After a four-month delay, the French Open began on Sunday under dark clouds of Covid-19 and Parisian fall season. A developing storyline, however, has been the tournament favourites saying: “No new balls, please.”
The organisers have replaced Babolat with Wilson as the official ball at Roland Garros. Dominic Thiem and Novak Djokovic have called the new balls “heavier” and “slower”. But nobody has been more outspoken, and seemingly more affected, by the change than record twelve-time winner Rafael Nadal. Coupled with the weather conditions, the Wilson balls could theoretically pose problems to the perennial champion.
How are the balls different?
According to Nadal, the new Wilson balls are slow and “not good to play on clay”. Freshly-crowned US Open champion and another clay-court specialist Dominic Thiem believes the ball will be a “bigger difference” than conditions. “I practised two days at home with the ball. Now, of course, here. I`m a little bit sad because the Babolat were actually my favourite balls, they were nice and fast, perfect for my game, perfect for Nadal’s game too,” Thiem told reporters. “The new balls will be slower, more open. They get a little bit bigger after a while. That will certainly change the results a bit.”
The Wilson Type 2 balls at this year’s Roland Garros sport extra felt, woven loosely to minimise wear and make them consistent. But it also makes them heavier. And heavier the ball, the slower it goes through the air and off the court. The coarse courts and humid conditions mean the extra felt may fluff up more, causing the ball to drag. The thicker felt would also pick up dirt each time they hit the ground, making the balls heavier.
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How do conditions affect the ball?
The humid, cold September-October weather is a far cry from the usual May-June summer. The scheduling — two weeks after US Open — was already a challenge, but the new balls have seemingly made it worse. If the ball or court is wet, it can impact both the flight of the ball as well as the bounce. The ball will only get heavier through the thick air. “I agree that the balls are heavy,” Djokovic told reporters on Saturday. “But also it’s probably because we are also almost in October, and it’s very cold. The clay is also heavy and wet. Just overall conditions are also affecting the ball itself. It’s very hard to say whether the ball is heavy in general or is it because we are playing under these kinds of slow and heavy conditions.”
Nadal asserted that the Wilson balls are unsuitable regardless. “I practised with the balls in Mallorca with warm conditions, the ball was very slow, I think (it’s) not a good ball to play on clay, honestly. That is my personal opinion,” Nadal said. “Even with these conditions, it makes things tougher. If we add these conditions of cold and humidity, then it’s super heavy.”
How do the new balls affect playstyles?
Nadal’s biggest weapon is the dizzying topspin he generates, and everything goes into it – his physicality, biomechanics, the strings and the motion.
The balls too had a role to play. On the slowest tennis-playing surface of clay, the lighter, livelier Babolat balls put a penetrative oomph on Nadal’s serves and groundstrokes. The RPMs (revolutions per minute) may still go as high as 5,500, but slower traversal and lower bounce of the balls can allow opponents to better counter the heavy topspin.
The usual short forehands on the run by the 34-year-old could be less effective this year. On the other hand, a flat hitter like Djokovic should get more time to line up their shots, hit them on the rise and generate speed and depth. Daniil Medvedev, 2019 US Open finalist, who has never advanced past the first round at Roland Garros, is already licking his chops.
“It’s normal that when one player doesn’t like something, the second one maybe is going to like it. So far I like it,” said the 6’6, heavy-hitting baseliner.
What are the injury concerns?
Nadal issued a warning shot to the organisers. “I really believe that the organisation need to take a look at that for the next couple of years, for the health of the players too, because the ball is super heavy. (It) becomes dangerous for the elbow and for the shoulders.”
Hitting heavy, wet (or both, in the case of this year’s French Open) is of course linked to injuries such as tennis elbow.
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When and why was the ball changed?
It’s a straightforward commercial decision. By winning the partnership, Wilson is again the official ball at two Grand Slams (US and French Open) after being replaced by Dunlop at last year’s Australian Open.
Also, both Nadal and Thiem are Babolat’s poster athletes, and few would have expected them to come out and admit that the Wilson balls were better than their own company’s.
Last year in November, the French Tennis Federation ended the long association with Babolat and signed a five-year deal with Chicago-based Wilson. Under the new deal, Wilson’s stringers will also be on-site to provide services as well as a range of co-branded products will be launched.
Babolat had been the official ball at French Open since 2011 when the French manufacturers replaced Dunlop.
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What happened the last time the balls were changed?
A lot of players complained.
When the French Open switched to Babolat from Dunlop in 2011, players claimed that the new balls bounced higher and played faster. Federer, who reached the French Open final for the last time that year, led the chorus. Stanislas Wawrinka said “The balls are pretty strange” while Djokovic bemoaned that “the balls are very, very fast, so it’s really difficult to control. Maybe it’s going to favour the servers and the big hitters.”
Nadal, who had already won five French Open titles, went on to win seven more.
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