A Tennis Ball Primer

Is there anything better than opening a new can of balls?

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I love the sound the can makes as the pressure is released. I love the vivid color before the ball has picked up too much court crud. I even love the smell. (If it’s toxic, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.)

But despite my love affair with a piece of sporting equipment, it turns out I didn’t know much about it.

For many years, I’d drive by CVS on my way to the court and grab whatever happened to be on the shelf. There wasn’t much of a selection, but I didn’t care. I didn’t know enough to care. I thought all tennis balls were the same.

Later I discovered that the club sells tennis balls right at the front desk–much simpler. There’s no selection here either. They only carry Wilson US Open. I never gave it a thought.

But even if I had noticed different terminology on various cans of tennis balls, I probably would have thought something like this:

Hmm, there’s ProPenn and Penn Championship. ProPenn must be for a player who’s very good, and Championship is for tournament-level play.

And Regular Duty must be for people who don’t hit the ball too hard. They’re balls for regular people, like me. Extra Duty is for the people who like to smash the cover off the ball.

Don’t judge. I was an English major.

It wasn’t until the last few weeks that I began to wonder whether all the different brand stylings–ProPenn and Dunlop Grand Prix and Wilson Championship–amounted to anything more than marketing ploys. Turns out, just snagging whatever can’s on the shelf may not be the best strategy for my game.

So in case you’re like me, here’s a quick primer on the different types of tennis balls.

The major ball manufacturers produce balls in three tiers: Professional, Championship, and Recreational.

The professional level ball is the highest quality ball. They’re used at the professional tournaments and feature consistent bounce from ball-to-ball, can-to-can. These balls enjoy the greatest longevity. Confusingly, there’s no universal labeling for this class of ball: ProPenn, PennATP, Wilson US Open, and Dunlop Grand Prix all fall within this category.

Championship level balls are the next tier down. They cost far less than the higher tier, running $20-$30 less for a case at Tennis Warehouse. The championship tier balls don’t last as long as the professional level and offer somewhat less bounce consistency. For this category, the manufacturers tend to use the same “championship” terminology: Wilson Championship, Penn Championship, etc.

Finally there’s the recreational level. Unless you’re just trying out the sport and aren’t sure you want to stick with it, you don’t want these. Common brand names are Wilson Tribute, Penn Tribute, and Dunlop Progress.

Once you’ve decided which tier ball you want, you’ll need to choose between extra duty and regular duty.

Extra-duty balls have extra felt on them, providing protection from the impact of hard courts. This means your ball will stay bouncy longer. (Extra-duty balls are also used for grass, although Wilson does produce a line of white balls specifically for this surface.)

So why wouldn’t you want extra-duty all the time? The thicker felt on the extra-duty balls picks up clay and dirt, making the ball play heavier and decreasing its playing life. For clay courts, you want a regular-duty ball.

All important information, but it can’t answer one question: Can I get away with a championship-level ball and save myself some money? After all, I typically open a new can every time I play, using old balls only for warm-up. Since longevity isn’t really an issue, do I really need a professional-level ball?

In the spirit of research, I bought a can of Wilson Championship balls at Dick’s Sporting Goods. Even at the can level, these second-tier balls ($2.99) were far cheaper than the Wilson US Open balls ($4.99). In case you don’t want to do the math, that’s 66% more for the professional can! (Yes, I’m sure I can get them cheaper somewhere else. But still…that’s a big difference.)

My verdict? The championship balls played fine and certainly had life left in them at the end of my match this morning. But they did feel heavier to me, and a little less bouncy right out of the can.

Would I notice that difference if I weren’t already thinking about how the balls would perform? I’m not sure. I’ll probably buy another can or two to see if my first impression still holds. But for now, I can say I do prefer the professional-level balls.

Are you picky about your tennis balls? Do you have a favorite brand? Penn? Wilson?

 

11 thoughts on “A Tennis Ball Primer

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  1. Very helpful info. I never knew about these distinctions. Pretty sure the mid-level is the right one for me. One odd aspect — sometimes I find myself hitting a dead ball really really well because it has less movement and is easier to track. I have to decide to retire the ball because we should all want new, fresh balls but sometimes the old slow balls are easier to sustain a rally with.

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  2. I’ve played with some pros who use the “dot” balls (that they use for kids) to perfect new swing/form – they’re like dead balls, but lighter!

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  3. Speaking of used tennis balls, I keep them for the dog. I wonder if you could donate them to a dog shelter. What do you do with yours? Does the club keep them in the warm-up bin?

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  4. The balls at my club travel from the teaching cart to the warm-up cart to the giant cardboard box of dead balls. I believe someone comes to pick them up for recycling, although I don’t know the details. I often throw my old balls in there as well. For people who aren’t affiliated with a club, Recycle Balls is a terrific option. Once you have 100 or more balls, you box them up. Recycle Balls will email you a prepaid shipping label for UPS. The balls they collect get recycled into under-surfaces for tennis courts. Check them out at recycleballs.org.

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  5. Wow, what great info in this post! But going back to your opening line about the pleasure of opening a new can, does anyone besides me remember when cans came with little metal keys that you twisted around the perimeter of the lid to remove it? By the time I started playing, those cans were a thing of the past (see, I’m not THAT old), but I recall being fascinated by those keys as a little kids traipsing around the courts my parents played on.

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