Switzerland’s Stan Wawrinka serves against Germany’s Dominik Koepfer in the second round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

Ball-maker hoping Nadal wins in Paris to prove himself wrong

Perceived lack of bounce

PARIS — Less than half a gram, or half the weight of a dollar bill.

That, according to their manufacturer, is the almost infinitesimal weight difference between the old French Open ball that Rafael Nadal happily bashed in winning his 12th title last year and the new one riling him in his chase for No. 13 at Roland Garros.

In cool, damp autumnal Paris, weather alien to the native of a sun-kissed Mediterranean isle, the balls play “like a stone,” Nadal grumbled even before he had hit his first one in anger on the clay courts, aiming to tie Roger Federer’s record for men of 20 Grand Slam titles overall.

But the ball manufacturer who oversaw their development and testing is so convinced that Nadal is wrong that he’s quietly crossing fingers that Spain’s “King of Clay” triumphs again, despite the fact that he is sponsored by a rival equipment maker, simply to prove that the balls are just fine.

“Part of me is like, ‘Gosh, I hope Nadal wins, just so it makes this a really moot point,’” Jason Collins, the global product director for racket sports at Wilson Sporting Goods Co., said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“I’m very confident that when the dust settles on this event, the ball is not going to be what Roland Garros 2020 is going to be remembered for.”

When the tournament announced the selection last November of the Chicago-based manufacturer, replacing French firm Babolat that sponsors Nadal, the coronavirus was unheard of. Wilson was, by then, already at work tailoring a bespoke ball for the often warm, occasionally rainy conditions expected in May and June of 2020, when the tennis world was due to jet into Paris for the second major tournament of the year.

The pandemic nixed all that. The French Open got pushed to September, becoming the last of only three Grand Slams this year, after Wimbledon cancelled for the first time since World War II. Instead of Paris in springtime, players got rain, cold, leaden skies and a wan sun that sets two hours earlier than in did in May. Either confined to a sanitary bubble in their hotels or labouring in wet-weather gear and leggings on clay courts rendered sticky and inhospitable, there has been considerable grumbling from some players, and the new ball has taken some of the brunt.

“Some of those balls we were using you wouldn’t give to a dog to chew,” British player Dan Evans said after losing a five-set, 3 hour, 49-minute slog on the particularly sodden opening day. “It’s brutal. It’s so cold. I think the balls are the biggest thing. Maybe they got it a little wrong with the balls. It’s tough to get that ball to go anywhere.”

Plugged into the tournament from Chicago, with TV coverage always on, Collins says that while “I don’t mean to defend Dan Evans for his comments,” the feedback he got was that the problem lay in the way the balls were handled, not the balls themselves. Some rolled into tarpaulin covers that are folded at court-side when not deployed to shield them from a soaking, and where rain had puddled.

“The damage is done but the reality is that, yes, some of those balls were literally in a puddle,” Collins told the AP. “They should have been taken out of play.”

The language of tennis, where players use the word “heavy” or, in Nadal’s case, “super heavy,” to describe what they perceive to be a lack of bounce and kick off the surface that is topped with the ochre dust of crushed bricks, has also fed into perceptions that the ball is unresponsive, perhaps even unsuited or somehow flawed.

But Collins says the ball’s specifications, finely measured and also tested by the governing body of tennis, tell a different story and that they’re only very slightly different from the previous Babolat balls that also got mixed reviews when they replaced Dunlop at the French Open from 2011.

In development, unbranded Wilson balls were blinded-tested by players and repeatedly tweaked — through some 10 iterations, “it was very micro,” Collins says — until the final production of what tournament director Guy Forget insists is “a very good ball.”

“From a pure spec perspective, the balls are virtually identical,” Collins said. “From a weight, from a rebound, from a size, from a deformation perspective, they are very, very close.

“From a weight perspective, it would be less than half a gram,” he added. “Any time there is a change, these guys and girls are super-sensitive and unfortunately sometimes perception takes over from common sense. This is just one of those times.”

American player Jack Sock is among those who haven’t noticed.

“In general, if you gave me two different balls, I couldn’t tell you which was lighter, heavier. I just go out and play,” he said after a straight-sets win in his opening match. “I’m not sure about the crazy difference that guys are talking about.”

And while No.2-ranked Nadal said it’s “not a good ball to play on clay, honestly,” and then added in Spanish that “with the cold, you can imagine, it’s like a stone,” on the other end of the spectrum is No. 7-ranked Alexander Zverev. Like Nadal, the German isn’t a Wilson player; his racket sponsor is Head. Yet Zverev has rejoiced at the change.

“For me, the Babolats were the worst balls of all time. Because of that, for me, any other ball is just progress,” he said in German. “We’re playing at 10 degrees, with drizzle. I think you can’t say so much good or bad about the balls now.”

Collins says early indications from Nadal’s first match, a straight-sets win, were that the balls’ speed off his topspin forehand, a favoured shot, was faster than last year.

“Tennis is a mental sport, he may be making comments just to take pressure off himself,” he said. “A stone definitely wouldn’t be good for his game but the good news is: This is not a stone.”

By The Associated Press

Tennis

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Alberta children whose only symptom of COVID-19 is a runny nose or a sore throat will no longer require mandatory isolation, starting Monday.
477 new COVID-19 cases confirmed in Alberta on Thursday

Changes being made to the COVID-19 symptom list for school-age children

Chasetin Morin
Photo from RCMP
Three men accused of assaulting Blackfalds RCMP officer going to trial

RCMP officer shot and wounded one of alleged attackers in December 2019

The Cenovus Energy Inc. logo seen at the company's headquarters in Calgary, Alta., Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2017.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jeff McIntosh
One-time costs of Husky takeover expected to be about $500 million, says Cenovus CEO

One-time costs of Husky takeover expected to be about $500 million, says Cenovus CEO

This drum circle was one of a multitude of activities held at The Hub on Ross in downtown Red Deer. The facility was permanently closed by the provincial government his week. (Advocate file photo.)
Many Red Deerians react with anger, dismay at closure of The Hub on Ross

Many disabled people can’t afford other recerational options, says guardian

Award-winning Calgary developer Brad Remington stands with Red Deer Mayor Tara Veer at the site of three multi-family condo complexes that are planned for Capstone, west of Carnival Cinemas. (Photo by LANA MICHELIn/Advocate staff).
$36M condo project on its way to Capstone development

Calgary developer plans to create 180 housing units to open in 2022

Alice Kolisnyk, deputy director of the Red Deer Food Bank, says the agency expects an increase in demand as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Every new subscription to the Red Deer Advocate includes a $50 donation to the food bank. (Photo by BYRON HACKETT/Advocate Staff)
Support the food bank with a subscription to the Red Deer Advocate

The community’s most vulnerable members are always in need of a hand,… Continue reading

Workers at Olymel's Red Deer pork processing plant are among those eligible for a $2-an-hour bonus because of the pandemic.
Red Deer Advocate file photo
Two Olymel workers test positive for COVID-19 in Red Deer

Two workers at Olymel’s pork processing facility in Red Deer have tested… Continue reading

Ryan, Falcons avenge earlier loss to Panthers, 25-17

Ryan, Falcons avenge earlier loss to Panthers, 25-17

FILE - In this Oct. 28, 2015, file photo, former world boxing champion Roy Jones Jr. shows off his Russian passport during a news conference in Moscow, Russia. Mike Tyson and Jones got permission from California's athletic commission to return to the boxing ring next month because their fight would be strictly an exhibition of their once-unparalleled skills. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev, File)
Mike Tyson, Roy Jones promise a fight in “exhibition” return

Mike Tyson, Roy Jones promise a fight in “exhibition” return

David Hearn watches his putt on the seventh hole during the first round of the Wyndham Championship golf tournament at Sedgefield Country Club on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020, in Greensboro, N.C. David Hearn, like everyone, has been deeply effected by the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Chris Carlson
Canada’s Hearn looks to shake off poor 2020 results with more consistent play

Canada’s Hearn looks to shake off poor 2020 results with more consistent play

Malnati birdies half of holes to take 1-shot lead in Bermuda

Malnati birdies half of holes to take 1-shot lead in Bermuda

Penny Oleksiak swims the 200 metre race during the 2018 Team Canada finals in Edmonton on Wednesday July 18, 2018. The number of young swimmers in Canada is dwindling because of barriers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jason Franson
Swimming Canada urges pools to accommodate youth, says can be done safely

Swimming Canada urges pools to accommodate youth, says can be done safely

Canada's Meaghan Mikkelson (12) and Marie-Philip Poulin (29) defends against United States' Hilary Knight (21) during the third period of a rivalry series women's hockey game in Hartford, Conn., Saturday, Dec. 14, 2019. Gina Kingsbury, Hockey Canada's director of women's national teams, hopes a Rivalry Series against the United States can happen this winter.THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP/Michael Dwyer
Canadian women’s hockey team yearns for international competition

Canadian women’s hockey team yearns for international competition

Most Read