Have you ever wonder why professional tennis players spend a few moments selecting the “right” tennis ball before serving. That’s it really makes a difference? Or it just pure superstition? Or only part of a concentration ritual before serving? Is there something that they know, that most of us don’t? My curiosity led me to do some research, and this is what I found out!
There are several reasons why tennis players might check the ball before serving. Some players do it as part of a concentration ritual before serving, and others, just for pure superstition. However, according to J. Magnus from Tilburg University, it is all about the hair of the ball. Smoother balls are used for the first serve, while fluffier balls are used for second serves.
Whatever the reason might be, many players agree that checking and selecting the balls before serving might not really make a huge difference.
1. A physical reason.
According to Jan Magnus, from Tilburg University in the Netherlands, players check the balls (specifically the hair of the balls) before serving so they can pick the appropriate ones for their first and second serves. A smooth one for the first serve, and a fluffy one for the second serve.
The balls that are smoothed flat are more convenient for first serves, giving that they travel and bounce faster than the ones that are fluffier. Usually, for first serves, players tend to be more aggressive and try to hit the ball at a higher speed.
As you probably know, when a player misses the second serve is called a double fault, which means that he loses the point. As a result for second serves, players look to be more consistent and accurate. That’s why it is more convenient to use a fluffier ball because these balls travel slower and are more easy to control. This gives players a higher chance to make the second serve.
2. A concentration ritual.
For many players checking the ball before serving is part of a concentration routine that helps them get in “the zone” before the point. It can be compared to bouncing the ball and/or looking and moving the racquet strings. These are all ways players try to get ready and focus for the next point.
3. Pure superstition.
Some players would only ask for the “winning ball.” Believing that since they won the previous point, they’ll have a better chance to win the next point with the same ball. When the winning streak ends, they will go for another ball. Furthermore, other players will only take balls from the same person, believing that the ball person gives them good luck. Whatever the reason, there is for sure some superstition when choosing the balls.
4. The option to choose.
It’s possible that players take a moment to “select the right ball” to serve just because they can. Professional players tend always to have the option to get balls from the ball persons; as a result, they have the chance to choose among all the balls. However, the process of selecting balls occurs less when players don’t have the option to ask for different balls (for example in a friendly club match, or a junior high school match).
The reasons for selecting the balls before serving might also be a tactical one. Sometimes after a rally, players need some time to recover and get ready for the next point. So, taking a few moments to select the balls might be a good way to catch their breath for the next point.
Also, players can use the process of choosing the balls as a way to regularly change the time between points, which could potentially break the momentum or rhythm of their opponents.
6. Just because everyone else does it.
The process of selecting the balls before serving has been happening for a while. So, many players just do it because everyone else is doing it. Years ago, when asked about this question, Andy Murray, Gram Slam winner, replied “I just do it because everyone else does it. And goes to add “… Not that there is any difference between the balls”.
7. Depends on the player’s strategy.
Applying Magnus’s argument that smooth balls travel faster and are more aerodynamic, and fluffy balls are slower and bounce lower, players could potentially pick the balls depending on the type of serves they are trying to execute. The strategy will vary for every game or even every point.
For example, if a server is down 30 – 40 in a game, he might want to reduce the chance of double faulting and losing the game on his serve. As a result, he would try to make the first serve in, and pick the fluffiest ball because they are easier to control, thus increasing his chance of success.
What Do Tennis Pros Think About It?
- Juan Carlos Ferrero, a former world No. 1, suggest that there is a difference between the balls, and says “…after a long rally if you use the same ball, it’s like this,” and makes the hand gesture of a bigger ball.
- For Novak Djokovic, the process of selecting the right balls makes a difference in the upcoming point. When asked about the topic, he said “… I’m convinced in my head that it does”.
- Roger Federer, arguably one of the best players ever, is not that picky when choosing a ball during his serve. However, he explains that he prefers the fastest ball for his first serve.
- Former player, Andy Roddick, who was known for his fast serve, said that he likes to select the ball that will travel the fastest, thus enhancing the speed of his already super-fast serve.
- The French player, Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, describes the process of selecting balls as an “obsessive-compulsive behavior” that many on the professional tour have. He suggests that even though he spends some time choosing the balls, it really does not make a difference.
- Conchita Martinez, a former Spanish tennis player, tends to be superstitions when choosing the balls while serving. On some occasions, she will pick the same ball that she won the previous point with
. Goran Ivanisevic, Croatian 2001 Wimbledon Champion, would also be somewhat superstitious when it came down to serving. He’ll usually ask for the same ball after making an ace.
- For Caroline Wozniacki, former world No.1, it depends on her strategy. If her opponent has a strong return, she’ll choose the fluffiest ball to take the pace away from the ball. Besides, she says that it also depends on how she’s feeling at that moment.
- For Andy Murray is more about going with the flow. He explains that he spends sometime selecting the right ball because everyone else does it as well. However, he agrees that there is actually no difference between balls.
Women (WTA) vs. Men (ATP): Who’s pickier?
Men usually ask for at least three balls, and on many occasion will return some and ask for more balls. In the other hand, many women, on the WTA, tend to only ask for one or two balls, and in very rare occasions ask for more.
According to Danny Casesa, a US Open ball person for many years, men usually want the fastest ball while women just do it as part of focusing ritual.
Some believe there’s not a real advantage
Many players believe it’s a just ritual that doesn’t really make a difference or give a real advantage to the player that does it. According to Jason Collins, global business director for Wilson balls, there is not a significant advantage on selecting the balls before serving.
Although there are many reasons why a player will spend time selecting the balls before each serve, it seems it’s really not a crucial thing to do. However, if it helps, even a little, why not?
How often are tennis balls replace in a professional match?
- For most professional tennis matches, six balls are used at any specific time. After the first seven games of the match, the balls are replaced, and after that, they are replaced every nine games.