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The Right Ball for Altitude



Kurt Desautels
Colorado Tennis Editor
have a major problem when it comes to playing tennis. Chances are, many of you have the same issue. When it comes time to have a hit, I have a standard routine:
  1. Check the strings, make sure nothing looks like it's ready to bust.
  2. Vibration dampener? Shoot, where'd it go? Okay, grab a rubber band and tie it in there.
  3. Give a glance to the grip, see if it's holding tight or ready to unravel like a cheap suit.
  4. Check. Check. Check.
  5. Open fresh can of balls....PSSSSHHHHT!
That there is the problem, the PSSSSHHHHT! Here at 5,280 feet (give or take some elevation), those fuzzy yellow spheres bounce like they're made of FLUBBER, not rubber!
They don't have this problem at sea level, where traditional yellow balls have a feel and bounce like, well, a tennis ball. It's a totally different gig, this high altitude ball deal. You'd think I should be able to figure it out by now, given that I've lived here for 37 years, but in the last few months I've become acutely aware of how disadvantaged we altitude players are here in the Centennial State, where the mean elevation is 6,800 ft.
Consider this. High altitude tennis balls are designed for play at or above 3,500 ft. Colorado's lowest elevation is 3,317 at the Nebraska border, so technically, the folks up in northeast Colorado can go either way. But the vast majority of play in our state happens at or above one mile high. Here in the Denver metro area, we are 51% higher than the threshold to use high altitude balls. In most of our resort towns, the elevation is significantly higher than that. Serve it up in Breckenridge or Telluride and you're approaching three-times that threshold.

Now think about this. In Mexico City, elevation 7,943 feet, professional tournaments don't utilize the high altitude balls we pop open here in Colorado, they use pressureless balls that more approximate the feel and bounce of a traditional yellow ball at sea level. I admit I've struggled to find a ruling on where the dividing line is between the use of pressurized (PSSSSHHHHT!) high altitude balls and the Mexico City pressureless ball, but do the math and you'll discover that Denver is smack dab in the middle of northeastern Colorado and Mexico City. Colorado Springs, Boulder and the mountain areas are all higher than the metro area and its suburbs, which means that more than 90% of sanctioned play in Colorado takes place closer (in terms of elevation) to Mexico City than it does to Julesburg in northeast Colorado.

So why do we play with a ball designed for Julesburg instead of a ball designed for Mexico City?
While you ponder that a second, I wanted to share a story with you that unfolded during the November 2012 PowerShares event. I was standing on the court shooting photos of John McEnroe during his warm-up. After hitting about a dozen balls, he stopped and told his hitting partner to switch hoppers. Apparently, the balls used for the pre-event clinic were all high altitude balls. McEnroe didn't like the feel of the ball, despite the fact that it bounced at the ITF prescribed height. "Those balls are hard as <insert colorful McEnroe dialog here>", complained the 7-time Grand Slam champion. "Get those out of here before the match starts."

The pros could easily handle the more zippy low altitude ball at elevation, what they couldn't adjust to was the firmness and lack of feel that our stock balls offer.

The incident—along with the knowledge that we are smack dab in the middle of the high altitude range—got me wondering....

Are we playing with the right ball?
As I looked at the statistics that are beginning to emerge from the new rules governing junior play, I became skeptical. After spending a couple days hitting with the green ball, I felt conflicted. Slick, almost greasy-feeling balls fresh out of a can are a blast to serve with, but for the vast majority of us who play for fun, exercise and giggles, playing with the rock-hard high altitude ball is as often an exercise in frustration as it is an exercise for the body.
Did you know that even the US Open made a move in this direction more than five years ago? Since 2008, women use regular duty felt balls while the men play with the extra-duty felt balls. The major difference between the balls is the weight, and since they fuzz up far more quickly, the balls don't travel nearly as fast once they've been played in.
Canadian tennis instructor Michael Emmett likened it to golf: 
"A seven handicap golfer is comparable to a 4.5 tennis player. Most golfers try to play the championship tees because they think it will be fun to try to play where the pros play. If you are not a 4 handicap and below—some courses worldwide insist you play from the closer tees—you should not be playing from the tips. The same attitude should be adopted for tennis. Playing a course from 7,000 yards is ridiculous for most people who try to hit the little white ball—very few people are capable of breaking 100 and that is from tees that are much closer in. Playing a golf course from nonsensical distances can slow down an entire golf course if the player or foursome is taking 5 hours to complete the round. And this can be disastrous to some golf courses. Tennis doesn’t have the same problems—however, if the enjoyment factor went skyward then the tennis courts would be busier and the game would flourish."
My suggestion is to give the low compression balls a try. Get some green balls and give it a go with your usual partner or foursome, or grab some orange balls and play from the blended 60-foot lines to really appreciate how fun tennis can be when you aren't so completely consumed by over-emphasizing topspin just to keep the ball on the court. 
And you won't have to worry about cutting yourself on the metal ring on that brand new can of balls. 

This article was originally published in the Fall 2013 issue of Colorado Tennis.




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