Balls and Racquets
“The barber’s man hath been seen with him; and the old ornament of his cheek hath already stuffed tennis balls.”
Much Ado About Nothing (Act3 Scene II) by Shakespeare
A tennis ball is solid. The balls are hand made by a process which has changed little since the 15th century and hardly at all since the 18th century. A full set of balls is nine dozen. Each ball contains a core wrapped around with some thirteen yards of webbing in half inch widths. The webbing having been wetted is tightly wound like wool into a ball and is then moulded on a special bench into a spherical shape. When moulded, the ball is then tied with twine, again on an attachment fitted to the special bench, the process being repeated three times before a ball tightly bound with only triangles of webbing showing through the binding is ready for covering. The covering is made of wool cloth which is hand sewn on to the core with thin thread. In view of the heavy use to which most balls are put, each ball will have to be re-covered about once a month. The core, however, rarely wears out. Many balls in use today started their life over a century ago. It used to be said that the uniform of French prisoners-of-war imprisoned in England during the Napoleonic wars 1799-1815 was used with great success in making the balls for the Royal Tennis Court.
A whole set of tennis balls should be made by the same person to achieve consistency of weight and bounce. For many years the professionals at the tennis court at Lord’s Cricket Ground, London, have been supplying hand-made tennis balls for tennis courts in Great Britain, the USA and Australia.
Recently a rubber composite ball has been introduced as a substitute ball. The advantages of the composite ball are that it is cheaper than the hand-made ball and has a truer bounce. On the other hand, the composite ball wears out and cannot be recovered and seems to be a little heavier than the hand-made ball because it has less give.
The shape of a tennis racquet has changed little over the last century. It seems heavy and cumbrous. However this is necessary since the balls are solid and heavy. A light framed racquet would be quickly broken by the weight of the balls. The curious shape of the head of the racquet is designed to help the player to cut the ball by having a large area of strings across which a ball can sweep diagonally.
Usually the racquet is held halfway up the handle so as to balance the weight of the head against the handle. This means that the player has to move more rapidly to get near enough to the ball to hit it. On the other hand the fifth Marquess of Salisbury, passionately fond of playing tennis, used a racquet with a handle which he had made longer to compensate for his increasing lack of mobility as he aged.
Tennis racquets are usually made from hickory or ash. Heavy sheep gut is commonly used for the strings of a racquet. It is interesting to note that, before the invention of a new method of stringing a tennis racquet in 1856, the old way of stringing consisted of looping the side strings round the main strings. This produced a rough and smooth effect in the strings and hence came the practice of calling “rough” or “smooth” to win the toss at the beginning of a lawn tennis match.