How sad it is watching Rafael Nadal flail around, unable to control a tennis ball. He’s pressured by Novak Djokovic and by the history of catching Bjorn Borg’s six French Open titles. But the buzz at Roland Garros in the first week of the tournament was the mysterious new tennis ball. It was no surprise that Nadal, a Babolat spokesperson, said that the new Babolat ball would be good for him.
What is shocking, though, is just how terrible it is making him look, how confused and befuddled. We’ve seen the ball in play for a week now, and while the talk about it has stopped, I think the story of this ball is being told now on the courts. They should give it a new name.
The Anti-Nadal Ball.
Nadal reached the quarterfinals Monday by beating Ivan Ljubicic 7-5, 6-3, 6-3. Since falling behind John Isner two sets to one in the first round, Nadal has won 11 consecutive sets. So his problems are relative, but his confidence is shaky.
“I am not playing well enough to win this tournament the way I played,’’ he said. “That’s the truth. You have to be realistic. We will see after tomorrow if I am ready to play at this level. I am going to try.’’
Plenty of things were already attacking Nadal’s mind. He didn’t need the ball to play tricks on him. But it played tricks on plenty of the players, who, I’m guessing, are still freaking out and adjusting string tension to adapt. Some players have adapted easily. Roger Federer has had no trouble at all. Nadal can’t even find the spin on the ball.
Nicolas Almagro, ranked No. 12, left early, saying the ball was heavy. Jelena Jankovic said it was light. The truth is, the world’s best tennis players came to a major championship with no idea how the ball would look, feel or bounce. How heavy it would be, how hard, how much spin it would absorb. This isn’t Major League Baseball, where the balls are the same, city to city. The International Tennis Federation approves roughly 300 types of balls for each tournament to choose from.
That is outrageous. There should be one ball per surface, and maybe one heavier one for high altitude. One brand. All year. But tennis is too mixed up with so many governing bodies and so many different money grabs that one of its major championships.
I want to be clear who I’m blaming for this: I’m blaming the French tennis federation and the International Tennis Association.
And I’m blaming the players.
The French were willing to throw away the character of their beautiful, historic tournament. The ITF were willing to risk injury to players. The players were willing show up unprepared for one of their most important moments. Nadal should have prepared himself better.
What should have been a minor side note is a major issue, complete with bickering, finger pointing and press releases.
“I guess the disappointing part here in this whole story, because I’m hearing a lot of conversations about the balls, is just that they’re not the same from what we’ve just played for the last month,’’ Roger Federer said early in the tournament. “The most frustrating part is the tournaments (leading up to the French) all changed to the Roland Garros ball after last year. (Now) Roland Garros just changed their balls again.’’
The French Open has used Dunlop balls the past five years. This year, officials sold out, switching over to the new Babolat ball.
“For the players’ wrists, joints, your elbow and shoulder, it makes sense to just stick with the same ball. . .’’ Andy Murray said. “That’s what I would prefer. That’s what most of the tour would prefer, to be honest.’’
French Open officials said the Babolat ball is exactly like the old Dunlop ball. Dunlop issued a press release saying the balls were not the same.
But don’t excuse the players in this. They knew the ball was being changed. And it never occurred to them, or to their agents or coaches to get Babolat to send a case of ball to try out?
By appearances, the ball seems to fly like a missile. It appears to be lighter. Players who hit hard are driving the ball right through the clay, overpowering it, something that never used to happen at the French Open. A lighter ball also doesn’t stay on a player’s string long, making it harder to generate spin.
But also – again, by appearances – the balls seem to fluff out quickly. Over the course of the nine games they use balls before replacing them, then, they are slowing down.
Players have to adjust to an ever-changing ball. And Federer, who mixes up spins and paces, is handling that just fine. Nadal can’t grasp when the ball will take all his spin and when it won’t. So the ball flies on him sometimes and other times it doesn’t.
Next up, Nadal will play No. 5 Robin Soderling, who the ball suits perfectly, in the quarterfinals. He still has time to figure things out, but things are piling high on him. It’s hard enough to focus on Djokovic when you’re not psyched out by the Anti-Nadal Ball.