Tennis balls come from many different brands, and they serve more than just tennis players. Whether it is a toy for a dog, a ball used for another sport, or strictly used on the court, it is one of the most recognizable sports balls out there.
While so many people know what they look like, knowing what they are actually made of is another story altogether.
What are tennis balls made of? Official tennis balls are made of a rubber compound with felt covering them. The official diameter of the ball falls between 2.57 inches and 2.70 inches, and the mass can be anywhere from 1.98 ounces to 2.10 ounces.
Early Tennis Balls
Way back in the very early days of tennis, the ball started out made of leather with wool inside. Officially, these were the days of real tennis (as opposed to lawn tennis that is the common sport today).
There were also options such as putting together a wool-wrapped stomach from a sheep or a goat and tying it to rope. These were all very rudimentary ball options for people to choose from, but once tennis became modernized, it became closer to what players are used to today.
Lawn tennis started taking off in the 1870s, and the balls used were made of rubber. Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber, and that instantly became the go-to option for many players. The balls were colored in a few different ways, but had no covering on them.
A decade later, there was some experimentation with using a rubber ball with flannel and cloth added. While this helped with ball control to some degree, the durability of the ball was poor.
Tennis balls started looking a lot like they are today in the 1920s, when Wilson Sporting Goods started shipping them in cardboard tubes. That quickly changed to a pressurized metal tube to allow balls to stay pressurized properly.
However, the standard optic yellow color would not take off for several decades later, first really being showcased in the 1970s to help the television audience see the ball. Up until that point, most of the tennis balls were white.
A Breakdown of The Modern Tennis Ball
There are not many parts to a modern tennis ball, but they each serve a specific purpose. Even though there are different variations of tennis balls out there for different levels and uses, the vast majority will be the official size and weight.
The core of a tennis ball is a rubber compound that will stay as consistent as possible throughout many different shots of varying speeds. Tennis balls do not come with a way to pump them back up with air, so that is why they have such a limited lifespan.
High-end tennis balls do a better job of adding longevity to play than lower-level options. This mostly has to do with the rubber compound’s quality and the felt cover used. Companies are always trying to tinker with ways to extend the life of a ball, but there will always be some limitations.
Tennis balls almost exclusively come in one color these days for official competition. The felt used is a fluorescent yellow that is officially named “optic yellow.” It helps not only players see the ball, but fans as well. During the early days of broadcasting, it was very hard to see much of the action on television. Following the ball was extremely difficult, especially with players beginning to hit harder and harder.
The felt is necessary to slow the ball down and help with a better and more consistent flight. Hitting a tennis ball consistently will eventually start to cause any tennis ball to fluff up a bit as well. Not only is the felt going up against the strings of the racquet, but the surface a player is on.
Felt is developed for both hardcourt and clay court play. Since the two surfaces are so different, getting a specific option will improve the longevity of the ball. Clay court balls do not fluff up as much, which makes it play a little bit faster. It also helps to ensure that clay does not stick on the ball during certain conditions.
With the hardcourt balls, they are a little thicker with the felt so that the surface does not wear them down too quickly. While players can use either ball on both surfaces, most will find it to be well worth looking for specific options more often than not. It will lead to a much more pleasant playing experience overall.
Size & Weight
There is not much variation in tennis balls because of the strict size and weight rules that tournaments must follow. The weight of a tennis ball must fall between 1.98 ounces and 2.10 ounces to be used in official matches. The diameter of the tennis ball needs to be anywhere from 2.57 inches to 2.70 inches. That might seem like a little bit more of a variation, but it is still very tough to distinguish the size of a ball with felt on it.
One thing to keep in mind is that balls can become much heavier during actual play. Most of this comes down to moisture adding to the weight of a ball, whether it be from rain or sweat. Since the balls are the same for both players, it usually requires playing through any of these inconveniences.
Different Sized Tennis Balls
There are a few different reasons people might be looking for different-sized tennis balls made of other materials. Maybe they want the overall look of a tennis ball, but it is not necessarily used for tennis.
Most dog toys are made of roughly the same materials as regular tennis balls. The differences are they might vary in size a bit, and they are usually unpressurized. This means they do not need to be shipped in a pressurized can to keep their bounce.
Training balls are geared towards helping younger players learn the game without feeling so overwhelmed. A few companies have them out there, and they are mainly slower and occasionally bigger. They are either made of unpressurized rubber, or a type of foam rubber that bounces a slightly different way. They are intended for smaller courts to keep everything a bit more compact.
Will Tennis Balls Change In The Future?
Tennis has settled in with their current tennis balls for the most part, but there are some exciting evolutions on the horizon. They likely will not be universally adopted anytime soon, but different balls such as the Wilson Triniti are already made with slightly different materials. They are shipped unpressurized, but actually capable of operating in actual tennis matches.
Wilson’s goal with these balls is to offer a more sustainable option that still performs at a high level. The Engage Core is made of a plastomer material that maintains a consistent feel for significantly longer than the average ball. The STR Felt is also available with extended life.
Most tennis players are pleased with the current selection of balls, but there will always be that hope that they last longer in the future. It is one of the biggest inconveniences for players to replace balls so often.