Ball-maker hoping Nadal wins in Paris to prove himself wrong

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Spain's Rafael Nadal prepares to serve against Mackenzie McDonald of the U.S. in the second round match of the French Open tennis tournament at the Roland Garros stadium in Paris, France, Wednesday, Sept. 30, 2020. Less than half a gram, or half the weight of a U.S. dollar bill. That is the tiny weight difference between the old French Open ball that Rafael Nadal happily bashed in winning his 12th title last year and the new one riling him in his chase for No. 13 at Roland Garros. The new ball is made by Chicago-based Wilson. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)

PARIS – Less than half a gram, or half the weight of a dollar bill.

That, according to their manufacturer, is the almost infinitesimal weight difference between the old French Open ball that Rafael Nadal happily bashed in winning his 12th title last year and the new one riling him in his chase for No. 13 at Roland Garros.

In cool, damp autumnal Paris, weather alien to the native of a sun-kissed Mediterranean isle, the balls play “like a stone,” Nadal grumbled even before he had hit his first one in anger on the clay courts, aiming to tie Roger Federer's record for men of 20 Grand Slam titles overall.

But the ball manufacturer who oversaw their development and testing is so convinced that Nadal is wrong that he’s quietly crossing fingers that Spain's “King of Clay” triumphs again, despite the fact that he is sponsored by a rival equipment maker, simply to prove that the balls are just fine.

“Part of me is like, ‘Gosh, I hope Nadal wins, just so it makes this a really moot point,’” Jason Collins, the global product director for racket sports at Wilson Sporting Goods Co., said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“I’m very confident that when the dust settles on this event, the ball is not going to be what Roland Garros 2020 is going to be remembered for."

When the tournament announced the selection last November of the Chicago-based manufacturer, replacing French firm Babolat that sponsors Nadal, the coronavirus was unheard of. Wilson was, by then, already at work tailoring a bespoke ball for the often warm, occasionally rainy conditions expected in May and June of 2020, when the tennis world was due to jet into Paris for the second major tournament of the year.

The pandemic nixed all that. The French Open got pushed to September, becoming the last of only three Grand Slams this year, after Wimbledon canceled for the first time since World War II. Instead of Paris in springtime, players got rain, cold, leaden skies and a wan sun that sets two hours earlier than in did in May. Either confined to a sanitary bubble in their hotels or laboring in wet-weather gear and leggings on clay courts rendered sticky and inhospitable, there has been considerable grumbling from some players, and the new ball has taken some of the brunt.

“Some of those balls we were using you wouldn’t give to a dog to chew,” British player Dan Evans said after losing a five-set, 3 hour, 49-minute slog on the particularly sodden opening day. “It’s brutal. It’s so cold. I think the balls are the biggest thing. Maybe they got it a little wrong with the balls. It’s tough to get that ball to go anywhere.”

Plugged into the tournament from Chicago, with TV coverage always on, Collins says that while “I don’t mean to defend Dan Evans for his comments," the feedback he got was that the problem lay in the way the balls were handled, not the balls themselves. Some rolled into tarpaulin covers that are folded at court-side when not deployed to shield them from a soaking, and where rain had puddled.

“The damage is done but the reality is that, yes, some of those balls were literally in a puddle," Collins told the AP. "They should have been taken out of play.”

The language of tennis, where players use the word “heavy" or, in Nadal's case, “super heavy," to describe what they perceive to be a lack of bounce and kick off the surface that is topped with the ochre dust of crushed bricks, has also fed into perceptions that the ball is unresponsive, perhaps even unsuited or somehow flawed.

But Collins says the ball's specifications, finely measured and also tested by the governing body of tennis, tell a different story and that they're only very slightly different from the previous Babolat balls that also got mixed reviews when they replaced Dunlop at the French Open from 2011.

In development, unbranded Wilson balls were blinded-tested by players and repeatedly tweaked — through some 10 iterations, “it was very micro," Collins says — until the final production of what tournament director Guy Forget insists is “a very good ball.”

“From a pure spec perspective, the balls are virtually identical," Collins said. "From a weight, from a rebound, from a size, from a deformation perspective, they are very, very close.

“From a weight perspective, it would be less than half a gram,” he added. “Any time there is a change, these guys and girls are super-sensitive and unfortunately sometimes perception takes over from common sense. This is just one of those times.”

American player Jack Sock is among those who haven't noticed.

“In general, if you gave me two different balls, I couldn’t tell you which was lighter, heavier. I just go out and play,” he said after a straight-sets win in his opening match. “I’m not sure about the crazy difference that guys are talking about.”

And while No.2-ranked Nadal said it's “not a good ball to play on clay, honestly," and then added in Spanish that “with the cold, you can imagine, it’s like a stone," on the other end of the spectrum is No. 7-ranked Alexander Zverev. Like Nadal, the German isn't a Wilson player; his racket sponsor is Head. Yet Zverev has rejoiced at the change.

“For me, the Babolats were the worst balls of all time. Because of that, for me, any other ball is just progress," he said in German. "We’re playing at 10 degrees, with drizzle. I think you can’t say so much good or bad about the balls now.”

Collins says early indications from Nadal's first match, a straight-sets win, were that the balls' speed off his topspin forehand, a favored shot, was faster than last year.

“Tennis is a mental sport, he may be making comments just to take pressure off himself," he said. "A stone definitely wouldn’t be good for his game but the good news is: This is not a stone.”


AP Sports Writers James Ellingworth in Duesseldorf, Germany, and Tales Azzoni in Madrid contributed.


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