NEW YORK—Coco Gauff’s father sometimes will tweak her racket, and the 18-year-old American never notices.
But a variation in the tennis balls, like there is between the ones used by women and men at the US Open, is another story.
“Yeah, I can definitely tell there’s a difference,” Gauff said.
And some of the other top women in the game are pretty annoyed by the discrepancy.
Days before the first one is struck in the tournament, the US Open’s balls were a topic of discussion Friday. It’s the only Grand Slam event where women use a slightly altered version of the ball, and top-ranked Iga Swiatek is among those frustrated that their lighter one doesn’t perform as well.
“After a few games, really, the conditions are totally changing, because they get more and more light. They’re losing fluffiness,” the two-time French Open champion and US Open’s top seed said. “It’s hard to sometimes adjust.”
According to the US Tennis Association, men and women use the same balls in terms of size, pressure and design. The tournament media guide notes that the only distinction is that the men use an “extra duty” felt ball, while the women use a “regular duty” felt ball.
They’ve been playing with the different types for decades, so it’s not a new topic. It’s come up again this year, in part because of Swiatek’s comments. Even players who normally pay little attention wonder if it’s time for a change.
“I’m someone who doesn’t really care about these things, because usually I adapt (my game),” Wimbledon runner-up Ons Jabeur said. “I’m the worst person to ask, because usually, if you give me any (ball), I will play with it. But it would make sense if we played with the same balls as men, because that’s what we do in other Grand Slams. I see their point.”
Swiatek complained about it last week at the Cincinnati hard-court tournament that uses the same type of ball for women as the US Open. Fourth-ranked Paula Badosa is another critic, and Swiatek said they’re sticking by their stance.
They would’ve had to start making an issue of it much sooner if they wanted a chance of a switch this year. The USTA consults with the tours and supplier Wilson for recommendations on what type of balls should be used in the tournament, but that has to be done with enough time to have them ready when the players arrive.
“These decisions are made months in advance in order to stock the nearly 100,000 competition balls used at the US Open every year,” the USTA said in a statement.
The regular felt balls were put in play for women long ago to limit the risk of injury, but today’s players say they can handle a heavier ball. Plus, even Wilson’s own website notes that the extra duty ball is ideal for hard courts—the surface at Flushing Meadows—while the regular duty is best suited for soft, clay and indoor courts.
“The WTA [Women’s Tennis Association] has always utilized regular felt balls for hard-court play and we have now begun to hear from a select number of our athletes that they would like to consider a change to using the extra duty ball,” WTA spokeswoman Amy Binder wrote in an email to The Associated Press. ”The basis behind using the regular felt ball was that it limited the potential of arm, shoulder, elbow and wrist injuries. This is something that we will continue to monitor and discuss further with both our athletes and our Sports Science teams.”
Some players say they don’t care much about the balls; even Swiatek noted that they are the same for all women, so it’s not something only certain athletes need to adjust to.
“Right now I’m just happy that we have (any) tennis ball,” 2021 US Open runner-up Leylah Fernandez joked. “I remember years ago, where I couldn’t even get a tennis ball, so I had to play with one of those little colored balls or with the ping-pong ball against the wall.”
Defending men’s champion Daniil Medvedev, though, pointed out tennis matches can sometimes be decided by a matter of centimeters, so players are sensitive about everything from the equipment to the conditions.
“I like US Open Wilson balls. At the same time, I will be honest—for example, I hate (the) balls in Indian Wells and Miami,” he said. “I’m open about this. I would like them to change these balls, but it doesn’t work like this. If they hear me: Please change the balls for next year.”
If Swiatek and other women have their way, perhaps the US Open will.
“I know a lot of players want to change the ball,” Gauff said. “I’m fine with it. Whatever. I mean, whatever the majority wants, I’m cool with it.”