the US Open and an unexpected debate

Tennis players are the characters of goldilocks of sport.

The balls are too big or too small. The courts are either too fast or too slow. It’s too cold, or too hot, or too sticky, or too sunny.

“Some weeks you don’t play well, and you have to blame something”joked David Witt, who trains Jessica Pegula, the American who reached the quarterfinals until she ran into Poland’s Iga Swiatek.

And so it has been at the US Open this year, as the women – well, some of them – rebelled against the Wilson balls they used for years at the tournament. This is the only Grand Slam event where the men and women use different balls.

These yellow spheres are loved and hated.

Pegula, who had only lost one set in four matches, and that one in a tie break, loved the balls. The Polish Swiatek, number 1 in the world, described them as “horrible”. So is tennis. There is seldom consensus. Players often make conflicting complaints in the same tournament, or even on the same day, about the same thing.

Iga Swiatek and her sports psychologist discussed the challenges posed by US Open balls. Photo: Karsten Moran for The New York Times

You are officially forgiven if you have lived your life thinking that all tennis balls are created equal but with different names and numbers stamped on them. But now, a quick tutorial on tennis ball technology.

The men at the US Open use what is known as a ball “extra duty”which means that the felt on the outside of the ball is woven slightly looser than the ball itself. “regular duty” that women use.

All other balls are the same: their core construction, their size and weight, the way they bounce and how quickly they deform, according to Jason Collins, senior product manager for racquet sports at Wilson Sporting Goods.

Nevertheless, regular use balls “play faster”Collins said through a company spokesman. Felt that is woven more tightly doesn’t fluff up as much and can wear out, so there’s not as much friction when those balls come in contact with the ground or the strings of a racket.

The added friction of a fluffy ball allows players to create maximum spin. Those who rely heavily on spin can have a hard time getting a regular-use ball to roll the way they want it to, especially after a few games when the ball starts to lose the fluff it had right out of the can and it gets smaller.

A chair umpire examines one of the balls during a fourth round match.  Photo: Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times.

A chair umpire examines one of the balls during a fourth round match. Photo: Gabriela Bhaskar for The New York Times.

Players who hit a flatter ball, like Coco Gauff, or Pegula, or Madison Keys, don’t have this problem as much. But some still do. Fourth-seeded Paula Badosa, who lost in the second round, hits as flat as anyone. He said he hated balls.

“Sometimes you feel more like you’re playing ping-pong”Badosa said after his first-round win. Two days later, he was out of the tournament.

Another point of complication and confusion: regular balls are always used on slow courts and other wet surfaces because they don’t pick up moisture as does the looser felt of extra balls. Extra service balls are preferred for outdoor hard courts, like the ones at the US Open, except when they’re not.

And there is another factor that complicates things: tennis is run by seven different organisations, with tournaments around the world, many of which have different companies that pay for the right to supply the balls. That means players can end up playing a different ball from a different manufacturer from week to week. And each ball is a little different, behaving differently depending on heat, humidity and atmospheric pressure.

According to the United States Tennis Association (USTA), owner and organizer of the US Open, women have played with a different ball than men for as long as anyone can remember; the WTA Tour has always wanted it that way, and the tournament abides by tour preference.

The balls are the linchpin of the discussion among the women at the US Open.  Photo: AFP

The balls are the linchpin of the discussion among the women at the US Open. Photo: AFP

Stacey Allasterwho is the director of the US Open and was the executive director of the WTA from 2009 to 2015, said sports science experts on the women’s circuit have long believed that the faster, more streamlined ball helps limit injuries. in the arms and shoulders.

Every year, Allaster said, the USTA asks the WTA which balls it wants to use, and the answer has always been the same. “As far as we know, most people like it, so we might end up trading one problem for another.”

Amy Binderthe WTA’s chief spokeswoman, confirmed that the sport’s female players and scientific teams have gravitated towards the faster balls in regular use, but executives have heard from “a select number of our athletes who would like to consider a change.” .

“The WTA will continue to monitor and discuss the matter”Binder said, though he said the decision on the ball was ultimately up to the USTA.

The controversy over the balls has already had other versions. After Ashleigh Barty won the Australian Open in January, her coach, Craig Tyzzer, said she would never win the US Open as long as the tournament used regular-duty Wilson balls. (Barty retired in March, at age 25, when she was No. 1 in the world.) The latest complaints began her summer, when players began playing with these balls in the run-up to the US Open.

Tennis, however, is about making adjustments and finding solutions as conditions change throughout a match, and a tournament, and a season. The challenge can be both mental and physical.

Jessica Pegula felt super uncomfortable with the balls.  Photo: EFE

Jessica Pegula felt super uncomfortable with the balls. Photo: EFE

Pegula switched rackets in her round of 16 match against Kvitova on Monday, experimenting with different string tensions in search of one that felt right as the humidity and ball condition changed. Looser strings hold the ball longer (think trampoline effect) and provide more time to spin.

“Something feels wrong, you have to make a change,” said Pegula. “It’s important not to let it frustrate you too much.”

That has been the challenge for Swiatek, who travels with his sports psychologist, Daria Abramowicz. They have talked a lot about all the challenges created by these balls that Swiatek despises so much. Abramowicz doesn’t tell Swiatek not to think about the balls because then the first thing he’ll think about will be them.

“It’s like I’m telling you right now not to think about a blue elephant for a minute, and literally the first thing that comes to mind is this blue elephant,” Abramowicz said. “You accept the thought, because it is already there, and you move on, you refocus, you find anchorage in something else.”

Swiatek, despite the balls, passed Pegula.  Photo: EFE

Swiatek, despite the balls, passed Pegula. Photo: EFE

Pegula and Swiatek met in the quarterfinals on Wednesday, a match that could have become a test of Pegula’s flexibility and Swiatek’s ability to think about things other than balls. The balls had nothing to do with the result. Swiatek won.

What will happen to the balls next year is anyone’s guess, but Allaster said the WTA would have to decide what to do soon. Wilson already asked what balls the USTA needs in 2023.

Someone is not going to be happy.

The New York Times. Special for Clarin.



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