Louise Price says she feels embarrassed that they hadn’t made the change before. As the director of the UK’s last tennis ball manufacturer, Price of Bath, the long-established business was well-versed in taking a sustainable approach to its operations – but not to its actual product.
‘And tennis balls can really hang around,’ she says. ‘They’re pretty brittle and wouldn’t be suitable for play now, but there are balls laying around the factory that are 30 years old.’
Indeed, aside from moving from court to dog walk, there’s no second life for tennis balls. They don’t decompose, not least because recent years has seen the major sporting goods manufacturers add nylon/micro-plastics to the felt to give additional durability.
And the International Tennis Federation – tennis’s governing body – actually stipulates for professional matches that the balls are regularly replaced, so that play continues with the balls all at their optimum pressurisation.
At Wimbledon, new balls are introduced after just seven games (not matches), and then again every nine games. A two week Grand Slam tournament may get through around 54,000 balls, many of which end up being incinerated. Small wonder then that an estimated 125 million balls are used and soon after discarded every year in the US alone.
‘Even amateur players do not use their tennis balls forever because the internal pressure goes down and the felt wears out,’ explains Dr Thomas Allen, of the department of engineering at Manchester Metropolitan University, UK, and editor-in-chief of the ‘Sports Engineering’ journal.
‘The engineering challenge to make a sustainable ball that performs like a standard ball is substantial. Replacing the felt with another material would likely affect the way the ball interacts with the strings of the racket, flies through the air and bounces off the court.’
Indeed the only thing that’s new about ‘new balls’ is that they’re fresh out of the PET plastic tubing – again, an unsustainable replacement of the old-style tin tubes. As far as their sustainability goes, they’re old balls for sure, barely changed in design for 40 years.
‘The fact is that nobody has really looked at making a sustainable tennis ball before because it’s very tricky,’ says Louise Price. ‘The industry has just avoided talking about the need for a more sustainable tennis ball because it hasn’t been sure what to do about it.
‘This is a business that deals in huge volumes, and so focuses on efficiency and profitability and the minute you do something different you disrupt all that. So the big manufacturers will only invest in sustainable balls when the market is big enough.’
Not for the first time it’s been left to the smaller manufacturers, and to start-ups, to make the change. Price of Bath has spent the last two to three years to become the first to develop a patented tech that allows it to take old tennis balls and, using a ‘magic recipe’, re-process them into a fresh rubber mix – with some new rubber added – that can be used to produce its new Phoenix ball.
Stamp of Approval
The felt is still made of a cotton wool and nylon mix, but the company is already working on an all-natural felt. The recycled ball is being sent out to serious players for their feedback so Price of Bath can further adjust tolerances. It already meets Lawn Tennis Association specifications but the official LTA stamp of approval – which entails a fee to the organisation but which will help drive sales to professional tournaments – is expected next year, though they’re available to buy now .
They’re not the only company trying to ace eco-friendly tennis balls. ‘To be honest our first attempts at making a sustainable ball were really bad, explains Helene Hoogeboom, managing director of Dutch start-up Renewaball, which launched in late 2020 with its own closely-guarded method for making new balls out of 30% recycled material – old tennis balls – and hopes to get ITF approval this year.
Renewaball, which is available online and through selective clubs, also aims to licence its tech out to interested parties. Initial concerns that the company might not be able to get hold of enough old tennis balls to produce new ones have been volleyed away.
‘We had a lady in the Far East contact us to say that she had 30,000 old tennis balls and did we want them,’ Helene laughs. ‘And plenty of others have got in touch to ask if we want to buy their old tennis balls too. Erm, no thanks! The world is actually awash with old tennis balls, as putting collection bins at clubs quickly shows you.’
She warns that the sporting goods industry is already seeing a lot of green-washing, but reckons that pioneering processes from smaller companies like hers will, crucially, in time have a knock-on effect for the major brands.
Renewaballs also makes balls for the renaissance sport of paddle (a hybrid of tennis and table tennis played on a court) which is predicted to outpace growth in tennis in coming years. ‘People really want a ball like this – at least when they think about it,’ Helene says.
There are other efforts to bring sustainability to tennis balls. A US company, Rebounces, which launched the first national tennis ball recycling scheme back in 2008, has created a technology that allows tennis balls to be re-pressurised up to four times, thus considerably extending their lifespan. It also has a system to incorporate some 10,000 old balls into a new tennis court surface.
And in 2019 the global tennis brand Wilson launched its Triniti ball – not so much a recyclable product as one re-designed to be longer-lasting – Wilson claims they last four times as long, depending on style of play – and not require the usual pressurised container. But so far this hasn’t been adopted by a major tournament.
Indeed, Dr Allen argues that, while governing bodies like the ITF, or individual professional tournaments, could lead the way by making a switch to sustainable balls, with rigorous testing regimes reassuring the sport that changes in performance would be negligible, the shift can also come from the ground up, at the consumer level.
‘The ITF’s remit is, ultimately, to protect the nature and popularity of the sport and it will not want to do anything that negatively affects that,’ he says. ‘Maintaining tradition is an important consideration – “this is how tennis balls have been made for a long time” – but sustainability is becoming more of a topic in sport and society generally now. And, with that context, it is as any sport becomes more popular that there is an incentive to make the change.’