The latest 'Educating stuff,' news and views from Wimbledon's Education Department, wonders where the used tennis balls go...
Good grief, he’s only gone and done it! Andy Murray has won the Gentleman’s Singles trophy.
So much has already been written about this extraordinary achievement that I won’t waste your time trying to explain what this means, or indeed how he must feel, as I really cannot add any more to what has already been said. All I know is that during the tournament Andy Murray was the best male player at hitting a tennis ball across a net at another equally dedicated tennis professional and when both players had finished hitting balls at each other, the balls they, and all the other players who participated in the tournament had hit with were sold to the public via the used ball hut and this year I was lucky enough to be one of those happy few who stood in the small, slightly draughty, but none the less popular shed and sell them on.
The Education Department may not know much about how best to play the sport of tennis (we leave that to the WJTI coaches) but we do know a little about tennis balls; in particular lawn tennis balls. The rubber ball is a revolutionary thing. Consider a world before vulcanised rubber (the process of heating natural rubber with sulphur to make it more durable), a world where balls are handmade from not very bouncy materials like leather, sawdust and wool. Now try to take one of these balls out for a quick game of lawn tennis and see what happens. Nothing; that ball will just sit there on the grass doing very little at all. Now take out a rubber ball and marvel at its bounciness. This new bouncy style of ball revolutionised racket and ball sports and with the birth of lawn tennis in the 1870’s has continued to be refined and reinvented via hand stitched white cloth coverings and ‘chemical pill’ filled interiors to glued on, water repellent coverings first in white, then yellow, now Ultra Vis, with precisely pressurised centres. Every ball that has been hit at The Championships has been put through a rigorous testing process to ensure it is up to the job of being hit about a grass court for nine games. That’s right, nine games. Not nine matches, or even nine hours, just nine games. Players demand fresh new balls, pundits wax on about how much faster new balls are than ‘old’ ones, but the truth is very little changes in a tennis ball over such a short period of time, in fact if anything, arguably they become better for the likes of your average weekend player with a little tennis elbow to contend with; they become lighter and a little softer. 52,000 balls are used during the fortnight and once removed from court side each one is graded and if good enough, sold to the public via the used ball hut, with all the proceeds going to charity.
I asked some of those who bought the used balls what they planned to do with them; the answers I received were as varied as the shots seen on court:
“We have just bought a tennis court and want to decorate the clubhouse”.
“The field mice need a new home”.
“I love Andy Murray/Roger Federer/Novak/Serena/Lisicki/Nadal/Bartoli and want to have something they have touched”.
“I buy them every year as my dog just loves to chew on a tennis ball and these seem to last longer than others”.
“I don’t know, I just saw a queue and joined it”.
Whatever people choose to do with the balls is fine with me, but if just one of those 52,000 balls is passed onto a young tennis player who, inspired by the elation caused by a British singles champion, decides to dedicate themselves to this great game, then that is a ball well used.