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Wimbledon 2018 and the history of the tennis ball

Dr Clair Curran

By Dr Clair Curran

Senior Patent Attorney

With qualifying underway for the world’s oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament, Wimbledon, we thought we’d take a look at the history of the trusty tennis ball — from an IP perspective, of course…

Wimbledon (The Championships — Wimbledon®) is a quintessentially British phenomenon. A heady mix of awe-inspiring tennis, strawberry and champagne consumption and, as the tournament is synonymous with British summertime, dodging the occasional downpour.

Slazenger™ has been the official supplier of tennis balls to The Championships since 1902. For this year’s tournament, Slazenger™ will supply 54,200 balls, with each adhering to strict rules governing weight, bounce and compression.

Such rules weren’t always in place — indeed, as you might imagine, the modern tennis ball has evolved significantly from its rubber ancestor of the 1800’s. Brace yourself, as we serve you an exhibition of sporting innovation…


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1844 — Vulcanised rubber tennis balls

We start with self-taught chemist Charles Goodyear’s quest to make natural rubber into a stable and durable product. Whilst working at the Eagle India Rubber Company, Goodyear accidentally combined rubber and sulphur on a hot stove. The rubber didn’t melt. In fact, it hardened when the heat was increased.

After perfecting the vulcanisation process, he received US Patent No. 3,462 in 1844.

The first tennis sets, marketed by Major Wingfield (see below), included vulcanised India rubber balls. The balls were red or grey in colour and did have the bounce suitable for use on grass courts.

1874 — The invention of ‘lawn tennis’

Major Walter Clopton Wingfield was the first to publish lawn tennis rules, in a booklet entitled Sphairistiké (Greek for lawn tennis), also known as the ‘Book of the Game’. Lawn tennis replaced ‘real tennis’, the original racquet sport that the modern game is derived from.

On 23 February 1874, Wingfield was granted patent for “a new and improved portable court for playing the ancient game of tennis”.

The patent was abandoned in 1877, but is on display at the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

1870s — Cloth wrapped tennis balls

English barrister John Moyer Heathcote is credited with devising the use of flannel as a cover around a rubber tennis ball. The cover made improved the wearing and playing properties of the ball. This made the ball compatible with the grass turf and more visible.

2000 — ‘Glow in the dark’ tennis balls

The design of covering for a tennis ball has moved on since the use of flannel.

The invention (US Patent No. 6,508,732) of a ‘glow in the dark’ tennis ball — one covered in a phosphorescent impregnated fibre — solved the problem of the lack of visibility of conventional yellow tennis balls at dusk or in low light conditions.

2015 — ‘Eco-friendly’ tennis balls

Finally, we land in 2015. Every year, around 300 million tennis balls are manufactured globally. The majority end up in landfill, decomposing at a very slow rate. Sustainable solutions are constantly being sought to reduce the environmental impact.

One example of a sustainable solution is the eco-friendly tennis ball, launched by The Royal Parks Foundation in 2015.

The ball has been approved by the International Tennis Federation (ITF) and is pressureless. This lack of pressurisation means that the balls don’t deflate and therefore last longer — so much so that they come with a ‘lifetime bounce guarantee’. Recyclable packaging is also replacing the pressurised metal cans that were conventionally used to prevent gas loss from the tennis ball prior to use.

Other ways to recycle are available…


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