‘Super fluffy’ tennis balls are causing injuries fear leading players
The latest scourge of tennis? These are big, fluffy balls that, according to Russian world number 7 Daniil Medvedev, are so heavy that they feel like “apples” on the racket.
Medvedev said the Dunlop balls, which were also criticized by Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray during the Australian Open in January, are causing wrist, elbow and shoulder injuries to top players.
Moreover, Medvedev believes that the balls are moving so slowly that they make the matches more and more endless. On Tuesday, his dominant 6-4, 6-2 victory over the unannounced Matteo Arnaldi took 1 hour 31 minutes. “To be honest, it’s almost nonsense,” Medvedev told reporters.
“When the balls are at their lowest point” – which is nearing the end of their nine-match life – “it felt like neither I nor he could be a winner,” Medvedev said.
The same question about increasing the length of matches was recently raised Tim Henman, former British No. 1 who is now on the committee of the All England Club.. However, Henman believes the responsibility lies with another part of the tennis ecosystem: the chair umpires, who he believes are taking too long to trigger the 25-second shot clock.
“I was on the court a lot during the United Cup,” said Henman, who captained Great Britain in that competition ahead of the Australian Open. “I really noticed it in the Cam Norrie-Rafael Nadal match, which Norrie won. 3-6, 6-3, 6-4. It was a good match, but it had to last 2 hours maximum. It took 2 hours and 45 minutes.”
Medvedev told reporters in Dubai that his comments were hardly questionable as he had just won last week’s competition in Doha, where he beat Andy Murray in the final using the same Dunlop balls.
“I knew it was going to be hard, especially in the conditions here, pretty slow with the balls getting super, super fluffy. So at some point it feels like you’re throwing, I don’t know how to call it in English, but when you throw a big heavy ball,” Medvedev said.
“New balls for about three games [are lively],” he added. “We call it ‘heaven and earth’ in Russia, they are completely different. It takes two games to get used to them … but then they are dead again.
“In my opinion, it can even be boring. I can’t do anything with the ball. I hit in the middle, he responds, whoever misses, his legs are on fire. In my opinion, this is a little strange. Again, if I’m alone, that’s just my problem. I just feel like it’s bad for the body and that’s important.”
Medvedev is certainly not Robinson Crusoe in this matter. During his pre-tournament press conference at the Australian Open in January, Nadal was asked about the pace of the courts and responded with scathing criticism of the ball.
“They say the same, but the ball is definitely worse in quality,” he said. “I think it’s a ball that doesn’t spin the way it usually does. After a couple of hits, the ball loses pressure. It’s harder to hit with the right spin.”
As with any gear change, some players feel more pressure than others. In Nadal’s case, his topspin is his unique advantage, which is offset by flatter balls. Whereas world No. 1 Novak Djokovic, who hits with less spin and loves to knock down his opponents, said on Tuesday: “I like balls. It is not so easy to make a one-two game, quickly score points and win. You have to earn points, run more and work harder.”
The extra effort required to push the old Dunlop balls across the court causes physical pain in the dressing room, Medvedev said. “I see Runa, Tsitsipas, Korda, the whole wrist, elbow, shoulder. These balls become very fluffy, and playing them with a racket is a big shock. Medvedev added that he does extra physical therapy on his wrist every day after feeling pain there during the Australian Open.
Match length has also been a major issue in Australia, to the point where Andy Murray ended his five-set thriller against Thanasi Kokkinakis at an absurd 4:05 am..
After that, during a short press conference under the stadium at 4:30 am, Murray said: “It felt like there was no pressure on the ball, almost flat. So it’s just hard to be among the winners when you enter the sweepstakes. I think yesterday there was a rally of 70 shots, or several rallies of 35, 40 shots, which is not normal.”
These long rallies may also play a role in referees being slower to start the 25-second shot clock. Everything in tennis points to slower matches, which in turn could threaten the continued viability of five-set matches during Grand Slams. With that in mind, Henman told Telegraph Sport there should be more consistent application of the shot clock rule.
“The referee rules say, ‘Don’t start until the score is called,'” Henman explained. “But they also say, ‘Keep in mind where the player is on the court.’ And with so many players using the towel now between the points, the referees don’t start the clock until 10 seconds have passed since the last point has ended.
“You figure it’s five or six points in an average match with 35 or more seconds between them, and it adds up. You look at the schedule in Australia and realize that no one has to finish work at 3 or 4 in the morning.
“The shot counter slowed down a lot of players,” Henman concluded. “We wanted to make everything faster and more transparent, but it didn’t work. This needs to be resolved. We are seeing more collaboration and continuity across organizations, but we still need a forum to discuss this, and there isn’t one. We need to talk about this.”