History of the Tennis Ball

History of the Tennis Ball

For the last few centuries, the game of tennis has been a beloved part of millions of lives across the world. Said to be an adaptation of an 11th century French sport called jeu de paume, tennis as we know it was designed and codified in England in the 1870s. 

Traditional tennis balls

Traditionally, tennis balls were made from a spherical stitched envelope of leather or cloth stuffed with rags, horsehair or feathers. The modern-day tennis ball first saw the light of day when the game was codified in England – each ball was made solely from vulcanised Indian rubber, and the wearing and playing capabilities were enhanced by covering them with stitched flannel. Not long after this, the tennis ball shifted to flaunt its modern-era characteristic of making the core hollow and pressurising it with gas.

The culture of tennis

People fell in love with tennis, overtaking the English culture’s passion for croquet very quickly. In fact, the sport was codified by Welsh Major Walter Clopton in A Portable Court of Playing Tennis a short three years before the first Wimbledon tournament in 1877. But what made the game such a hit? Most tennis aficionados pinpoint the reasoning down to the performability of the rubber ball, which could bounce on grass. As the sport grew in popularity, grass courts were swiftly turned into clay, then hardwood flooring, at the turn of the 19th century. 

Early innovations 

Fast forwarding to more recent times, 1972 saw a major change for the game. Historically, tennis balls were black or white, depending on the background colour of the courts. As the world became digitised and tennis matches were streamed on televisions, the felt was changed to yellow to enhance the visibility for viewers at home. While Wimbledon took around 14 years to adapt to this change, yellow tennis balls became a hit around the world as it helped with visibility for players, too.

Sustainability

There’s no doubt the modern day tennis ball performs spectacularly (they’re tough enough to put up with Roger Federer hitting them at 220 km/hr speeds). But as sustainability becomes a cornerstone of our lives, sports and material engineering experts are starting to come face-to-face with the nuances of sustainability in the tennis space.

Right now, there are millions of used tennis balls laying in every corner of our globe. Around 325 million balls are produced globally each year, with around 100 million of those being sent to US-based landfills every year according to ball recycler Retour Tennis. 

There’s a tonne of challenges when it comes to ethical innovation in the tennis space, and most of it starts with the material that the tennis balls are made from. Comprising a hollow rubber core on the inside, felt made from a range of different materials is used as a cover. The most common material combination is wool and nylon, with either a polyester or cotton backing that gives it a sturdier structure. 

Chloe Lee, a product engineer at Wilson Sporting Goods Co says the use of these materials has led to complex issues with recyclability.

“Basically once you create rubber, it exists. You can’t do anything about it.”

Rubber is a thermoset material that can’t be recycled due to the way its molecules react after it has been processed. When initially processed, the rubber is crosslinked which locks the molecules and place and doesn't allow them to reverse back to their original structure for recycled production. This means the only thing we can currently do with rubber is reuse it - we can grind it down at the end of it's life and mix with other materials.

In terms of the felt material, nylon fibres are another nonorganic plastic fiber that creates challenges to recyclability. It technically could be recycled if the materials were separated from each other.

Even still, there are huge issues with recycling felt as, depending on how long each ball was used for, they’re prone to picking up dirt. The different fibre lengths from varying stages of wear also makes it difficult to sort out. 

Wilson Triniti Ball

The wonderful world of sustainable tennis innovations

While the game of tennis has stayed largely consistent since it was codified, there are a tonne of movers and shakers like RecycleBalls in the space who are doing their bit to make the game more sustainable. 

Enter Wilsons' Triniti tennis balls, an innovation that is working on reducing the plastics in packaging. 

Lee, who has been working on the project, says the team are working hard on multiple fronts to move the game to a more sustainable space.

“For Triniti tennis balls, we replaced the PET plastic with a sustainable sleeve.”

The ball, which is set to last four times as long as a regular ball, still performs well out of the sleeve.

“I’ve had balls in my car for several months and I can take them back out and hit them again. It’s nuts,” Lee says. 

How can individuals do their part?

But Lee is quick to flag that the solution has to come from every direction.

“At the end of the day, one person or one company is not going to solve the problems. 

For tennis lovers and players that are focused on doing their part to commit to sustainability, the long-lasting Triniti ball is a great choice. For a passionate consumer, using each individual ball for as long as possible is a great way to move forward into the circular economy.

For companies and brands in the space, it’s integral that they also step up to the plate and take responsibility for the products they are creating or endorsing. 

There’s also a tiny but integral thing that consumers can do to increase their recyclability of the tennis ball can: cutting the aluminum ring off before recycling the can. While some recycling plants can process tennis ball cans as they are, the majority of them can’t as they’re made up of both PET and aluminum.

And as for recycling innovations on a larger scale, Lee is mindful that the procedure is different everywhere. While Australia has never recycled tennis balls before, new things are coming out of the woodwork everyday that inject hope into the hearts of sustainably-minded tennis consumers across the country. Game On Recycling is working to be a part of this solution by offering new ways to reuse the material of tennis balls with circular economy principles. 

Game On Tennis Ball Recycling

Score a point for planet earth

To get the circular economy ball rolling here in Australia, Game on Recycling is doing some great stuff in the sustainable sports space. A joint initiative from Wilson and Australia New Zealand Recycling Platform, as part of a government grant to bring sporting goods recycling to Australia, Game on Recycling aims to make our nations’ sporting industry the global leader in sustainability. 

Finding solutions, confronting roadblocks and thinking outside of the box is the way that Aussies work best – so if you’re interested in learning more about recycling sporting goods, head to our about us page.