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Why the tennis balls at the US Open are different for men and women, as Iga Swiatek calls them ‘horrible’

The i 8/30/2022 Michael Hincks
Iga Swiatek says the women's US Open tennis balls are 'horrible' (Photo: Getty) © Provided by The i Iga Swiatek says the women's US Open tennis balls are 'horrible' (Photo: Getty)

Iga Swiatek was only half-joking when declaring “you’ve just started a war” at the Western and Southern Open earlier this month.

That statement came at the end of one of her press conferences in Cincinnati, in which the women’s world No 1 was asked about the tennis balls used by female players at the US Open.

While the men play with Wilson’s extra duty tennis balls – developed specifically for hard courts – the women play with regular duty balls, which play faster, are less durable and are actually more suited to softer surfaces like clay or indoor courts.

The US Open, a hard-court tournament, is the only grand slam where male and female players use different balls, and this was a factor which hampered the now-retired Ashleigh Barty, according to her coach Craig Tyzzer.

“The US Open really needs to change the ball for the girls, the fact they still use a different ball for guys and girls, it’s a terrible ball for someone like Ash,” Tyzzer said earlier this year. “If they keep that ball the same, no one like Ash will win that tournament.”

The views of the former world No 1’s coach have been echoed by the current top-ranked player, with US Open favourite Swiatek not holding back on an issue now being posed to several players at this year’s event.

“I think those balls are horrible,” Swiatek said. “Especially after three games of really hard playing, they are getting more and more light. At the end, you can’t even serve 170 kilometres per hour because you know it’s going to fly like crazy. Yeah, I think they are pretty bad. Sorry.

“I know that there are many players who complain, and many of them are top 10. We make more mistakes, for sure. So I don’t think that’s really nice to watch.”

Extra duty vs regular duty

The men’s extra duty tennis balls at the US Open, per Wilson’s website:

“Developed for hard, abrasive court surfaces, Extra Duty tennis balls have a thicker felt woven a bit looser around the core to withstand shearing. That means that the felt on these balls are less likely to fluff up as they are played. While Extra Duty balls tend to be more durable, they don’t play as fast as Regular Duty balls.”

The women’s regular duty tennis balls:

“Regular Duty tennis balls are developed for softer surfaces – like clay or indoor courts. Increased moisture and dirt can cause these balls to fluff up more than Extra Duty balls, though they use a thinner felt woven more tightly around the core to resist this fluffing. These balls play faster, but are less durable than Extra Duty.”

As Swiatek alludes to, she has fellow pros fighting her corner. Paula Badosa, the fourth seed at this year’s US Open, shared her anger over the fact women play with different balls to the men at Flushing Meadows.

The US No 1 Jessica Pegula also explained that the balls lead to a greater amount of unforced errors. “I feel like the first couple weeks there are a lot of double faults, because the balls are just kind of flying a bit more,” the world No 8 said.

“I’m personally not a huge fan. I don’t see why we couldn’t switch to extra duty. I played with them when I’m at home or when I can’t find any balls. They just don’t fly as much. But it’s easier said than done, so hopefully the player council can work on that.”

Other players on tour are relatively easy-going on the matter. “I’m fine with it,” said Coco Gauff. “Whatever the majority wants, I’m cool with it.”

Ons Jabeur is happy to “play with any ball”, although the Wimbledon finalist did add: “It would make sense if we played with the same balls as men, because that’s what we do in other Grand Slams. I see their point.”

And then there are the fans of the regular duty balls. Madison Keys, the 2017 US Open finalist who beat Swiatek in Cincinnati, described them as her “favourite”, adding: “I mean it’s what we practice with all of the time. It starts pretty fast, and I think it’s one of those balls that actually stays pretty consistent throughout until ball change.

“They don’t get as fluffy, so they never really slow down, which is great for me. But I mean, I can see why [Swiatek] doesn’t like them.”

Keys is backed by two-time Wimbledon champion Petra Kvitova, who said: “I love it. It doesn’t matter, but we are not changing it. That’s important to have the same balls like Toronto, here at the US Open, especially for my wrist.”

What have ATP players said?

Rafael Nadal admitted he had no idea about the difference until recently, but suggested the issue was not worth the airtime.

“I don’t know. I don’t have any idea of that,” the 22-time grand slam champion said. “Of course I didn’t try, because I practice with the ball that I played. But I don’t think is an important topic at all.”

Meanwhile, Taylor Fritz said he is able to serve faster, closer to 150mph, when trying out the women’s tennis balls, but suggested the WTA players were divided due to their varying styles.

“I’m sure it’s going to be different based off how people hit the ball, people’s strokes,” the American said.

“I just know that when I switch from the ball we normally use to the men’s Wilson ball, it doesn’t feel good on my arm, so I feel like if I’m saying that, then maybe some girls would also have the same issue playing with the balls.”

Will US Open change to the same balls?

With the spotlight on this disparity, there may well be a change at future US Opens, with the grand slam’s organisers, the United States Tennis Association (USTA), stating it “works closely” with the WTA and ATP Tours and their respective player councils “to determine what type of balls they recommend playing with for the coming US Open”.

The USTA added in a statement to ESPN: “These decisions are made months in advance in order to stock the nearly 100,000 competition balls used at the US Open every year. A number of factors are considered in these decisions, and the USTA will continue to follow the recommendations of the tours and their player councils to determine which balls are utilized during the US Open.”

The WTA are listening to any concerns, meanwhile, with the governing body’s senior vice president Amy Binder telling ESPN: “The WTA has always utilised regular felt balls for hardcourt play, and we have now begun to hear from a select number of our athletes that they would like to consider a change to using the extra duty ball.

“The basis behind using the regular felt ball was that it limited the potential of arm, shoulder, elbow and wrist injuries. This is something that we will continue to monitor and discuss further with both our athletes and our sports science teams.”

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