard, like Slazenger Wimbledon, costing pounds 7.50 for four; medium quality, such as Penn No 1 or Dunlop Fort at pounds 5.50; and the much inferior 'trainer' type used in schools, sold in bulk or in cans of three at around half the price of top balls.

Balls with the distinction 'LTA' and/or 'ITF' tend to be the most expensive - because they are the best, but also because the producers pay for the privilege of saying so. The International Tennis Federation sets standards of weight, bounce, durability, etc, and inspects balls submitted by manufacturers. The Lawn Tennis Association, the governing body of tennis in this country, follows the ITF's rulings, but also has a relationship of its own with tennis balls. Until the end of 1991, this was the 'LTA Official Agreement', whereby, for a fee - believed to have been pounds 24,000 - the manufacturers could print 'LTA approved' on certain balls, and effectively bought a slice of the market share since the LTA insisted that only balls with the official tag be used for inter-club play.

Of the four brands which subscribed to the Agreement - Dunlop, Slazenger, Wilson and Penn - only Dunlop and Slazenger are members of the new 'LTA Sponsors Ball Pool'. The purpose of such deals, says Gavin Fletcher of the LTA, is to 'allow companies to support the development of British tennis.'

The Pool is more flexible - clubs no longer have to use 'LTA' balls - but is thought to cost as much. Mr Fletcher confirmed that 'the Pool is on a commercial basis', but insisted the fee was 'confidential'. So is the LTA, by charging manufacturers for official status, inflating the cost of tennis balls? 'The current policy in no way significantly influences the retail price,' he said.

To a Dunlop Slazenger pounds 24,000 is admittedly not very much; and as a fixed cost spread across 1.5 million dozen balls a year, the LTA fee cannot be the single cause of high prices. However, the price of LTA endorsement may deter newcomers - who might cut prices - from entering the market. When the American company Penn moved into the British market 12 years ago, and bought into the Official Agreement, the extra cost passed on to the customer, in Penn's own reckoning, was pounds 2 per dozen in the first year, and pounds 1 in the second.

No other sports product has a relation to its sport's chief body similar to that of tennis balls to the LTA. When you buy a cricket bat, for example, you are not contributing to the coffers of the TCCB. And 'official' balls dominate the market. An independent shop in the South-east, AMT Sports, stocks only Slazenger and Wilson balls. 'The clubs always had Slazenger balls, and they still want them,' explained the manager. It is hard not to conclude that the effect of formal relations between top brands and the LTA is less choice for the ball-buyer, and so less competition for his custom.

Balls used to be sold in boxes of six: they now come in cans of four or three. Is this because, at today's prices, a pack of six balls would have soared through the psychological pounds 10 barrier, to pounds 11.35? No, says the ITF. 'A can of six balls would be very long, and four is enough for a friendly match.' Four seems rather few: Wimbledon matches still use six - and as many ballboys and girls.

The price of tennis balls has gone up this year despite minimal inflation. Manufacturers put an average of 50p on their trade prices - taking the cost of top-quality balls to pounds 13.50 a dozen. The increase has been passed on to customers - who appear to be on the verge of revolt. At the Paddington Tennis Club in London members can buy Slazenger Wimbledon balls for a relatively reasonable pounds 6 a can, but 'they all complain that's too much,' said an assistant. 'People who've been to America complain the most,' said the manager of AMT Sports. 'They see balls there at half price.'

Ball companies argue that American balls are inferior: there is no ball in the US equivalent to our best. But even if you compare like with like - Wilson, who make their balls in South Carolina, say their best domestic ball is equivalent to the 'Advantage' they sell here - American balls are indeed half the price. At Herman's Sporting Goods in New York, good-quality, pressurised balls by Wilson, Dunlop and Penn cost a staggeringly cheap dollars 2.89 (plus sales tax at 8.25 per cent) for a can of three. This translates as pounds 2.11, against pounds 5.50 for four balls here.

Here, balls haven't cost those prices since the Seventies, but there are ways to find a relative bargain. Some independent sports shops are consistently cheaper - a ring-round of stores listed in Yellow Pages should unearth them. And non-discount shops run occasional promotions. A surer way to pay less is to use mail-order firms (they advertise in magazines like Serve & Volley). The best price we found for top-bracket balls was pounds 13.99 a dozen, though small orders incur a post-and-packing charge.

But the best offer has to be at Wimbledon itself. After their nine-game glory, the 2,600 dozen balls are re-canned and sold as souvenirs. You don't get to find out who used them of course - balls emerging from a slamming-match fraught with deuces between Becker and Ivanisevic could be bald and weary but at pounds 9.60 a dozen who's arguing?