The History of Tennis Balls

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The History of Tennis Balls

Real Tennis, the sport of kings–circa 700 years ago.

Can you imagine tennis without the balls? Tennis balls have undergone an incredible journey. That journey goes back over 700 years or more.

Before there was tennis as we know it, there was a game called Real Tennis, the original racket sport from which the modern game of tennis is derived. Real Tennis, coined the Sport of Kings, started in England in the 1400’s.

The game was played inside on an oval court with balls that didn’t bounce, weird rackets and a scoring system and rules that would confound any serious student of the game. But they did use some sort of ball.

The balls in those times were often made of cork, with fabric tightly wound around the cork, and covered with a hand-sewn layer of heavy woven woolen cloth. But since there were no uniform balls in Europe, they could be made of pretty much anything that could fit inside the covering including animal intestines.

Real Tennis actually evolved from a 12th century game in France that is thought to have been called tenez, which means “take hold.” I think this was a metaphor for their get out of my face attitude, given the wars between France and England at the time and might explain Shakespeare’s scene in the Henry V:

When we have marched our rackets to these balls,
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a
wrangler hat all the courts of France will be disturbed
with chases.
Henry V


The original balls: stuffed with wool or cork, wound with fabric or animal intestines, covered in woolen cloth or leather.

In England in 1463, Parliament passed an act banning the importation of tennis balls, as well as playing cards, and dice, which hurt the game significantly. Across the channel in 1480, Louis XI of France, a tennis buff himself, forbade the filling of tennis balls with chalk, sand, sawdust or earth and sand.

He said the balls needed to be made of good leather and well stuffed with wool. He didn’t want them stuffing them with animal intestines either.

Centuries later, some balls recovered on the roof of Westminster Hall in London, during a period of restoration in the 1920’s , found old balls made of putty and human hair, possibly cultivated from the French they guillotined in the town square.

The first proto-modern balls: vulcanized, air-filled, with and without cloth coverings.

Origins of The Modern Ball

The first significant change in the tennis ball came in the 1870s in England when lawn tennis began to replace real tennis as the game. Walter Clopton Wingfield, a Welsh inventor, who was one of the pioneers of lawn tennis along with Augurio Perera and Harry Gem, began to import rubber balls from Germany where the Germans had been successful in creating vulcanized air-filled balls.

These were light and grey or red in color and had no covering. Then John Moyer Heathcote, an English barrister and real tennis player, suggested covering the rubber ball with flannel. By 1882 Wingfield began advertising his balls as clad in stout cloth. This was the beginning of the balls we know today.

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the entire tennis market was affected. Because 90% of the rubber being cultivated was going to war priorities, this put an end to the manufacturing of tennis balls. Tennis players would go into tennis stores and buy them out in fear there would be no balls on the market.

The Wilson Victory ball made of reclaimed rubber, used during WW II.

There was a good back-stock of balls, but all the ball brands went into R&D looking for ways of creating balls that didn’t need crude rubber. Out of this came the “Victory” ball made of reclaimed rubber with black seams, although its bounce height was about 6 inches lower than traditional balls.

The Pennsylvania ball company also made balls from recycled rubber and, in a big step in the history of the game, was the first company to sell balls in pressured cans.

The modern ball has gone through its own evolution especially when it comes to the packaging and the cans, and of course, changing the traditional white balls to optic yellow in 1972 so the TV audience could better see the ball.

Penn balls: the first sold in pressurized cans.

Interestingly, because of International Tennis Federation regulations, the making of the tennis ball hasn’t changed much in years and most of the factories are the Far East. Outside of Bangkok, Wilson’s 118,403 square foot factory turns out a 100 million of the yellow-green furry things every year, using a process that involves 24 intricate steps.

Chris Clark, the Global Product Manager for Wilson Racquet Sports said that the difference with the balls both for Wilson and the other companies is the manipulation of the felt on the ball.

“It’s what gives the ball its own personality,” he said. “A ball that is woven tighter will play faster and will turn bald faster, while other balls that tend to fluff up are termed in the industry as ‘hairy halos’, and these balls will play slower.”


The Wilson factory in Bangkok turns out 100 million balls a year.

Strangely, modern tennis balls have made an appearance on the political scene. In one of the oddest edicts came from the city of Cleveland during the 2016 Republican convention when they banned at least 72 kinds of weapons and gadgets from the 1.7 square mile “event zone”.

Guns were allowed, as it’s an open carry state but not tennis balls. Tennis balls were deemed more dangerous than carrying a gun.

On a more serious note, Wimbledon was called out this year as it was revealed that the beloved Slazenger tennis ball used at The Championships were made in a sweltering factory in the Philippines. The workers were making pennies on the hour, far less than the allowance the ball boys and girls get for handling them on the Wimbledon grass.

Further down the supply line, the rubber workers supplying the rubber for the shells of the balls earn less and are forced to cultivate the rubber from Basilan, a dangerous Island that is terrorized by the Islamic State.

The Wimbledon ball: from sweltering factory to cool grass lawns.

Tennis balls continue to be the great equalizer as they are used at every level of the game and with the advent of youth tennis; they now come in different sizes.

The bigger foam balls and the various depressurized balls used by young aspiring players are intended to grow the game of by helping players become more skilled at earlier levels.

At the club and USTA level, the balls often become a point of conflict. Who brings the balls, who opens the balls and when, and what kind of balls does a particular player want to play with? Dunlops are harder, Penn’s fluff up more and what about the many kinds of balls offered by any one company? And then there is that Federer ball that is more expensive than any of the others.

The Future

Rich Francey, Director of Sales for Tennis Warehouse says “I don’t see any significant changes in ball technology in the future and I don’t see manufacturers doing anything to increase the life of the ball.” Francey went on to say that tennis ball prices have not increased in the last twenty years in the U.S. but in Europe they sell for as much as $12.00 a can.

A big change in junior tennis – depressurized, lower bouncing balls.

The relationship with the player and the tennis ball can be a complicated one. Players like Novak Djokovic are so mesmerized by the ball that they will bounce it dozens of times before actually striking it. His bounce record is 39 times in a 2007 Davis Cup match against Australia.

Former U.S. #1 and 1959 Wimbledon semi-finalist Sally Moore, who always had a positive outlook on the game, stated that she loved tennis balls and believed because of that love the balls would be good to her in her matches.

Djokovic once bounced a ball 39 times before a serve.

Dominika Cibulkova appears to kiss newly opened tennis balls. She denies that and said instead, “I smell them, I love their smell, the smell of new balls.” The Slovakian claimed that she could smell a ball and know which tournament it came from. At the 2017 Wimbledon Championships, Dominik was blindfolded and then correctly matched each ball by smelling it to the tournament it was originally used in.

Other tennis players seem to hate tennis balls so much that they will hit them out of the stadium. Players often curse at the ball and call it names. Canadian player Denis Shapovalov hit a ball that nearly took off the head off chair umpire Arnaud Gabas and fractured his eye socket.

American Jack Sock has developed his own ritual and wants each ball handler to only have three balls at any time. He recounted a story: “At one point one ball boy had four balls and the other had two, and I got broke in that game. I had to have a little talk with the ball handlers and told them they needed to keep it three and three.”

Ever Present

Tennis balls have become ever-present in our world today. They are used on the bottoms of walkers, as throw toys for dogs, doorstoppers and even reconstituted carpets made from repurposed rubber.

Denis Shapovalov fractured the eye socket of chair umpire Arnaud Gabas.

In the United States alone 125 million tennis balls are sold each year and 325 million worldwide. Sadly over 100 million balls are dumped into landfills each year and will take over 450 years to decompose. So the next time you decide to hit a ball over the fence remember, it will likely be there long after you’re gone.

Finally, the great Billie Jean King finds spiritual meaning in the tennis ball. She said, “I love the smell of the ball and the sound of the ball hitting the strings. The seam on the ball reminds me of the separation between the land and the ocean on earth.” That is deep thinking.

Why Senior Tennis Matters to the Rest of Us

“You Schmuck” my father’s voice bellowed as I hit a backhand that hit the back fence. My dad was referring to me using my head, but I thought image was everything. Hey, that’s what Agassi said, right? And besides, I liked hitting winners, when they went in. It was fun. I had played tennis since I was ten-years old and found very limited success as a junior but was the captain of the Beverly Hills High School tennis team, so at least I had that going for me. However, I was not destined for greatness, at least not on the court.

After leaving the game for thirty years to become a writer, producer and director in Hollywood, I once again fell in love with tennis in my early 50’s. This was mostly because I was looking for an escape from a bad marriage and what I call, my lost decade. Tennis became my escape. As much as I thought I was still a kid, my body said I wasn’t. Unlike the Six Million Dollar Man, I was neither faster nor stronger and no one could rebuild me either. It was at that time that I met Dave Sivertson, a former college player, who played back in the 70’s, but made his name as a director of tennis at several high-end clubs including Braemar Country Club in Tarzana California and Mission Hills Country Club in Palm Desert California. He has been designated a Master Pro by The United States Professional Tennis Association. This means, he’s really super good. Dave remade my game and taught me how to win at the USTA league and club level. After struggling to play tennis well and after the three-decade layoff, Dave helped me get to a point where I reached my goal and became a 4.5 player and began to win almost all of my matches. And, just for fun, I got my USPTA professional certification. For me, that was really cool. I wished my dad were alive to see that. Finally, I was using my head and as for image, let’s just say we left that at the door.

Six months ago Dave called and told me that he would be playing for the U.S. Super Seniors men’s 65 and over team in the ITF (International Tennis Federation) World Championships. This was a significant honor as the United States Tennis Association selects the top 4 players in the country based on performance of wins at the national level. Last year the event was held in Croatia and this year it was held at The U.S. National Tennis Campus, in Lake Nona, Florida… “The Home of U.S. Tennis.” This was something I had to see, so I booked my flight and headed off to Orlando, home of Mickey Mouse, humidity and unmarked toll roads.

The National Tennis Campus is a phenomenal facility. Beautifully landscaped, and set on 64 acres, it is the home of U.S. player development and boasts a hundred courts, some pretty good food and beautiful views. It is also on the landing approach path to Orlando International Airport, which I think was planned to prepare future U.S. stars to play at the U.S. Open. That venue is also on the landing path for JFK. The planes are so low, I am quite sure John Isner could hit a ball inside the wheel well of one of those big birds descending out of the south.

One hundred and twenty-three teams from thirty-one countries competed this year in nine divisions of the Super Seniors World Championships, and it was remarkable tennis. Tennis fans today are fixated on the pro-tour, however, for anyone at the club and recreational level who is serious about playing tennis to win, it’s important to seek out high level senior tournaments because that is the game you need to see in order to make your game better. Federer, Williams and Nadal are great entertainment, but senior tennis is the type of game the club and recreational player needs to watch. The game is slowed down, but the quality isn’t.

We have all seen the club player try to whip a forehand up the line clearing the net by a nano-inch only to stumble across the doubles line and off the court. If they are incredibly lucky, the ball goes in the court but they are as out of position as Nick Kyrgios would be in a synchronized swimming competition. This is the twenty-year old self-talking to us. It’s the part of us that tells us no matter how old we are and how creaky our bodies are, we can still do it. Sorry Charlie, but we can’t. Why not just toss up a lob and reset the point? Why, because it’s boring. However, if you want to win, patience and tactics trump winners.

Several years back, Dave Sivertson adopted a philosophy on winning that involves a few very basic ideas. These are common sense concepts but yet most club players never do them. Winners are overrated, risk must be assessed on every point and patience and percentage tennis are paramount to winning. This philosophy translates down to from the 5.0 levels to the 2.0 levels. Even if you look at the data from the top tour players, you will find that over time the players with the least unforced errors win more matches than those with the most winners. This data explodes exponentially at the club level, which means, winners may be fun, but they are not the way to win.

While other players at the top levels of senior tennis may not articulate this philosophy, they seem to intuitively do it. Jimmy Parker, who played in the Men’s 70 and over division has a record 131 gold balls. Tina Karwasky, the number one woman player in the world in the 65’s and former top 100 tour player has 121 gold balls and also uses this philosophy to win. In many ways she is a mirror to Sivertson. Both players and their teams won gold medals this year. The women’s team beat Australia and the men’s team defeated Austria. In fact seven American teams were in the finals with six taking gold medals.

This is not a game of power, it’s a game of tactics and strategy…a game of who makes the fewest errors, and who has the most patience. You won’t see a lot of winners, but you will see remarkable tennis. The elegance of performance is evident in almost every match.

And so my journey to Lake Nona came to an end as I celebrated with Dave and his team of Larry Turville, Len Wofford, and Paul Wolf, all stupendous players, I came away with one thought. This was a lot of fun and despite their age, these guys define what a champion is both in the way they play and the way they comport themselves on the court. This trip was definitely a winner for me. And as they say, “Tennis is the sport of a lifetime.”


By Rocky Lang from his book Growing Up Hollywood

The first time I saw Hugh Hefner in person was when he emerged from the thick shrubbery in my family’s backyard zipping up his fly, followed closely by his smoking-hot Playmate girlfriend Barbi Benton. While the party was being held to raise money for the legal defense of former RAND Corporation military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, who had recently shocked the country with his release to The New York Times of classified government Vietnam War documents nicknamed the “Pentagon Papers,” Hefner was apparently having his own party in the bushes.

My parents were progressive activists for the Democratic Party, supporting liberal causes and using their Hollywood clout for fundraising. This night in April 1973 was sponsored by the American Civil Liberties Union. Barbra Streisand took singing requests for phoned-in donations out by our pool; Ted Kennedy showed up, too, and the movers and shakers of the entertainment community limo’d over in droves—if for no other reason than to be at the place to be seen. Fundraisers and funerals are great places to network, and this party was happening. Sammy, Dean, and Frank stopped by, and three of the former members of The Beatles dropped in for a little drink and dope (the ashes of which they casually deposited in a tremendously expensive Joan Miró sculpture on my mother’s coffee table).

In those days, the studios sent completed-but-unreleased movies to important Hollywood actors and executives to view in their home screening rooms. That night, Hefner asked my father if he could get him on the Universal Pictures list so he could screen films at the Playboy Mansion. Dad agreed to it, as he was trying to talk Hefner into hiring my brother Bob for a job within his Playboy business empire. A friendship was born of mutual needs.

The parties at the Playboy Mansion in the Holmby Hills section of Los Angeles were legendary. Tales of hot sex, cold drinks, and a mythology that preceded its image were ever present in the lore of Hollywood. It was a tough ticket, and only the beautiful people were invited. I had long heard of the Midsummer Night’s Dream Party, which was always thrown on the first Saturday in August and where people would show up in lingerie and pajamas. The fantasies of what would happen at this event were enough to blow up every zit on my face. Outside of knowing the rosters and stats of each player on the Dodgers, I was nearly as well-versed with the stats of the Playboy magazine centerfolds.

So I was stoked when, a little over a year later, my father handed me an invitation to the Midsummer Night’s Dream Party and told me I should take Bob. Dad said the party was so damn big that I could just use his name at the gate and no one would ever notice. I called Bob, who was nine years my senior; I was a sixteen-year-old with a fantasy of potential deflowerization and my brother was a wannabe player. The two of us suited up in our best pajamas and headed to Hef’s.

The Playboy Mansion was constructed in 1927 and has twenty-nine rooms in 21,987 square feet of pure awesomeness. Architecturally, it is sort of a Gothic Revival meets Tudor Revival—but really, it’s just bitchin’ cool.

Bob and I drove up to the house, pushed the buzzer, and gave our dad’s name. The gargantuan front gates swung open. Inside, a valet met us and took our car. We walked to the front door and rang the bell. The door started to open.


Hef bellowed my father’s name in greeting before he’d fully swung back the door. He saw us instead… and we saw there was no party. My brother and I just stood there—silent, in our pajamas—in the perplexed gaze of this powerful media mogul.

“Mr. Hefner,” I stammered, “we are soooo sorry. We thought this was the Midsummer Night’s Dream Party and my dad and mom couldn’t come.”Hef told us we were a month early for that party, but since we were there, we should come in for dinner. Ten minutes later, Bob and I were at the dining room table with singer Mel “Velvet Fog” Tormé, “Slasher Dasher” O.J. Simpson, and Hef himself—all with respective female companions. There were some big boobs and big hair in that room. The food was incredible and the conversation was gossipy. And then, dinner was over. Bob and I had made it through despite our fuzzy slippers.

“Hey, you guys want to see That’s Entertainment?” Hef asked. “I’m sure it’s a swell movie.” Before I could answer, he added. “If you just want to hang, take a swim, or do whatever, have at it.”

My brother and I looked at each other. We decided to take the “have at it” option.

While Hef, O.J., the Velvet Fog and their big-breasted babes went into the screening room, Bob and I headed outside to the backyard. The first thing we saw was the pool, which rivaled that of any resort. Grotto-like and covered in foliage, it had a swim-up bar and waterfalls. Party heaven— except no one was around. No naked women, no music, no happening, no nothing.

I said to my brother: “I’m thirsty, but I don’t want to go back inside and bother anyone. Let’s go home.”

Before Bob could answer, a man emerged from the shadows, surprising us, and said, “What would you like to drink?” It was a young guy with a waiter notepad. “Anything you want, I can get it,” he continued. After a paused he added: “I can get you a lobster if you want. Fresh in from Maryland.”

“No, no thank you,” I said. “Just a Coke, please.”

My brother chimed in, requesting some exotic drink—the kind that comes with an umbrella. The waiter informed us that if we wanted to swim, there were towels in the pool house. I said we didn’t bring swimsuits and he told us that at the Playboy Mansion, everybody swims naked.

“Ahh,” I uttered in understanding.

One never knows what lurks around corners, but I was about to find out. Leaving Bob to find a bathroom, I entered the pool house. I faced a hallway and a number of doors that led to rooms. I opened the first door and walked into a completely red velvet-covered room with a mirrored ceiling. There was a bed and a contraption that looked like a medieval torture stretcher. It had wrist restraints on the top and a chair that slid back and forth, like a coxswain would use. (Yes, coxswain, not cocksman. But they could each find a use for it.)

Okay, that was weird. I left the red room and opened the next door. Same thing, except this room was decorated in royal blue. It finally dawned on me: These are fuck rooms! Wow! The place was freaking awesome. If I could only get invited back and be able to use these rooms. Dream on.

At last I found the bathroom, unzipped myself… and started to hear banging on the wall. I stopped and listened. There were moans and yells and a few utterances that sounded sort of like Klingon. I thought, Someone is doing it behind this wall. Oh my God, I wish it was me.

On the way home, I recounted the story to my brother, who didn’t believe me. Bob and I did attend the Midsummer Night’s Dream Party later that summer and, yes, Hef never knew we were there.

Years later, the man who built a kingdom on sex and publishing hired my brother to work at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin—where he had a lot of sex and a lot of penicillin.

Sleazy Legal

Did you ever imagine getting a divorce was more difficult than the marriage that got you there? Well, it happened to me.

After a decade of darkness with the wife of the new millennium, the two of us agreed that our lives were worth saving and in order to continue to exist we needed to get away from each other. Agreeing that it made no sense to pay expensive attorneys, we settled our own affairs and decided to take the cheap way out: a paralegal service that would file the divorce papers for a fee and we would be finished. Slam dunk baby! My marriage wasn’t going into overtime — I was ending the game. Swish!

Being the smart sophisticated writer that I am, I spied a paralegal service on the boulevard as I listened to an oldies station on the radio. It was going to be easy, fast and cheap. As if the heavens opened up, the light shown down on this little storefront that I will forever call: Sleazy Legal. God was taking me to the Promised Land; the avenue from hell leading to heaven and Sleazy Legal was like the gates of St. Peter opening up for me. Fantastic! I was ready to start my life over and these people were going to make my divorce easy. Sleazy Legal. Yeah!

Showbiz Analysis with Filmmaker and Hollywood Legacy Rocky Lang

Growing up in Hollywood makes for some pretty phenomenal stories and who better to share them than an expert storyteller who happens to be an author, producer, director, and the son of a legendary Hollywood power couple? So I was thrilled when Rocky Lang joined me for my podcast Whine At 9 to discuss his childhood, his career, and his new book Growing Up Hollywood: Tales From The Son of a Hollywood Mogul.

The son of veteran producer and Universal Studios executive Jennings Lang (Earthquake, Play Misty for Me, High Plains Drifter) and stage and screen star Monica Lewis, Rocky Lang certainly had plenty of show business in his DNA. The award-winning producer, director, and writer knew at an early age that he wanted to be behind the camera. While his dad focused on the business side of Hollywood, the younger Lang took a different track. “I was much more interested in using the canvas of film to express the ideas and feelings I had as a writer and a director,” says Lang who has directed, written, and produced films, documentaries, and television shows.

While he benefitted from being raised in a home that was immersed in show business

“If You Thought Your Divorce Was Bad” is out!

“If You Thought Your Divorce Was Bad…Wait Until You Read This Book!” is finally  published.   Funny stories, crazy anecdotes, weird facts meet even weirder people in this fun impulse book. Funny, Funny, Funny.