On March 27, 2016, at the Miami Open, Scottish tennis player Andy Murray complained to the umpire. While this isn’t unusual for Murray, the reason for his complaint was. He was aghast at almost having to serve with a women’s tennis ball, calling it “unacceptable”.
When the story broke, my first thought was, “there are women’s tennis balls?”
All the debate about whether female professional tennis players should receive the same prize money as their male counterparts – covered extensively over at The Roar and elsewhere – tended to focus on whether female tennis players had the same drawing power as the men, or whether they should get the same money for playing only 60 per cent of the on court time that the men do.
Leaving that juicy, gender-equality hot potato aside – discuss that one here if you want to – I decided to have a look into why male tennis players use different balls than women, at least in part to determine why Murray was so mad that he almost had to serve with one.
First things first, the balls at specific tournaments must be the same size, regardless of player gender. While the ball size will change from tournament to tournament depending on the agreements with specific manufacturers, most tournaments – such as the US Open, for example – have rules in place that the men’s and women’s tennis balls be the same size.
(From tournament to tournament, the balls can vary in size from a minimum of 6.5 centimetres to a maximum of 7.3 centimetres. They can weigh from a minimum of 54 grams to a max of 60 grams, another thing which would probably surprise a few tennis fans out there.)
Men’s and women’s tennis balls also must have the same level of bounce when dropped from the same height.
But that’s where the similarities end.
Women’s tennis balls are actually faster than the men’s, perhaps a counter point to those who argue that the women don’t play as hard and shouldn’t be paid as much.
The men’s balls fluff up faster, meaning that they don’t glide through the air as fast. This obviously provides a disadvantage to big servers and those who rely simply on power, at least to a small degree.
The effect is that the women’s game is sped up and that the men’s game is slowed down. A story on Forbes from 2014 showed how top seeds from the women’s and men’s draws – Serena Williams and Novak Djokovic – recorded serves which were more or less the same as each other. Serena’s fastest was 196.3 kilometres per hour, with Novak’s fastest just a tad faster at 201 kilometres per hour.
With Novak around 13 centimetres taller than Serena, it’d be expected that he served a little more than four kilometres faster. He is also a male athlete, which provides a degree of additional strength and speed advantages, based on physiology differences.
The idea for using different balls came from the Women’s Tennis Association back in 2004, with the Wall Street Journal noting that “this double standard makes for competitive tennis, blunting the power of the biggest men’s servers, while letting the women play more aggressively.”
The differences might be obvious to a seasoned pro – we’re looking at you, Andy – but they are probably negligible to amateurs, meaning you can’t blame your poor Sunday tennis record on using the wrong ball all this time.
But not all tournaments insist on the gender split.
The ever traditional and conservative Wimbledon uses the same balls for both genders. The difference can be evidenced by Serena’s fastest Wimbledon serve in 2014 – 188 kilometres per hour, around 12 kilometres slower than her fastest US Open serve. And Novak’s from the same tournament? It was 201 kilometres per hour, exactly the same the US Open.