Wimbledon: softer shade of yellow


LONDON -- Wimbledon, the world's premier tennis tournament, is going soft this year.

In a bid to slow the game, the fluffy yellow tennis balls that male players love bashing to warp speed are being deflated ever so slightly. A weekend hacker wouldn't notice the difference, but men who earn millions serving and volleying the game into tedium have taken notice.

And a lot of them are pretty upset, judging by the first reactions after the new balls were introduced this week at the Stella Artois Championships.

Britain's Jeremy Bates condemned them as "absolutely dire."

Germany's Markus Zoecke said: "I found them flat all the time. You hit as hard as you can and nothing happens."

Actually, players thrive on whining during the lead-up to Wimbledon, which begins June 26. They complain about the English summer weather, which often can seem like a good day in November. They complain about the grass courts, the fastest and least predictable of surfaces.

Some of them even complain about Wimbledon's rigid dress code, which requires predominantly white attire.

Now, it's the tennis balls that are giving some of them problems. And in England, which takes Wimbledon and its traditions very seriously, the controversy is the stuff of banner headlines and television investigations.

The new ball looks just like the old one. It's yellow. It bounces wildly on grass. It even has the familiar Wimbledon label.

But, well, squeeze it, and it's just a tad softer than normal.

The new ball isn't expected to greatly affect the women's game, which doesn't rely so much on pure power. And the women's tour has been without a serve-and-volley superstar since Martina Navratilova retired from competitive singles.

Actually, there's no hidden ball trick going on in tennis. The game was getting dull on grass, reaching a dramatic nadir during last year's ace-infested Wimbledon final when Pete Sampras defeated Goran Ivanisevic. By comparison, a good five-day cricket test seemed compelling.

This year, the International Tennis Federation changed the rules on the ball, allowing greater flexibility of pressure. Put less air into the ball, and there will be less bounce.

Slazenger, the Wimbledon ball manufacturer since 1902, spent months perfecting the ball for this year's championships. At Wimbledon, the players will go through 24,000 balls during two weeks.

"The ball is marginally softer," said John Barrett, a television commentator and former Slazenger executive. "This is really a non-story. There is no secret.

"I am one of those who believe that we have to do something fundamentally to slow the game. The rackets are the problem. They've changed the nature of the game, turning it into a power game that is one-dimensional and very boring."

Sampras, the two-time defending champion, finds the whole ball subject exasperating. After making his 1995 grass-court debut Thursday by dispatching Jonathan Stark in two sets, he sat patiently and answered question after question about the new ball.

"The tennis balls are a little bit soft," he said. "I don't think it will make a big enough difference where guys will be staying back on the baseline. You'll still see a lot of serve-and-volley play.

"Look, we're playing on the fastest surface in the world. I don't care what you put in my hand, or Goran's or Boris' [Becker]; we'll hit aces."

Sampras said the only way to truly slow the game is to change the surface. Get rid of Wimbledon's grass? Preposterous. "They won't change the surface," Sampras said.

"In America, this wouldn't be a big deal," he added.

After yet another question was posed about the controversy, Sampras shook his head from side to side and said: "I never talked about [tennis] balls so much in my life."

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